Kill your darlings: Tips for editing your talk

November 29th, 2018

talk editing

It was either Winston Churchill or Mark Twain who said “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one.” As is the epic journey of creating and editing your TEDx talk with a pretty rigorous time limit. 

Which is part of the journey I’m on right now. The five women in my Women Who Speak Mastermind are also up against the same challenge of talk editing. 

The “editing your talk” process for me has gone something like this: 

When I started the process, my talk was coming in at about 14 minutes. I had a 9 minute time limit, which meant I had to cut ONE THIRD of my talk. Ouch. It felt like I was cutting off body parts. (Once you hear my talk, you’ll understand why) 

I always tell my clients that it’s way harder to shorten a long talk than it is to lengthen a short talk, but it’s an extremely valuable exercise. The more you can hone in on the heart of your message in the talk editing process, the more impactful it will be. 

In other words, the less you say, the more they’ll hear.

But that’s way easier said than done! It’s one thing to know that in theory, but it’s another thing altogether to make the cuts. 

At my second coaching session with the TEDx organizers, they give me 3 extra minutes! 12 whole minutes! Big fat bonus! It feels like an eternity to have 3 more minutes. 

But I’m still coming in at 14. I pinch and tweak and massage and trim in service of making it shorter. I go to the wordy places and hone it and work it till I can say the same thing with fewer words. 

It’s getting shorter, but every time I cut or tighten up one section I find another section to add or expand.

Noooooooo! I don’t have minutes to spare!

The other important element in this story is that I’m given the task of delivering the talk to 3 self-created audiences—including close friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. 

How great it is to call on friends & colleagues to participate in the process.

A talk IS a conversation…

so I’m grateful to have my talk in conversation with actual audiences. 

It helps me get a clear picture of what’s landing and what’s not. 

AND with each showing, more questions arise. More gaps are revealed. More possibilities present themselves. The talk comes apart and I have to put it all back together again. 


So of course, you guessed it, each time I get feedback and try to address it, the talk gets longer. It becomes the ever-expanding talk. 

BUT I remind myself I can’t please everyone. I can’t answer all the questions. No way will I be able fill all the gaps. So I remind myself to take the feedback with open ears and heart, and to stay true to what I know. Stay true to my process. 

And I keep expanding and thinning. 

I remember the first year I grew a garden. I planted lettuce seeds, and had so many tiny baby lettuce plants, but I didn’t want to kill any of them. Each little seedling had the potential to grow up to be a full & hearty lettuce plant. I couldn’t bear to see them die by my hand. 

My gardening mentor said:

Thin ruthlessly. You have to thin ruthlessly so the plants that do live thrive.

Thinning my lettuce that first year was unbearable. But I did it. I thinned ruthlessly. 

Now when I work with clients I use that story a lot. I encourage them to thin ruthlessly when they’re editing their talks: Keep it simple. Keep it short. Cut any unnecessary words. Get to the essence. 

But when I say it to them, I’m glad it’s them doing the thinning, not me.  

I’m reminded of the words of Allen Ginsberg or William Faulkner or Oscar Wilde or Eudora Welty or Stephen King or all of them or someone else who said…

When you’re editing your talk, kill your darlings

Which means don’t be precious about your words. That turn of phrase you’re so attached to may not be serving the talk. The story you really really want to tell may just be a derailment from the message. 

So feel your feet on the ground, take a big full breath into your belly, and make the cuts with an exhale. There probably won’t be blood, but there might be some tears. 

That will all pay off in the end because your message will be sharper and clearer and your audience will actually hear what you have to say. 

So here I am, taking the time to write the short talk instead of the long one, thinning ruthlessly, killing my darlings. 

Ouch. My arm. My leg. My belly. Ouch.

One response to “Kill your darlings: Tips for editing your talk”

  1. Janet Walker says:

    Omg, jo…that was brilliant. I hear ya. Go forth.

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