When I speak at conferences, I get a lot of hallway questions — the kind that people ask one-on-one rather than in a group. Today I’m going to address a common one: how to choose speaking topics.
My system for selecting speaking topics works a lot like this:
- Generate about a dozen interesting, rich topics while driving, or waiting for my son’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu class to end.
- Jot these ideas down on the backs of receipts, or sticky notes, or whatever is handy.
- Wait for the call for proposals to be announced.
- Panic, because I’ve forgotten everything and can’t find anything I wrote down.
- Wing it.
- Think of the absolute best topic immediately after the deadline.
You think I’m kidding. I wish.
Ingredients of a Good Talk
So if my mind has gone blank, how do I come up with topics?
First, I already know where my strengths lie as a speaker. I enjoy talking about professional development: how to achieve freelance/small business success; paths to leadership; or working with your personality type. These are regular topics of discussion among my colleagues, so there are plenty of sparks to draw from.
I also know who to go to for good advice. Within STC in particular, I know that Ben Woelk is an excellent sounding board for my ideas. Ben does an excellent job with his leadership mentoring and coaching, and I know that he’ll have good ideas to help me turn those sparks into full-fledged ideas that I can build into talks.
Narrowing My Options
Usually I have two, sometimes three speaking topics to choose from. Which one do I submit?
I set a timer for five minutes and talk about the first topic. Alone. In my office. Like a weirdo. Then I repeat the process for the next topic. Why do I do this? Because I want to see which topic feels most natural to me. Usually one feels more effortless than the rest. That’s the one that will give the audience the best experience, because no one wants to listen to someone read from their speaker’s notes. The more my talk feels like a one-on-one conversation with an audience member, the better the experience will be for everyone.
Do you have any techniques for choosing speaking topics?