The Three Key Ways to Work on a Story (or a Speech)

We never really have enough time to perfect our presentations, so the quality of our work depends on learning the most efficient ways to develop them. 

What’s the best way to develop a story or talk? For years, I have contrasted the two most common ways:

  1. The Script Method: Sit down and write out a draft, then memorize it;

  2. The Natural Method: Find a "helping listener” (someone who agrees to listen to a story-in-progress as a favor to you) and tell a very rough draft of the story. Then repeat with different listeners (ideally, 15 or more times).

Because so many of us have been schooled into accepting the Script Method as the default method—and because the Natural Method is what “natural storytellers” use, to great effect—I generally spend most of my time describing the virtues of the Natural Method and the drawbacks of the Script Method.

But my recent experience of developing a TEDx talk in a short time (3 months) made me aware that both of these modalities have their place. In addition, there’s a third way of working on stories that I use regularly, but seldom talk about. All three ways turn out to be essential to my process.


Modality #1: Being Listened To

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I believe that it’s generally not possible to practice communicating without actually communicating.

As a result, I do the bulk of my work for developing a talk or story—of knowing what to say and how to say it—by telling it to helping listeners. ("Helping listeners" have agreed to listen for my sake, as a favor to me.) 

As I speak to helping listeners, I seldom focus on the words I’m saying. Rather, I focus on what I’m trying to communicate, in a way that builds (usually unconsciously) on the responses of my listener. The words vary at first, but a “best way to say it” usually emerges over repeated tellings.

Telling to listeners is key to the “natural method.” It allows me to experiment, to notice what comes out of my mouth as I try to communicate to a listener. Along the way, I discover some of what I want to say and various ways I might say it. 

The listener's unspoken feedback gives me a chance to use my unconscious communication skills to adapt as my listener responds to what I say (either positively or negatively). It allows me to perfect my ways of saying things by noticing (consciously or unconsciously) which phrasing gets the best responses.

Modality #2: Working Offline

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As much as I rely on being listened to, my stories and speeches develop more quickly when I also spend time working alone. 

Sometimes, I work alone and am not even aware of it. I may be thinking over a story or speech as I drive or walk—without having made a conscious decision to do so.

Other times, I work alone deliberately. Perhaps I create an outline of my story. Perhaps I experiment with new ways to express something that hasn’t quite jelled during my sessions with helping listeners. Or I practice the story out loud and alone, as a way to become clear about the best sequence for the story. Or I try to find a way to incorporate an episode or idea that seems important, but hasn’t yet been a part of my story.

Occasionally, a whole story or part of a talk comes to me while I’m washing dishes or mowing the lawn. But most often, I start work on a project by being listened to, and only then use time alone to reflect on the story or experiment with it.

Modality #3: Being My Own Listener

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I make an audio recording of every session with a listening partner and of every performance or workshop. I often make video recordings, too. 

Do I listen to or view every one of those recordings? No, that would be wasteful of time! But I listen to some of them: the ones I want to evaluate, the ones I want to remember, or the ones that encapsulate my latest "best" version. 

A week or more may elapse between one practice telling and the next. If I listen to the previous telling before my next practice, it helps me remember my most recent version of the story. In addition, new ideas often pop up as I listen. 

These recordings also help enormously when it’s time to re-learn a story or talk that I had shaped well but haven’t told for months or years. 

Why are recordings so helpful in all these situations? I believe it’s because they allow me to experience my story as a listener would—to become my own listener.

The Three Musketeers

Like the Three Musketeers, all three modalities are helpful, each in a different way—and together they are stronger than any one of them can be. 

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For me, therefore, the key to a productive, efficient process is to:

  1. Use actual communication as my primary way to develop a talk;

  2. Listen to recordings of myself, as a way to gain the perspective of a listener; and

  3. Work alone only on those things that talking and listening don’t allow me to do efficiently.

You, of course, may call on your musketeers in a different order or call up one of them more often than I do. In fact, each story or talk may require using their services differently.

The compressed schedule for developing my TEDx talk forced me to be more aware of these three modalities and what they each offer—and more discerning about when to use each one. 

My goal for you and for me: that we all gain a clearer understanding of the role that each of these modalities plays, and a stronger feel for the fluid dance among them that is key to our creative process.