I’ve been paid to write my entire life. I began as an advertising copywriter. I wrote a book. Now, in addition to brand consulting, I run a company that creates speeches. When I can’t write, I don’t eat.
I’d like to underline the difference between this and hobby writing. If your hobby is a blog, and you get stuck, you have the freedom of walking away and coming back next week. If you’re a copywriter, on the other hand, you need to understand your audience, find an idea worm into their psyche, then express that in words and pictures. By noon. Or you’re fired.
To survive, you drink. Kidding. Kinda.
In actual fact, to survive, you develop a bag of psychological tricks to crush writer’s block like, well, something that gets crushed easily and explosively (Trick one: never get hung up on finding the right simile – it will hit you out of the blue later).
Now, why am I writing this piece to help you crush writer’s block? You can google exactly 1.32 million stories on the subject – roughly correlating to the number of useful stories on how to monetize your blog for BIG DOLLAR$$!!!
I’m writing this because when you have a speech to deliver 9am tomorrow morning and you’re staring at a blank screen, reading awesome google tips like ‘check out some websites’ and ‘brew some coffee’ won’t help. In fact, they’ll make you want to kill helpful tip writers. Which, of course, could be great inspiration for a story. But not the right story for your speech tomorrow, so scratch that thought.
My tips have been tried by fire. They have stood the test of deadline after deadline. Practice them until they’re intuitive, and you’ll never again be sitting at a computer screen, trying to bang out a script 12 hours before you deliver it. Unless, of course, you’re into that.
Tip 1: Shut off the computer
As John Cleese said “We don’t know where ideas come from, but we know they don’t come from our laptops.”
Computers are not for idea generation. Even worse, they serve as distractors, gently pulling us away from the desperate task at hand, like – hey look at that kitten picture!!
Turn off the great distractor. Take a few deep breaths. Let’s get started.
Tip 2: Pull out a Sharpie and blank paper and draw the bloody idea
Sharpies are god’s gift to advertising writers and art directors. They’re felt pens. They make you feel like a kid. They smell nice and toxic. Get a box of permanent fine point ones – not the skinny ones, not the fat ones. The one in the picture.
Take that Sharpie and a blank piece of paper, and draw a bunch of boxes the size of Post-it notes. Put ideas in those boxes – whether words or pictures. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing an ad, a speech, or a magazine story. Just start noodling. There’s something about drawing that reboots your brain and helps you tap into the fun lobe. Trust it.
Tip 3: Don’t stop until you get to 20 ideas
I learned a valuable lesson in advertising that I have transferred to speech writing: your first idea may be the blockbuster. But you won’t know until you do 19 more.
So when you think you’ve nailed the idea of your speech, or the points you need to make, keep going. And going. Don’t stop until the Sharpie’s great pointy tip is starting to get rounded and sad.
Tip 4: Invite your team / mom / kids / spouse to vet the ideas
When you’re in college and insecure and precious and baring your soul in that Lit essay, you don’t need to treat writing as a team sport. When you’re staring at a deadline and your credit card is overdrawn, it’s all hands on deck.
In advertising, every writer is teamed with an art director to bounce ideas off. As a speechwriter, I have to go out and find my bounce-ee’s. So the moment I have a raft of Sharpie ideas on the page, I call my wife and start playing idea volleyball with her.
The beauty of bouncing ideas around is that it gives your head a shake. Just expressing an idea out loud often telegraphs its crappiness or brilliance. Mix in someone else’s opinion and thoughts, and you rapidly move from writer’s block to an embarassment of riches.
Tip 5: Pretend you’re someone else
Marc Johns is a great artist. But more than that, he’s great at helping people shift their perspective. Case in point, he paints hamburgers on skateboards.
When I told Marc I was writing this piece, he jumped right up and said “Tell them to think of their speech as if they were a pastry chef!” Quirky, but brilliant and true.
Dave Abbott, one of the most famous ad writers in the world, always read his copy in a foreign accent. I used to read my speech manuscripts to the soundtrack of Dances With Wolves, imagining myself to be speaking from a great marble podium.
Thinking you’re someone different makes you think different ideas. Ideas = good.
PS Buy Marc’s paintings.
Tip 6: Write crap until the good stuff appears
I don’t advocate this for a long stretch of writing. But with every speech I write, I start with a ‘Version Zero’ manuscript. This manuscript is literally my stream of consciousness rapidly typed into a word doc. It takes me a couple of hours.
Only once I finish the manuscript do I stop to take a look. 97.5% crap.
But I’m not discouraged. Creation, even bad creation, is something. It proves you can…actually…put words on paper.
Plus, it gives you perspective on what your speech should NOT be. Very healthy.
At the same time, little nuggets will begin to rise to the surface, ready to be polished.
Tip 7: Call the client. Now.
I’m not advocating calling your client begging for an extension or throwing up your arms and wailing. You’ll look like a flake.
But call your client and tell them you want to craft the speech to his / her audience, and you have some thoughts to bounce around. Your client will feel flattered that you’re embracing the utterly modern spirit of co-design and collaboration and all that. Inadvertently, they’ll help you separate the wheat from the chaff. Win-win.
Tip 8: Structure
Every great speech is like every great story. It follows a predictable path.
So, for sake of argument, think of your speech following the structure of a Western. Bad guy rides into town. Terror in the streets. Unwilling hero pushed into square for shootout. Goofy sidekicks appear to help. Courageous battle, with slim chance of success. Hero shot in shoulder, but good wins the day. Ride off into sunset.
Tell me that doesn’t start the ideas flowing.
Tip 9: Have a nap
If you’re on deadline, a nap is the last thing you need, right? Wrong.
Set your timer for 10 minutes. Close your eyes. Let your brain reconnect a few different synapses and blend a few of your terrible ideas into interesting hybrids. You’ll be happy for the pause, and be surprised at the jolt of creativity it brings.
Tip 10: Don’t try to get to a list of 10
For that matter, don’t try to create a speech around fun acronyms like S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Don’t write a speech crammed with awesome SEO friendly terms. Don’t create a passive aggressive sales pitch (“You know, you could be a millionaire now – do you want to be a millionaire now?”) Instead of these carney stunts and gimmicks, strive to transmit genuine value. As Seth Godin said, think of your speech as a gift you’re giving to the audience. Make sure your gift isn’t the dollar store variety.
To be perfectly honest, I lean on a few of these all the time (nap, client call, teamwork, write crap). But when I’m up against the wall, I tend to pull all the tricks out of the hat in some shape or form.
Funny thing is, after a point, the tricks become second nature, and you build confidence in your ability to get past writer’s block before it even happens.
When you’re staring at a deadline, oooooooh, that’s comforting.