Public Speaking Success: Three Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Speech Topic

Topic questionsWhether you’re a new speaker or an experienced speaker trying to expand your offerings, you’ve probably found yourself in a situation where you’ve been debating whether or not a speech topic will work for you. This is especially common for folks in Toastmasters where you’re given a speech project and you need to choose a topic and create a speech around that project. I’ve even had it happen to me in recent years where groups have asked me to speak to them because they liked my speaking style, but weren’t interested in the topics I typically speak on (communication skills). This can be an exciting opportunity, but if you’re not careful in selecting a topic, you might find yourself stressed out while preparing your talk — or even worse, end up delivering a talk that is lower in quality than your other talks.

The good news is that like most things, a little extra preparation up front can yield great results. So here are three questions that will help you determine is a topic is right for you.

Question 1: Do you have a significant amount of knowledge or experience in the topic?
This may seem like a given to most people, but a lot of times we like to challenge ourselves (or kill two birds with one stone by learning something new when preparing a speech). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and will work with “safe audiences” such as Toastmasters clubs or other small groups. But if the speech is to a big crowd or if you’re getting paid for it, I highly recommend sticking to a topic you know well. This is especially important if you’re new to speaking and if you’ll be asked questions either during your speech or after the event.

So how do you know if you have enough knowledge in subject? Simply make a list of your skills, knowledge and experience on the subject. If your list is long and contains things that people in your intended audience can learn from, then you can go with it. If your list is small, then you might be better off with a different topic.

Question 2: Is the topic something that your audience will be interested in?

I can go on and on about the times in my early career as speaker where I’ve given talks on subjects that the audience had no interest in. What was most frustrating was that many of these times, the topics were ones suggested by the people booking me for the event. In some cases, it was a topic that the person was personally interested in, in other cases it was something that the person thought the group might be interested in. I’ve since learned from my mistakes — I now ask a series of questions to figure out if a group really will be interested in a particular topic.

But the point here is that this question can be a tricky one as many times the person organizing the event doesn’t really know the answer. So you’ll have to find out what subjects have worked in the past and what hasn’t. I was recently asked to speak to an organization at a large university in Boston that I had to turn down because the topics they were most interested in were related to making money in real estate.

This question is especially important if you’re a professional speaker trying to branch out, but it should be rephrased as “are there enough audiences interested in this topic” or “can I make money (or reach my goals) from this topic?”

Question 3: Am I personally interested in this topic?

This is an extremely important question to ask yourself because just like it shows through in a positive way when you’re passionate about a topic, it’s also obvious to an audience when a speaker isn’t interested in a topic. I see this all the time in the public speaking classes I teach — students that talk about things that they’re interested in come across as having better speaking skills than those who speak about subjects they’re not interested in. I’ve seen this happen in work presentations, Toastmasters speech contests and at breakout sessions during conferences and conventions.

So when you’re contemplating whether or not a particular speech topic will work for you, ask yourself these questions. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results.

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