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Look For The Little Ones

It’s the daily progress that begets the big ideas and aha moments.

5
minute read
Published on
December 19, 2023
AJ Harper is Heroic Public Speaking’s Head Writing Coach, and the award-winning author of Write A Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own.

In the early weeks of ideation, I ask Heroic Public Speaking students a lot of questions to help them find their Big Idea.

“What truth could change everything for your audience?”

“What conventional wisdom do you disagree with, and why?”

“What do you wish your audience would stop doing? What lies hold your audience back from getting what they want?”

When they start to get excited, I move to: Tell me more about that. Tell me more about all of it.

Asking the Right Questions

I ask students questions for two reasons:

  • I know they already know their Big Idea, and they simply need some help uncovering it.
  • If I ask the right questions, they’ll uncover it themselves.

To uncover their Big Idea, they’ll have to pay attention to the “little ones”—the answers that, to them, seem too plain or simple.

In the beginning, many students try to come up with a message that sounds big enough, bold enough; sexy, clever, smart enough. In doing so, they toss aside the idea sparks that could become something powerful.

Rather than try to nail your message right out of the gate, start asking yourself questions a few times a week, or perhaps one a day. Let’s call it a Q&A Practice.

How to Find Your "Little Ones"

Explore your thoughts and beliefs about your audience’s problem and what you know about solving it. Ask yourself what you believe about your topic (or industry, or community, etc.) and why; what you wish your audience understood; what mindset shift could change everything for them.

Give yourself time to noodle the questions. Don’t worry about what sounds big enough; focus on what is true. Record your answers. Jot down potential ideas—including the little ones. When you get excited, tell yourself more about it. Tell yourself everything.

The Great Agate

As I write this, I’m fresh off my annual vacation to Madeline Island, one of the 22 islands that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior. The area is known for excellent agate hunting, and as I searched for my own treasures, I was reminded of the Great Agate. Searching for it was a bit like searching for a Big Idea for a speech.

In my book, Write a Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own I shared the story of the Great Agate. I included it to help authors understand the importance of writing practice and I see now it also applies to both speakers and authors in search of “the big one.” I’ll close with the excerpt. I hope it moves you to establish a practice of looking for the little ones.

Write for Inspiration

I’m an expert at relocating. By the time I was eighteen, I had already moved fifteen times. I don’t remember the early moves, but the rest are imprinted on my mind. For most, Mom would rally her friends to help her and pay them in pizza and beer—standard operating procedure for most Midwestern folks.

Through all the moves, the one constant was The Great Agate—a rock about the size of a watermelon. No matter what else she got rid of, Mom always brought it with us. I can still remember her friends complaining about lifting that massive thing.

The Great Agate was tangible proof of one of the core family stories Mom told me. Growing up, her beloved father would take her and her siblings up to the North Shore of Lake Superior to hunt for agates.

Mom told the story like this: “All we wanted was to find a really big agate, but we only found tiny stones. We looked and looked, and grew frustrated. Then Dad said, ‘The best way to find a big agate is to look for the little ones.’ We didn’t believe him at first, but we did as we were told. All day we looked for small agates and put them in our pockets. Then, when we were just about to call it a day, we found it—The Great Agate.”

I’m pretty sure I heard that story about a dozen times growing up. Typically, she would share it when she wanted me to stay focused on the small goals to win the big prize, or something like that. The story, which now feels like a gift from my grandfather, really hit home when I made the connection between hunting for agates and writing practice. Rather than search (or worse, wait) for your big aha moment, the big burst of inspiration, the big money idea, focus on writing practice, and you’ll find it.

We don’t always want to do the grunt work, and we are often frustrated with what seems like slow progress when we write just a few hundred words a day. We book hotel rooms for the weekend, or longer, as self-imposed writing retreats and set unrealistic goals for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good writing retreat, especially in a hotel with room service, but going in with the expectation of writing an opus, or figuring out a major problem, or knocking out your whole book or even a few chapters only sets you up for disappointment. Every time I’ve booked a hotel room to write, I ended up spending half the time sleeping and another third watching reruns of Law & Order.

Rather than wait for inspiration to write, write for inspiration. Sit down and do the work, even when you don’t feel like it. If you do this consistently at least five days a week, within two to three weeks you’ll start to get regular “gifts”—ideas, fixes, connections.

It’s the daily progress that begets the big ideas and aha moments. The pearls of wisdom. The Great Agates and the Holy Grails. Keep looking for the little ones and you’ll find it.

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