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Business

What Should You Be Speaking About?

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This post is part of a series called Leveraging Public Speaking for Your Business.
What It Takes to Drive Home a Paid Speaking Gig

In this tutorial, we'll cover how to select topics for speaking engagements. Your topic can make or break you, if your goal is to sell a product or a service to your audience. Choosing the right topic to cover is crucial in engaging your audience and building a reputation as a great speaker.

Learn how to narrowly define your audience, choose a topic that is a great fit for that audience, test your ideas, and pitch your topic to event organizers. With practice you can build on your expertise with the topic you present on and refine your presentation each time you reach out to a larger audience.


1. Identify Your Audience

Step 1

Create a list of the characteristics common to your audience. If your goal is to sell a product or a service to your audience as a result of your talk, who would want to buy what you're selling? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What industries do members of your audience work in?
  • Do any of your audience members share demographic characteristics, like age or gender?
  • What problems do members of your audience face on a regular basis?
  • What sites or other media do members of your audience follow?
  • What trends are driving decisions for your audience?

Step 2

The more clearly you can describe your ideal audience, the better equipped you will be to decide if that audience will like a given topic.

Write a specific description of the type of person you want to reach with your talk, relying on the list of characteristics you created above. The more clearly you can describe your ideal audience, the better equipped you will be to decide if that audience will like a given topic.

Step 3

If you aren't sure about how close you're getting to your target audience, spend more time on getting to know them. Go to the events they do, read the blogs they do and look for what ideas and what problems they regularly discuss.

2. Brainstorm as Many Ideas as Possible

Step 1

Choose a method to record your ideas. While some people prefer mind-mapping out ideas, others are comfortable just writing out a list using an app like Evernote. Decide which option is the best for you first, and how you're going to digitize your ideas.

Step 2

Start with the ideas you can come up with off the top of your head. You're an expert in your field and there are likely issues that you've seen in the field that you can easily speak about.

Step 3

Use the prompts below to generate more ideas:

  • What are the biggest problems facing your audience today? In the near future? In the long-term?
  • What are the big opportunities in front of your audience?
  • How can your audience improve on the work they're already doing?
  • What information from other fields would be useful to your audience, if only they had it?
  • Are there any core concepts that are particularly hard for your audience to grasp?
  • What articles or blog posts have caught the attention of the industry?
  • Have you done any interesting work that is particularly relevant to the audience?
  • Are there any case studies that the audience could learn from?
  • What ideas in your audience's industry do you personally find captivating?

Step 4

Save the ideas that you come up with, even if you don't expect to use them, somewhere that you can refer back to them. You're going to pick a handful of ideas, at best, to work on right now, but this isn't likely to be the only time you need speaking topics during your professional career. Put those extra ideas away so that you can refer back to them when needed.

3. Narrow Down the Field

Step 1

Clear out those ideas that clearly aren't going to work: whether you're just not going to have the time to do the necessary research or you've come up with something out in left field as you've been brainstorming, narrow down the list in a first pass. Don't delete them, though. You may find a use for those ideas, either as is or with some improvement.

Step 2

Pick a few ideas (no more than five) that you believe will resonate particularly well with your audience. Focus on the most likely candidates. You're going to test your ideas before you bring them in front of an audience, but you want to make sure that you have a solid starting point. They don't have to be the five best ideas you've ever heard of, since you'll be coming back to this list for more ideas, but they do have to be topics that you think you can work with.

4. Test Your Ideas

Step 1

Run it by people who fit into your core audience. After the work you did in the first step of this tutorial, you likely know where you can find a few people who would fit into the target audience you're trying reach. Ask their opinions on your topic ideas: are you talking about something they want to hear about? You don't have to give them an entire presentation, but you do need to make sure that they get a clear picture of what you're offering.

While you don’t want to publish every last detail of the idea you’re considering speaking about, you want to get some feedback that doesn’t come from people who might have a reason to be nice to you.

Step 2

Write about the concept for your blog, provided you have a blog. While you don't want to publish every last detail of the idea you're considering speaking about, you want to get some feedback that doesn't come from people who might have a reason to be nice to you. You don't have to worry about that online, so publishing a post or two about some of the concepts you might want to speak about is a fast way to get feedback.

You may need to promote your post a bit to get a wider range of feedback than that offered by your usual readers.

Step 3

Put your idea in front of other people. The more feedback you can get, the better — provided it's from people who would likely attend the sort of event where you want to speak at. By finding out what the response is in advance, you can reduce the number of talks you give that aren't quite spot on.

5. Pitch Your Topic to Conference Organizers

Step 1

Reach out to event organizers. Many organizers make themselves available on social media, especially if they've recently issued a request for speakers' proposals. That's because they're willing to answer questions if doing so will get them proposals that more closely match what they're looking for. That means you can run your idea past them early enough in the process to make it fit the event in question a little better.

Step 2

Propose your topic for a conference or another event. Submitting proposals to conferences is a fast way to make sure that you've got an idea that the conference organizer will like. However, since the conference organizer isn't actually the person who decides to act on the information you share during your talk, she's the last person you want to test your topic idea for, without establishing a way to get feedback first.

Step 3

If there aren't any relevant calls for speakers that you can pitch your idea to, consider what other events may be a good fit. You can pitch your idea directly to event organizers, who can set you up to speak to groups they manage or at other events. The more chances you get to give talks about your idea, the more opportunity you have to hone your concept and build on the basic idea. You may even be able to give the same talk multiple times, improving it along the way.

Step 4

Walk away from any idea that doesn't work. If, after you get some feedback, you can't make a particular topic work, don't stress. There are more on your list. Shelve the problem topic, at least temporarily. It may be a good fit later on, but if you're just not getting good feedback, it's not worth pursuing at this time. For those ideas that you feel strongly about, you can always try pitching them again later on. In the meanwhile, start testing another idea from your list.


Building on Your Topic

In this tutorial, we walked through how to brainstorm and vet topics for your speaking engagements. We've also discussed how to test your ideas out to make sure that they're relevant to the audiences you're hoping to reach. Using these methods, you'll be able to come up with ideas for every speaking opportunity you're offered.

Once you've seen how a topic performs on stage, you can experiment with offering different versions of the same topic for different audiences. You may be able to find ways to build on your topic and connect it to your speaking, by writing about it and otherwise promoting the underlying concept.

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