A while ago, I overheard a few members of my Toastmasters Club discussing the difficulties they’ve had choosing speech topics. This surprised me because I have never found choosing a speech topic to be a problem. In fact, for me it has always been the easiest part of preparing a speech; I’ve even come up with ideas for future speeches while driving home from Toastmasters meetings. While I can’t say why others have such a hard time deciding on a subject, I can describe two approaches I use and three ways to evaluate the results of those approaches.
The first approach, I call the “Inside-Out” method. This can be loosely defined as choosing a topic without any immediate external stimuli. “Inside-Out” is most effective when you have some time alone with few resources or distractions – three places I can think of for which this method is perfect are the shower, the car, and an airport terminal. You start by simply opening yourself up to ideas; let your mind wander so ideas seem to “float” in. Don’t force yourself to think of anything specific, just say “What would I like to talk about?” and let yourself go. There is no need to nail down an idea at that moment, actually, the point is to refrain from asking any logistical questions. “Do I know enough about this topic?” “Will the audience find this interesting?” “How will I ever compose a talk about that?” are all questions to be avoided. Do not reject ideas for any reason. The goal, if you need a goal, is to end up with a few generalities, one of which can later be honed into a speech topic.
The second approach is called (surprise, surprise), the “Outside-In” method. As you can probably guess, this method uses influences outside of oneself to come up with a speech topic. Similar to “Inside-Out,” logistical questions should be avoided here. Instead, you should plug into sources like the television, radio, internet, other people, your pet etc. to give you speech ideas. More often than not, a wallow with a newspaper will give you plenty to think about, and at least a few speech topics. It was the “Outside-In” method I used when I was stuck with my fifth speech for Toastmasters.
It was a time when I was very busy with graduate school, so even though I had come up with a topic weeks ago, I hadn’t had time to properly prepare it. Now it was too late because I had a speech to give that very evening and a school paper that still need writing. At mid-morning I took a break from writing my research paper on cloud computing to consider what I would do; it wouldn’t have been right to call and cancel since I had been booked weeks before, and there was no way I could speak about the topic I had in mind. I remember mulling the problem over when something sparked: Why not talk about cloud computing? There I was writing a paper about a subject I was interested in, knew about, and felt was important for the average person – a classic example of the “Outside-In” method. Everything worked out in the end, click here to read about the rest of my preparation for “The Future is in the Clouds” speech.
Okay, you’ve used the “Inside-Out” or “Outside-In” methods and have come up with a few topics. Now it’s time to get real think about logistics; here are the three keywords and subsequent questions that derive from them I use to evaluate speech topic possibilities:
Excitement – Am I excited about the topic? Does it interest me enough to spend time composing a speech about it? Will it be interested for the expected audience?
Circumstance – Do I have enough time to prepare the talk? Are all the resources I’m going to need obtainable? Is the venue equipped to present the speech?
Justice – Can I do the topic justice in the time I am allotted? Will I have to simplify or expand my topic too much?
Certainly you can come up with more questions specific to your situation and I urge you to do so.
The bottom line is that choosing a speech topic should not be difficult; everyone’s life is full of ideas and let’s get real, the average Toastmaster’s speech length (5-7 minutes) is about as long as most talks last in the real world – not very long. So next time you’re stuck on choosing a topic all you’ll have to remember is five words: “Inside-Out,” “Outside-In,” “Excitement,” “Circumstance,” and “Justice.” And if all else fails, talk about your parents.