Every piece you write—whether it’s a speech or a magazine article—should have one main idea. You might be able to hang a few secondary ideas on it, like ornaments on an exceedingly sparse Christmas tree. But, and this is especially true for a speech: The more you say, the less they’ll remember.
So—one idea. And I find the best way to keep me focused on that one idea as I write is to give my work a title. You will not find me writing a Commencement speech called “Things I’ve Learned in My Career.” That’s a mess just waiting to happen. What “things”?
Instead, what are the two or three stories that stand out most for you in your career, especially as you think about talking to the kind of audience that listens to a commencement speech? What theme connects these stories? Dig deep enough and you’ll find it.
Everything I write gets a title. Even if it’s never going to be published, even if it’s for the most internal of internal audiences, I give it a title. “Springing into Action: A report to the Board on our 2nd Quarter Performance”—a CEO would never read that at the start of a Board presentation. But the title helps me shape the material I have to work with into a cohesive whole.
And if the theme of the piece hasn’t made itself apparent to me before I start writing? Then I start with “[snappy title to come]”—which manages to be amusing and reassuring at the same time. So far, it’s worked. Once I plunge in and start rooting around in the material, I always manage to find a theme waiting for me to discover it.