3 Things speakers can learn from ‘Draft no 4’ by John McPhee


John McPhee is known both as a writer and for his teaching at Princeton. While this book is about writing long-form non-fiction, there is much that can be applied to the craft of public speaking.

1) An interesting and visual way of thinking about, and working on, structure. He is writing about it as it applies to his articles, but it is also helpful for talks. It actually goes back to his time at school:

‘We could write anything we wanted to, but each composition had to be accompanied by a structural outline, which she told us to do first. It could be anything from Roman numerals I, II, III to a looping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures. The idea was to build some form of blueprint before working it out in sentences and paragraphs.’

I do this myself with talks – testing out all kinds of visual maps, where I can make changes quickly, and organise my thinking…before even considering wording.

2) He highlights the potential tension between chronology and theme, as we develop our ideas. I see this frequently with speakers I am coaching, both as individuals with personal stories, and as organisations. The audience needs to be able to understand, and be with us – but chronological is often not the solution.

‘Developing a structure is seldom that simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between a chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins.’

3) He emphasises the importance of ‘frames of reference’, and how crucial they are, as a shared understanding – true for us as speakers as we build out the key points of our talk.

‘Frames of reference are like the constellations of lights, some of them blinking, on an airliner descending toward an airport at night. You see the lights. They imply a structure you can’t see. Inside that frame of reference – those descending lights – is a big airplane with its flaps down expecting a runway.’