Article Category: Speechwriting

The Secret of Choosing Successful Speech Topics


Imagine you are scheduled to deliver a speech in two weeks. At first, you are excited about the opportunity. Very soon, however, a feeling of dread overwhelms you — what will your speech topic be?

Conventional wisdom says to talk about what you know, but conventional wisdom is only partially correct.

This article reveals three questions you must ask before choosing your speech topic, and how the answers lead you to great speech topics for you and your audience.

The Secret Three Questions

Before considering a speech topic, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Am I an expert on this topic?
    It isn’t necessary to know everything about a topic, but you do need to know more about the topic than your audience to be seen as a credible speaker. Your knowledge must cover not only what you plan to say, but go beyond that so that you are able to comfortably handle questions afterward.
  2. Am I passionate about this topic?
    Passion for spreading your knowledge about a topic is the fuel that will power your speech delivery. Your posture, your gestures, your eyes, your facial expressions, and your energy level are all elevated when you talk about topics you enjoy. Likewise, all of these suffer when you talk about topics that you find mundane.
  3. Does my audience care about this topic?
    If your audience doesn’t see value for themselves in your topic, there are two possibilities. Either they don’t show up, or they show up and tune out. In either case, you are wasting your breath. Every successful speech must contain explicit value for your audience.

Imagine you had an encyclopedia full of potential speech topics. (Actually, you do!) Based on the answers to the three questions above, you could sort every one of them into one of eight speech topic zones. Seven of these zones are flawed, but one is golden!

Zone 1: Perfect Speech Topics

Synopsis: You possess both knowledge and passion for the topic, and your audience wants you to share both.

This is the perfect combination, and the smart speaker draws speech topics from this zone all the time. Your knowledge of the topic assures that you’ll be confident. Your love of the topic assures that you’ll be passionate. On top of that, you have an enthusiastic, open audience.

Whether you end up speaking about topics in this zone by strategy or by luck, you’re in a great position to succeed. Speak and change the world!

But, what if you have to give a speech, and your topic isn’t in Zone 1? Does this mean you are destined to fail? Sometimes you are, and sometimes you aren’t. Read on to find what you can do to move topics into Zone 1 before you deliver them.

Zone 2: Content-Rich, but Passion-Free Speech Topics

Pros: Your expertise is solid, and your audience craves your knowledge. That’s a great fit.

Cons: There’s nothing about the topic that excites you. Consequently, speeches in this zone tend to be delivered with a monotone voice and body language which betrays your disinterest. In short, Zone 2 topics are snore-fests.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

Rediscover what motivated you to become an expert in the topic, and find your passion again.

Your audience is coming in with novice eyes, and this topic is full of exciting unknowns. Try to see the topic from their perspective. If you find this difficult, ask potential audience members what interests them about the topic. Their responses should rekindle your passion by reminding you that the topic is full of questions that need to be answered — and you have the answers!

Zone 3: Great Speech Topics for a Different Audience

Pros: You are an expert, and you love sharing that expertise with anyone who will listen.

Cons: Unfortunately, your audience does not fall within that group.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

There are two very different approaches you can take:

  1. You’ve got to find the value for your audience. A great way to do this is by finding common ground between your speech topic and a subject that the audience does care about. Draw parallels, craft metaphors, and you can make this speech topic interesting to your audience.
  2. Save this speech topic for a different audience. Out there, somewhere, there’s an audience that shares your passion and wants to hear what you have to say. You’ve just got to find them.

Zone 4: Fascinating Speech Topics You Know Nothing About

Pros: Both you and your audience are really excited about the lessons waiting to be revealed.

Cons: Unfortunately, you don’t know your stuff well enough to impart wisdom or convey meaning. Indeed, your audience may know as much or more than you!

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

With these speech topics, you are standing in extremely fertile ground. Again, there are two approaches you can take:

  1. Develop your expertise. It won’t happen overnight, but through hard work you can make it happen. Your passion and an eager audience (which have made this a Zone 4 topic) provide excellent motivation for you to succeed.
  2. Admit the limits of your expertise, and ditch the traditional speech format for one where you are facilitating discussion instead. Under your leadership, the discussion can lead the audience to explore issues, brainstorm new ideas, and discover solutions collectively.

Zone 5: Speech Topics Someone Else Should Deliver

Pros: The audience is enthusiastic and receptive.

Cons: These speech topics don’t excite your heart or your intellect.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

Probably not, at least not for a long, long time. You need to develop some expertise, but that’s hard to do without passion for the topic. Cultivating passion is difficult without minimal expertise. You might eventually get there, but you would be more effective digging into other speech topics. Leave this topic for someone else to deliver.

Whatever you do, don’t try to bluff your way through a Zone 5 speech. The audience will sense your lack of knowledge and passion, and your credibility will be shattered.

Zone 6: Speech Topics that Don’t Even Interest You

Pros: You are an expert on the subject.

Cons: Neither you or your audience care.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

It will be very difficult. You’ll either have to kindle your own passion, or find meaning for the audience. If you get either one, that will help you with the other.

But, as with Zone 5, you should probably devote your energy elsewhere.

Zone 7: Personal Hobbies, Not Speech Topics

Pros: You are fascinated by the topic.

Cons: You are not yet an expert, and your audience does not share your fascination.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

Surprisingly, maybe. Having passion for a topic provides great motivation, and can motivate you to develop your own expertise, as well as seek out reasons why the audience should care. Compared to Zone 5 and Zone 6, Zone 7 is most likely to produce useful speech topics for you.

Zone 8: “Like-Watching-Paint-Dry” Topics

Pros: Eight is a nice number. (Er… no pros.)

Cons: You don’t know the material, or care about it much either. Your audience is apathetic too.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

No, you can’t. Don’t waste your time.

Example Scenario

Sadly, talks which fall into this dead zone are quite common. Think of mandatory seminars which employees must attend in the workplace. Perhaps your company purchased a training module, and it’s your job to deliver it to your fellow employees. 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.

A Multitude of Speech Topics for You

Okay, here’s your homework:

  1. Brainstorm a list of topics. Don’t censor yourself. It can be anything that you could possibly talk about, or that you’ve ever heard of someone talking about.
  2. Now, take the list and categorize them into one of the zones by asking yourself:
    • Am I an expert on this topic?
    • Am I passionate about this topic?
    • Is my audience interested in this topic?
  3. The topics in Zone 1 are your best candidates. If there are none in Zone 1, check Zones 2, 3, and 4, and figure out what you need to do to get them into Zone 1.

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Comments icon21 Comments

  1. Love this degree of analysis Andrew. A great guide for speakers looking to do new speeches weekly (Toastmasters) or speakers looking at ways to retool.

  2. Hi Andrew, great article!
    We’ve posted it on our facebook page, check it out: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Toastmasters-in-Pune/148767611833746
    Regards,
    Nikhil Sheth, ACB, ALB
    Toastmasters Club of Pune, India

  3. Fantastic “thought experiment”. I love the use of the venn diagram and how you brought crystal clarity to an important question.

  4. Hi, Andrew —

    I come at this topic of topic choice from the point of view of professional speakers and executives who speak about topics related to their careers. That’s why I would say that you should only talk about subjects that you’re passionate about. Beyond that, a successful speech comes in the intersection between the right audience, the right topic, and the right speaker. So I like your analysis in that sense. Even great speakers can miss-fire if the topic is wrong or the audience is not interested.
    If you’re a speaker getting ready to carry out a speech assignment, then ask yourself, what is the problem the audience has for which my information/expertise/interest is the solution? Then you’ve got a much better chance of connecting.

  5. Great article on finding and evaluating speech topics. Excellent treatment of a complex subject. I am always confident about recommending “six minutes” to active as well as aspiring speakers. Thanks and keep up the great work!

  6. Hi Andrew,

    Nice article, and nice organisation of speech topics!

    I would argue however, that the most important aspect to consider is relevance to your audience. I appreciate that speakers communicate better on topics that they really care about, but even an enthusastic speaker wouldn’t be able to hold an audience’s attention on irrelevant content.
    Of course, presentations should ideally satisfy all three criteria – but in practice, I’m sure that these defining lines aren’t quite so clear. In this case, I’d suggest that it’s more important to focus on producing content that will keep the audience riveted, rather than something that would keep you rivited – and lack of specific knowledge of a topic just calls for more research!

  7. The “sets” diagrams are truly wonderful, especially the first one, it’s so good that if you have just printed that diagram and no text that everyone would have gotten the message.

    It’s so simple that it’s brilliant and I had to ask myself wondered “why didn’t I think of that?”

    Thank you.

  8. Hi Andrew
    I always struggle when I’m looking for speech topics.
    Like the idea of the three test questions – that should help.

    As Rich said – “Love the degree of analysis” – thanks for taking the time.

  9. I have followed your blog for a long while. I find your tips invaluable. I was a finalist in the World Championship of Public Speaking in 2008 and am writing a book on the psychology of public speaking. I am asking vistors to my blog at http://www.charliewilsonphd.com to comment on the chapters as I write them. I am including your site on my links page. Thanks for all your work. Charlie

  10. Shan Pruthi says:

    Nice advice
    Thanks a lot
    This really helped!

  11. Jim says:

    Great article Andrew! Just the method I always teach to my students.

  12. Hans says:

    Unfortunately, as we were vividly reminded of in our club last week, there is also Zone 0 – the “Please Don’t Go There Zone”. This Zone is for topics that might actually overlap with one or more of the above zones, but that can range from the slightly inappropriate, to the highly uncomfortable, to the downright offensive.

    1. Jane says:

      I think this is a matter of context. There is no topic that should never be discussed, even publicly; indeed, controversial, uncomfortable topics are typically controversial and uncomfortable because they are the most pertinent topics. However, some contexts are more constructive than others. The orator should take care to ensure that he is delivering his or her speech in a context that would ensure its constructiveness.

  13. mikavelli says:

    its amazing the different steps to follow inorder to come out with a standard speech. it really needs some hard work and constant trainning

  14. Riyas Cheemadan says:

    I am a new member in a skill development club. learning the article, I must say that such valueable piece of information really help those who are preparing to kick off carrier development. Expecting more articles in future.

  15. Cyndi says:

    Awesome analysis! easy to understand and concrete action/improvement to follow..I can find my contest speech belonging to type 3. I will try something to make it better. :-) Thx so much!

  16. med says:

    from my heart to your’s ; thank you so much

  17. Andrew,
    This list is a goldmine, and should be given to every budding speaker who is starting out at toastmasters (or in another similar speaking environment).
    I think the struggle sometimes is dealing with speeches when you really don’t have a choice on the topic and it doesn’t fit into zone 1. For example, at work.

    For such circumstances, it can be a useful skill to learn to speak about topics that you aren’t passionate about. Don’t you agree that for some of us, as least some of the time, we need to think about how we can deliver the topic our audience wants to hear about, even if turning it into a topic we love isn’t possible?

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      When you aren’t passionate about the topic itself, I think it is critical to be passionate about sharing your knowledge with others. Focus on the benefits for your audience in gaining the knowledge, or perhaps the benefit to your shared organization if more people learned a skill that you can teach.

      If you neither love the topic, nor care about sharing the knowledge, I think it is extremely difficult to be effective… just as it is difficult to do anything effectively when not motivated.

  18. MG says:

    Hi Andrew, I love the Venn Diagram and think this method will help my fellow toastmasters. I’m giving a speech on how to generate Speech Topics/ideas and was wondering if I could use your Venn Diagram (I’ll reference your web site??). thanks!

  19. Marisa McGregor says:

    Thanks!

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olemiswebs

Nacho Arenas @olemiswebs — Feb 9th, 2013

RT @TM_Madrid: Have you chozen your next speech topic? Check this article for some tips and strategy to do so! http://t.co/pdTWKNmf

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@ClareCharityCen @ClareCharityCen — Mar 27th, 2014

Are you speaking at a Clare Charity Centre event? Here are some brilliant tips for choosing the correct topics. http://t.co/sACR6HER5R

AngelaDeFinis

Angela DeFinis (@AngelaDeFinis) @AngelaDeFinis — May 13th, 2014

The Secret of Choosing Successful Speech Topics http://t.co/GraCxrnPmU

CogitoTM

Cogito Toastmasters (@CogitoTM) @CogitoTM — May 30th, 2014

The Secret of Choosing Successful Speech Topics

http://t.co/5XTV1Ms8XX http://t.co/mGQEleEhsz

ransomtech

@ransomtech @ransomtech — Nov 5th, 2014

Love this post and the Venn diagram decision making approach. “How to Choose Speech Topics” http://t.co/WNzu2o7Mh7

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