Choosing a speech topic can sometimes feel harder than giving the actual speech. We provide a simple framework for filtering down the number of possible topics to speak about.
When deciding on a speech or presentation topic, you might naturally want to talk about something you know very well. Although this is important, it’s only part of the equation when deciding on a suitable speech topic.
You need to ask yourself three questions about the topic, linking your expertise, passion and the audience.
When deciding on a speech topic, ask yourself these three questions:
Write down a list of possible speech topics in line with the type of speech or presentation you are giving – is it a TED talk? A commencement speech? A conference presentation? A talk at your local club? Once you have this list, go through each of the three questions and put them into the segments of the Venn diagram above. Of course, the middle of the Venn diagram contains the topics you want to talk about.
In order to talk about a topic your audience care about, you’ll need to perform a quick analysis of your audience. There are several methods to do this, including:
There are a few audience characteristics which might determine the speech topic you select, including:
Topic segment: You are knowledgeable and passionate about the topic, and the audience is interested in it as well.
This is the perfect combination, and a good speaker draws speech topics from this segment all the time. Your knowledge of the topic assures that you’ll be confident. You enjoy talking about the topic so you’ll be passionate about it. On top of that, you have an enthusiastic, open audience.
When you end up speaking about topics in this segment, you’ll have a high chance of delivering a memorable and engaging speech.
Topic segment: You know the topic well and your audience finds it interesting, however you lack enthusiasm for the topic.
Speeches in this segment will lack enthusiasm and might be delivered in a monotone voice with poor body language.
When you finish a large body of research, for example towards the end of a PhD, you’ll usually have to present the results to an audience. The audience are usually invested in your topic and interested to hear about what you have to say. You also know plenty about the topic as you’ve spent years researching it.
Topic segment: You know and find the speech topic interesting, however your audience does not.
Perhaps you are the creator of an open source project for a new programming language. You may well love what you are developing and know everything about it. However if you are speaking at a local conference, the audience may not be as enthusiastic.
A topic in this segment is best saved for a different audience. If you find the right event and audience, this would a great topic to talk about and you’ll be both passionate and informed about the topic.
Topic segment: This is a topic both you and your audience find interesting, however your knowledge for the topic is lacking.
You may not know enough about the topic for you to appear credible in the eyes of the audience. Your lack of knowledge on the topic may get revealed in the questions and answers session after the speech.
Imagine you’ve recently taken up a new hobby, impressionism painting, for example, and want to talk about tips for impressionist artists at a local gallery. You may love the topic and so will your audience, however as you’re new to the hobby, you won't have any expertise in it.
This is one of the best segments to be in and there are a few approaches you can take to bring yourself into the middle segment:
Topic segment: You audience care a lot about this topic, however you neither know or care about it.
Don’t try to wing this topic. You’ll be shown up in the questions and answers session, as well as lack enthusiasm while delivering the speech. Your credibility will be ruined.
Topic segment: You know this topic well but neither you nor your audience find it interesting.
Topic segment: A speech topic you find interesting but don’t know much about and your audience doesn’t find it too interesting.
Topic segment: Disaster zone – you don’t know about the topic or care much about it, and neither does your audience.
This would be very difficult. It’s best to choose another topic and not to waste your time on topics in this segment.
Talks that fall into this dead segment are quite common. After taking a train the trainer course, you might be asked to coach other employees at your company which is mandatory for them to attend. You don’t know the topic very well, and it doesn’t excite you. Your audience’s attendance is mandatory, but they don’t really want to be there either.
To read more about these different segments, read The Secret of Choosing Successful Speech Topics.
Here’s a simple exercise to categorise your speech topics and get a better idea of how the Venn diagram works.
Start by brainstorming around 25 ideas for topics off the top of your head (use these 21 persuasive speech topics as a starting point). Give each of these a number for the segment on the Venn diagram by asking yourself the three questions.
How many are in the centre? Which are in two of three segments? Think about how or if you could get these into the centre segment. Perhaps if you’re not an expert on the topic, as we mentioned previously you could do additional research around it. Or if your audience doesn’t find the topic interesting, you could tweak it and come at it from a different angle, maybe adding in humour, to engage them better.