Article Category: Speaker Habits, Speechwriting

How to Research Your Speech Topic

Researching your speech topic is easy, right? Just fire up a web browser, put in your search terms, check a few pages, and you’re done… right?

Hm. Probably not. It would be nice if 100% of our speech content came from our own minds or a few quick Google searches. In reality, though, conducting proper research requires a little more care. The rewards make the effort worthwhile; a well-researched speech provides lasting value for your audience and distinguishes you as speaker.

In this article, we:

  • discover how to embrace a research mindset,
  • provide simple strategies that will improve your research habits, and
  • discuss numerous resources which you can leverage to craft a winning speech.

What should you research?

Audience Analysis Series

Let’s start by examining three main areas which require research for you to be successful.

  • Research your audience.
    Through audience analysis, you can learn who your audience is, what they are thinking, and how you can best reach them. Figure out what questions they will ask; if you don’t have the answers, you’ve got to research further.
  • Research the event, the venue, and other constraints.
    Is it an industry or academic conference? A corporate setting? A community gathering? How large is the room? Will a microphone be used? Is the room set up for visuals? How much time have you been allocated? Where are you in the schedule? Get the answers early, as they will influence many of your speech writing and presentation design decisions.
  • Research your speech topic.
    This third area is the heart of the matter, and will be the focus for the remainder of this article.

Embracing a Research Mindset

Let’s be honest. Researching a speech topic thoroughly can be time-consuming, frustrating, and fraught with stress. This is probably why so many speakers have such an aversion to the process and show up unprepared.

Once you adopt the right mindset, you will enjoy researching your topic.

It doesn’t have to feel so onerous, however. Once you adopt the right mindset, you will enjoy researching your topic. How can you embrace a research mindset?

  • Be audience-centric and service-oriented.
    Know that your speech is not about you. Your goal is to educate, persuade, or inspire your audience. Your ability to reach them is heavily dependent on whether they perceive you as an authority on the topic. Thorough speech research helps you do this.
  • Be self-aware. Acknowledge your weaknesses.
    Some time ago, I was developing a technical course to teach Perl programming skills. With a decade of experience using Perl, I had deep knowledge in many areas. But my experiences didn’t give me the broad knowledge necessary to teach an introductory course. I needed to acknowledge this before I could do the research to fill my knowledge gaps.
  • Thorough research eases speaking fear.
    If your expertise is limited and shaky, you are faced with two problems: [1] You will be unable to adapt on the fly to change your presentation, and [2] You will be in trouble in the Q&A session. For many speakers, these problems contribute to feelings of dread and fear. On the other hand, if you’ve done thorough research, you’ll be much more confident. You’ll be prepared for detours, and will handle stretch questions from your audience with ease.
  • Choose topics you are passionate about.
    There are an infinite number of speech topics available. Occasionally, you may be given a mandatory topic, but usually you get to decide. If you choose topics which you are passionate about, the research process won’t seem like work at all.

Tips for Improving Your Speech Research Habits

When speakers talk to me about difficulties they encounter when researching their topic, it usually springs from an overall approach which is somewhat disorganized. I encourage them to take a structured approach and adopt a set of best practices like these:

  1. Focus your topic before conducting research.
    It’s dangerous to begin research when haven’t planned your speech because there’s a tendency to spread yourself far too thin. You may collect lots of research that can’t possibly be tied together in a coherent speech. To avoid this, develop a clear speech outline first, and write a first (rough) draft. Once you know the overall flow of your speech, you will be able to identify the precise areas which require research.
  2. Keep a detailed bibliography.
    For all but the simplest presentations, your research might stretch over several days or weeks. Over this time, it’s easy to get sources confused or ideas jumbled. Each time you find a relevant source, record its author, location (e.g. book/journal/magazine, page numbers, URLs), and other details that will help to organize it. Your bibliographic notes will make it easy later on to credit quotations, statistics, images, and other referenced material as you craft your content. Even if you choose not to use that source for this presentation, your notes make it possible to use it for a future presentation.
  3. Check the bibliographies of your sources.
    Whenever you find a source with a bibliography, you can leverage their research by tracking down their sources. This often reaps rewards more quickly than “blind research”. A side benefit of doing this is that it tends to quickly lead to “definitive resources” (see next point).¬† For example, suppose your first three sources all cite a common resource. It’s very likely that the fourth resource is worth tracking down.
  4. Pursue definitive resources.
    Maybe it’s a key academic article. Maybe it’s a best-selling book. Maybe it’s a newspaper article which broke the scandal. In any case, it’s worth digging until you find the most valuable, definitive resources. Not only will you have access to the core, unfiltered details, but your credibility is strengthened too.
  5. Seek a balanced set of evidence.
    Good speeches supply only one type of evidence, but great speeches achieve evidence balance. Instead of barraging your audience with a single type (e.g. statistics, statistics, and more statistics), engage them with a variety of facts, statistics, quotations, studies, numerical analysis, logical arguments, and abstract theories.
  6. Credit sources.
    Acknowledging your sources is necessary for two important reasons. First, it’s the ethical thing to do; don’t take credit for evidence and arguments that you didn’t create. Second, it improves your ethos from the perspective of your audience. By associating yourself with great leaders, scientists, authors, and other experts, your reputation and authority is elevated.

Research Sources for Your Speech Topic

Good speeches supply only one type of evidence, but great speeches achieve evidence balance.

There are a wide variety of sources that you can use to research your speech topic.

  1. Your personal library
    I often begin my speech research by browsing the books and magazines I own. In addition to many shelves of speaking and presentation resources, I am fortunate to have a rich selection of reference books, history books, university textbooks, and literature. What resources do you own, and how can you utilize them for your next speech?
  2. Libraries and book stores
    How can you not love the wealth of knowledge which libraries and bookstores provide? Don’t neglect them, especially if you have access to university libraries. As libraries continue to modernize, your library “card” may grant you extensive access to digital repositories which encompass many of the sources on this list.
  3. Peer-reviewed academic journals
    Regardless of your speech topic, it’s likely that multiple journals exist which can support your research efforts.
  4. Google Scholar
    Looking for scholarly sources but don’t have a university nearby? Google Scholar allows you to search a tremendous range of journals and other academic writing. For example, you can find dozens of journal articles, patents, and Six Minutes article citations if you search for this article’s author (Google Scholar: Andrew Dlugan). Access to the source article itself may be restricted; in these cases, you might be able to track down the researcher directly for more information.
  5. Google Patent Search
    Google Patent Search allows you to search patents, and this can sometimes provide the perfect visual for your presentation. (e.g. attachable eyeglass wipers!) Caution: you can easily spend hours bouncing from patent to patent, and end up a very great distance away from your speech topic… not that it has happened to me. ūüėČ
  6. Newspapers
    Print newspapers may be dying as an industry, but Google News search allows you to search newspaper archives, some of which trace back 200 years or more.
    For example, if you are doing a speech on the Allied D-Day invasion during World War II, maybe it is worth consulting a newspaper article from June 6, 1944.

The rewards make research effort worthwhile; a well-researched speech provides lasting value for your audience and distinguishes you as speaker.

  1. Magazines and other industry literature
    The quality in this group varies widely, and you’ve got to be aware of the potential for bias. Nonetheless, publications with a strong editorial board can be excellent research sources. Some of the best in this group will provide healthy bibliographies which you can follow like breadcrumbs to even better sources.
  2. Dictionaries and other reference books
    Just like magazines, there’s a wide range of quality. Be sure you have a trustworthy publication before citing material. A comprehensive speech anthology is a wise investment in this research category; I recommend Lend Me Your Ears by William Safire (Six Minutes¬†book review).
  3. People
    Sometimes the most valuable speech topic research flows through the people in your life. Maybe your office colleague is the expert you are seeking? Maybe one of your readers or followers possesses the advanced knowledge or experience you need? Maybe a local networking event leads you to make a valuable connection? Find these people, interview them carefully, and quote them accurately.
  4. Wikipedia
    The world’s largest and most comprehensive encyclopedia can be a good source to consult early in your research to gain familiarity with your topic. However, encyclopedias (and other reference publications like almanacs) are tertiary sources, and thus are generally a very weak resource to directly cite or quote in your speech. If you are lucky, your speech topic may lead you to a¬†Wikipedia featured article; articles with this designation have been extensively peer-reviewed and are generally trustworthy. For example, this one on tennis player¬†Milos Raonic¬†cites over 300 primary and secondary sources, many of which would be excellent resources for you to use in a speech about him or tennis more generally.
  5. All other online resources
    Many people start their research at a search prompt and see where it leads. (Maybe such a search brought you here?) This isn’t a terrible strategy, but you’ve got to apply a critical eye to any site you end up visiting. Who is the author or owner? Is the information trustworthy and reliable? Or is just click bait? Scrutinize the “About” page carefully. Are you willing to put your reputation on the line? Lean towards official sites whenever you can. For example, use a government website for comprehensive demographic statistics, not some random website with questionable affiliations.
Want to learn more?
Researching a speech topic is one of the 25 essential skills every speaker must have. What are the other 24?

Questions for You

Think about your next speech (or a recent one you’ve given). What areas can be made stronger with some careful research?

What are some of your trusted sources for researching your speech topics?

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  1. Back in 2015 I tackled this topic in a long blog post: How to do a better job of speech research than the average Toastmaster (by using your friendly local public and state university libraries).

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