Chapter 3: Preparing for Your First Speech

Choosing Your Topic

Choosing Your Topic

One of the first things that you must do when preparing a speech is to determine your topic -the subject and focus of your presentation . While this may seem like a simple detail, some students find the process difficult for several reasons. First, there are so many potentially interesting topics to choose from that it can seem overwhelming. Do you choose a light, humorous topic or an insightful, heartfelt one? Do you discuss politics, daily life, relationships, work, ongoing societal controversies, or perhaps personal conflict? Additionally, some students stress over finding the “perfect ” topic. That’s a lot of unnecessary pressure. Any number of topics could be perfect for your presentation, depending on the guidelines assigned by your instructor.

If you find yourself floundering, consider brainstorming. According to Isaksen and Treffinger, brainstorming allows your brain to be creative by removing the normal inhibitions (7). ( “No, that’s stupid. ” “No, that would never work. ” “That might be too absurd to even consider. “). The technique first became popular when an ad executive, Alex Osborn, realized that his employees needed to begin thinking creatively -outside the box -to generate new direction and new ideas for clients. You may find Osborn’s “rules ” helpful as you attempt the process.

No criticism of ideas. Don’t worry right away about how useful, appropriate, or acceptable your initial ideas are -you can edit later

Go for large quantities of ideas in a short period of time -try to write down as many ideas as you can within a predetermined time (for example, one minute)

Every idea has equal worth -there are no “good ” or “bad ” ideas. Withhold your internal judgment until you’ve finished

Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas. Write down everything -no matter how farfetched an idea might seem at the time

Sometimes the craziest ideas will be the ones to engage an audience or spark interest. You may find yourself writing down ideas that you would have never considered before, and one of those ideas could be perfect for your speech. Here is a great example of finding an “outside of the box ” topic.

The assignment was to present a demonstration or a “how to ” presentation. Many students discussed how to bake a cake or change a tire. Some chose to cover issues like how to choose a good course or find textbooks cheap. One student, however, had obviously done some brainstorming. Her topic was “How to be a superhero. ” Did she take a risk? Sure. College students could have ridiculed that topic; they certainly might have considered the topic juvenile or absurd. In reality, her listeners loved it! She was engaging, she was certainly unique, and she presented it with a grin and a sense of humor. She was the hit of the class.

You might think to yourself, “I could never do anything that unusual. ” That’s fine. Instead, you might choose to find a topic by focusing on your own interests, hobbies, or skills . Do you sail or scuba dive? That might be an interesting “how to ” speech. Or perhaps you paint, crochet, or rock climb. If you are enthusiastic about what you do, that energy and enjoyment will be evident as you speak on the topic. What about your career knowledge? Could you give a speech on changing the oil in your car? Who better to do that than a trained mechanic or someone who works in a garage? Do you work on computers at your job? Why not teach your audience how to create a desktop shortcut or how to change out a hard drive? By choosing a topic that you already know a great deal about, you’ll feel less anxious, and your audience is sure to view you as confident and knowledgeable.

In Clella Jaffe’s book, Public Speaking: Concepts and Skills for a Diverse Society , she notes the importance of choosing a topic. Jaffe concludes that choosing a topic because you find the subject interesting and worthwhile doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best topic for your audience (73). You should consider the interests, attitudes, and values of your audience in each step of your preparation, including choosing a topic. If your analysis of your audience reveals that several audience members would be offended or completely disinterested in your chosen topic, you risk losing their attention and goodwill by moving forward with that topic anyway.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say that you work for the IRS and that you find tax code fascinating – you can quote every line of every regulation. You’re quite knowledgeable, given your job, and you feel confident discussing the subject, so you decide to use this knowledge in your speech. This topic could work for your assignment, but you should be aware that you may have to work harder to engage your listeners and keep their interest -especially if you use too many business terms that are unfamiliar to your audience or include excessive statistical information in your presentation. How could you take your knowledge in this area and apply it specifically to an audience of college students? What if you discussed the top five deductions that college-age income earners are most likely to overlook? This area of your job knowledge could be quite beneficial to your listeners; they’d probably thank you later for saving them money. Considering how to apply your knowledge and how to make your discussion relevant, given the demographics of your specific audience, is the key difference between an effective presentation and one that will have your listeners eagerly awaiting your closing remarks.

One last detail to keep in mind when choosing your topic is to narrow your subject so that it fits the scope, expectations, and time limit of your assignment. You need to balance providing enough information to adequately explain the topic with keeping within the time allotted for the presentation. A topic that is too broad and overly general will yield too much information to cover in a short speech. For instance, if your topic is “dogs, ” there are hundreds of main points that you could cover -large or small breeds, training methods, choosing the right dog for your family, grooming habits, etc. Those are far too many points to discuss in a five-minute speech. Narrowing the topic to just one smaller subtopic is more doable.

Suppose you decide to discuss choosing the right dog for your family. Now you can focus your research on a more specific area within your larger, original topic. Perhaps you’ll decide that your main points will cover the importance of knowing the sociability and patience of various dog breeds, the exercise requirements for your chosen breed, and any possible disadvantages in the breed (such as excessive barking or excitability). Your listeners will not be overwhelmed by too much information since you’ve narrowed your main ideas to a select few points. They can easily digest this information and you can present your speech within the assigned four to five minute timeframe. Narrowing is not as difficult as it might initially seem. It simply requires you to give a bit more thought to your topic and to focus in on the specific ideas and details that you feel would best suit you, your audience, and your instructor.


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