Behind the scenes of a 10-minute talk

If you could address high school you, what would you say?

I had the opportunity to address students at Mississinawa Valley High School (from which I graduated in 1997) at their National Honor Society ceremony. I was never in NHS, but I’ve talked at two of their ceremonies. I think I’m a few decades away from wisdom, I much prefer to tell stories that teach students to see the world in a different light. But all I had was 10 minutes to talk, so there wasn’t a lot of room for stories, so I took a swing at a few life lessons.

I though it might be interesting to talk about my process of preparing a talk.

Step 1: Rough draft / outline

I free write what I want to say, writing my main points out in complete sentences and using bullet points for stories that I’ve already delivered. I think of these tried and true stories as arrows in my quiver ready to be pulled at a moments notice. Since this talk was a lot of new material, you’ll see a lot of sentences.

Here’s what the rough draft looks like…

Congrats to all of the new NHS members. It’s great to be back at MV.

I’ve traveled to 70-some countries. I freed a slave in West Africa. I was nearly killed by a snake in Honduras. Spent the night in Castle Dracula. Played PlayStation in Kosovo. I’ve farmed on four continents. Met the people who made my Jingle These Christmas boxers, grow my Starbucks coffee. Have written two books. And all of my adventures started right here at this school in the middle of fields of corn.

In many ways this school was my field of dreams. I dreamned of getting the heck out! But the values and lessons I learned here and the education I received, gave me the independence, empathy, and curiosity to embark on these global adventures that have changed the way I live my life, the way I see the world and what I do for a living.

Yes, I do this for a living. Everyone always so concerned about that. I support my family by traveling, writing, and telling stories. It’s a pretty good living. Thanks for your concern.

This morning I want to share of the lessons I’ve learned from living a life of travel and a life of writing since I graduated.

Lesson #1 You don’t have to wait for permission to work.

I graduated with a degree in anthropology, which I quickly put to use working as a SCUBA instructor in Key West Florida.
– Started to get published.
– Pitched a travel column to every newspaper in the country with a circulation above a few thousand.
– Rejected a lot: Like hundreds of times.
– Gatekeeper: told me that you have to write about traffic report before you can have a column.

Lesson #1: You don’t have to wait for permission to work

You’ll have a lot of people tell you what you should do or what you shouldn’t do. Some will tell you that you have to wait for permission to do that thing you want to do. You don’t. But what you do have to do is work.
– I bet there are 0 fighter pilots or videogame designers who can’t do Calculus.
– I bet there are 0 writers who didn’t pay attention in some English class at some point.
– Grad school rejection

You know, I’ve never gotten a job with my college degree. If you look at a degree as something to leverage to a better job, it’s worthless. But the curiosity that college inspired in me has been priceless.

Lesson #2: Follow your curiosity.

There’s the age old adage… follow your heart or follow your passion. I’d like to edit this advice to… follow your curiosity.

I love to write. There’s nothing that I’m more passionate about than sitting at a computer and writing a good sentence. But I know a lot of writers who are more passionate about writing than me and who are better writers, but who haven’t reached as many people with their stories as I have. They are more talented and more passionate than I am, but I have more curiosity.

My curiosity has taken me around the world many times. It has led to books and an amazing career in which I get to educate people through stories.

Passion without curiosity fades. What do you want to know more about? Is it a diesel engine or biochemistry? Computer games or meteorology? Maybe you have that one thing already. Maybe you don’t. Your job right now is to experience arts, sciences, sports, volunteer opportunities, soak them up and decide what makes you NEVER STOP ASKING QUESTIONS.

That’s the key to finding that thing…


Lesson #3: You get to write your own story.

I write nonfiction, which means that I can’t make stuff up. Everything has to happen every quote has to have actually been said. But the process is full of creativity. I have to decide what the story is. Where is the narrative thread lies? But even before that the creative process starts with the living.

I’m the main character in all of my books. I’m the common thread that links together the search for who made my stuff. I decide where to go, who to meet, how to act, what questions to ask, what to do next.

Our lives are stories. And each of us are our stories’ main characters. We control all of these things. If we don’t like the way our story is going, we can change it, by the way we act, feel, the goals we set, what we do next.

It might not be easy. But let me tell you this… As a professional storyteller I know that the longer the odds, and the more a character changes, the better the story will be.

My story started here at MVHS and so does your.

I’ll leave you with one question: What story are you living?

Step 2: Practice

I read through the rough draft several times and continue to tweak it. Then I try to deliver it a few times.

Step 3: Make the outline

Every time I speak in front of a group of people, I want to speak from the heart, not the page. I was talking at a library the other day and relating a story I’ve related 100+ times and I got goose bumps. I felt it that much. If I had to read all of my speeches that would probably never happen.

I usually don’t make an outline, but put together a powerpoint and the slides act as my outline. But for this speech, I didn’t have access to a projector, so I put together a few bullet points I could reference if I needed to.

Here’s the outline:

– Congrats
– Great to be back at MVHS
– SOLO Story I was so lucky to go here although I didn’t realize it…SOLO STORY

My background
– I’ve traveled to 70 some countries: snake, slave, Castle Dracula, PlayStation Kosovo, Jingle These, Starbucks
– 2 books
– Adventures started right here at MVHS in the middle of these fields of corn.

– Laid groundwork for college education, which gave me empathy, curiosity, to travel, to write, to think,
– Gave me tools to do what I do for a living
o Yes, it’s a living
→ Today will share a few lessons I’ve learned from life of travel and writing
Lesson #1: You don’t have to have permission to work
– publishing journey
– pitching papers and rejections
– Gatekeeper told me….
– Many will tell you what you can’t do. Tell you they have to give you permission. You don’t. But you do have to work.

Lesson #2: Follow your curiosity.
– old adage: follow passions, suggest edit…
– Passion without curiousity fades.
– College degree
– More passionate writers, more talented, but not as curious
– My curiosity led to career
– What do you want to know more about?
– Job now is to experience things to discover thing you can never stop asking questions about

Lesson #3 You get to write your own story
– as nonfiction writer I deal with truth
– creative…in finding narrative in living
– I’m main character
– Our lives are stories, each of us main characters…
– Longer odds, more lead character changes, the better the story
– Your story begins here at MV

I’ll leave you with one question: What story are you living?

Step 4: Practice until you don’t need the outline

I typically practice a talk a few times in my office, run through the outline in my mind in the shower, practice the whole thing in the car on the way to an event, or the night before in my hotel room. I get a lot of compliments on my talks and continually get invited and re-invited to more and more places each year.

I don’t think it’s because I’m the most polished speaker, I think it’s because I’m genuine, and that I try to feel every word that leaves my mouth.

Always be genuine. Always be me. These are my mantras. Still, I have to work at it.

Conor Grenan, author of Little Princes and an in-demand speaker, posted the video of Ira Glass below, and prefaced it with this…

Here’s the thing about writing and speaking: it takes practice.
I wrote in a journal every night for 11 years starting in high school.
I wrote a blog regularly for 5 years.
It took me 22 drafts to get Little Princes right.
I practice every speech I give about 70-80 times in the mirror first.

I say this to encourage you: I have basically zero natural talent, believe me. I just work a lot at it – that’s the best way to fool people into thinking you’re a decent writer or speaker.

That’s why I love this short video. Take heart! 🙂

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