Part 1. Invention | Impact before content

Course Home | Part 1. Invention

< Previous | Next >

A common mistake: to think first about the topic of your talk – the content – before carefully working out what you’re talking for.

In this lesson, I share with you something I first used as a young journalist, though never as methodically as this. I more or less invented it as I went along. And though I’m not vastly given to regret, I wish somebody had set it out as clearly as this years ago.

It applies to any kind of communication, whether written (this thing you are reading now) or spoken (your talk), because it’s based on the principles of classical rhetoric.

It’s a mind map, based around the words Who, When, Where, What, Why and How. If you apply these words to the specific occasion facing you, you’ll become much clearer about your purpose, and how to achieve it.

Recently, a course participant acknowledged that he tends to resist planning, with tools like this mind map. I was delighted by his honesty, because I tend to feel the same way.

Happily, I was able to tell him that in practice I find planning, once I get started, both restful and invaluable.


To make the best use of this, I recommend that you download a higher resolution version of my map, then draw your own, replacing my comments and suggestions with specific answers.

Each question opens up further questions.

“Who?”, for example, might lead you to ask not only “who is my audience?” but also “who am I, to them?” This is obvious, but easily overlooked.

Your audience will inevitably have certain expectations / assumptions about you, and by working out what they are in advance you can think about whether, and how much, to meet those expectations or deliberately overturn them.

“When?” gives you the opportunity to think about every aspect of the timing of your talk. Is it on the same day as a global sporting event? Are you speaking after somebody who is very funny, or somebody with a tragic tale to tell? Are you speaking at the end of the day, when everyone wants to rush home?

“How?” opens up questions to do with technique, which we will go into in detail over the next weeks. But at this point you can ask yourself rudimentary questions about what might be effective. Will you use props? Speak in rhyme? Share the job with a co-presenter?


You can’t think about your public speaking assignments as a generalisation. You’re always talking to one specific audience on one specific occasion – so this mind map won’t be much use unless you apply it to something specific.

If you don’t have a particular speaking event in mind, invent one – and stick with it. Who knows, you may actually do it.


This applies just as much to writing as it applies to speaking – it applies to this thing I’m writing here, and you’re reading.

What do I know about you?

Well, some of you have paid (thank you) to attend my live office hours sessions. Others are just following along with this prepared material (thank you too). Some found me because I advertise to help people with wedding speeches, using Google ads that pop up if you search using terms like “how to write a wedding speech”.1 Some follow me on social media. At least one person found me via the website of my literary agent. Some of you have known me for years.

By acknowledging you in even this limited way, I hope that you feel “seen”. And if you appreciate that, I recommend that you should think about doing something similar in your own communications. Let your audience know that you care about precisely them.

The mind map will help.

Download it here


1 Google Ads. They’re not running at the moment, but that may change.