The first article in the Speech Preparation Series outlined how to prepare a speech in six steps. In this second article, we examine the first of these steps — how to select a speech topic.
Selecting a speech topic sometimes feels like shooting an arrow in a random direction and hoping that it hits a target. If this is your approach, you are probably quite frustrated.
Your topic — and, more specifically, your core message — must be selected carefully. If it isn’t, then you won’t be able to effectively deliver the speech, and your audience won’t be interested or prepared to receive your message.
This begs the question: How do you choose a great speech topic?
What is your general purpose?
There are three basic types of speeches:
- Speeches that Educate
e.g. a seminar about real estate investments; a course about leadership; a corporate briefing outlining the status of a pursuit
- Speeches that Motivate
e.g. a candidate’s election speech; a fundraising pitch; a business proposal to investors
- Speeches that Entertain
e.g. a story read to children; a dramatic tale; a humorous after-dinner speech
Decide which of these you want to accomplish as your general purpose. This decision will influence many decisions you make as you prepare for your speech, so it is important that you are clear on your overall motive.
What is your core message?
Your core message is the central idea of your presentation. All other speech elements should support the core message.
- Clarity: Aim to express your core message in a single sentence. If you cannot do this, you need more clarity.
- Passion: Your core message must be something you believe in.
- Knowledge: What do you know about this core message? Can you draw stories from personal experience? Have you researched the topic?
We like to believe that our entire presentation will be remembered. The reality is that the audience will retain only one or two points. Your speech should be designed to ensure that your audience remembers your core message.
How is this message related to the audience?
Your audience is not an innocent bystander who just happens to be in the room when you deliver your presentation. They are an integral part of the communication path. Great delivery by a speaker does not guarantee a successful speech; a successful speech is one where the audience receives the message.
Audience analysis is needed to determine which messages the audience is willing to receive from you:
- What are the key audience demographic?
Are they technical or non-technical? Students? Elderly? Parents? Athletes? Business leaders? Predominantly male or female?
- How is your audience related to you?
Is the audience filled with your peers? Subordinates? Superiors? Are you an outsider? Are you viewed as an expert? Are you unknown to them?
- How large is the audience?
Is it small enough so that everyone will see sweat on your brow? Are you in a large theatre? Is the audience in the room, or is there a remote audience too? (Or a future video audience?)
- What message does the audience want to receive?
This is just as important as asking what core message you want to deliver.
- If you are passionate, but your audience doesn’t care, your presentation will fail. (They will tune out.)
- If you deliver what the audience desires, but you don’t care, your presentation will fail. (Your delivery will be flat.)
- If you attempt to speak on a topic where you have no expertise or experience to draw from, your presentation will fail. (Your content will be empty and shallow.)
- However, if you find a topic where you have both expertise and passion, and the audience is interested, you will succeed.
What is the scope of your presentation?
Before you proceed, you still need to determine the scope of your presentation. The scope is naturally influenced by elements discussed earlier:
- Your general purpose
- Your core message
- The needs of your audience
There is one further key element to consider: what are the constraints on your presentation?
- How much time is allowed?
Suppose your core message is “Live your dreams”. If you have two minutes, then the scope of your talk is probably going be one story illustrating that message. There’s no time for more. On the other hand, if you have four hours, then you may study biographical details of famous dreamers, discuss methods for aligning your life decisions with your dreams, or explore other avenues.
- What is the context of your presentation?
There are dozens of factors that come into play which only you can know, but one of the most common is knowing whether or not others will be speaking at the same event on similar topics. If so, then your scope will generally be very narrow (and perhaps quite deep). If you are a keynote speaker and nobody else has touched on your domain, then you may choose to a broader, more shallow scope.
Example of Speech Topic Selection — Face the Wind
As we’ll do throughout the Speech Preparation articles, let’s see how these concepts were applied in a real-life speech: Face the Wind.
The genesis for this speech was a party conversation four months before the speech was written or delivered. Everyone was animated about the devastating impact of the recent wind storms on trees throughout the area. My friend relayed the theory of arborists as to why so many trees were knocked over in the storm. I was fascinated by the theory, and thought that I might someday craft a speech around that core idea.
Months later, with a speech contest on the horizon, I was searching for a speech topic. Maximus’ birth was a very recent joyous event in the family. I connected the determination of his parents with the theory of the fallen trees, and I felt that I had a core message: Face your problems head on!
Once I had that central idea, I questioned whether it would work for the contest speech:
- The only common characteristic of the audience is that they all live in British Columbia where the storm was a massive news story a few months prior. This common experience was an advantage since the audience already had vivid mental images of the storm and the trees.
- The context was the Toastmasters International speech contest. Any topic is allowed, but inspirational or motivational topics are most common. I had what I felt was a meaty topic; my general purpose was to motivate my audience.
- Not only was the core message not fluffy, but it has universal appeal. Everyone in the audience has problems, so everyone in the audience should be interested in the message.
- I believe in the core message, and I have personal experiences from which to draw speech content.
- The timing was approximately seven minutes. I judged this would be more than adequate to tell a few stories about trees, the storm, and baby Maximus, and to tie it all together.
Based on this preparation, I felt positive going forward to create an outline and write the first draft.
Next in the Speech Preparation Series
The next article in this series picks up where this one leaves off. Now that you’ve chosen a topic and a core message which will appeal to your audience, how do you begin the speechwriting process with a speech outline?