How to Choose Speech Topics: The Definitive Guide

Imagine you are scheduled to deliver a speech in two weeks. At first, you are excited about the opportunity. Very soon, however, a feeling of dread overwhelms you — what will your speech topic be?

Conventional wisdom says to talk about what you know, but conventional wisdom is only partially correct.

This article reveals three questions you must ask before choosing your speech topic, and how the answers lead you to great speech topics for you and your audience.

The Secret Three Questions

Before considering a speech topic, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Am I an expert on this topic?
    It isn’t necessary to know everything about a topic, but you do need to know more about the topic than your audience to be seen as a credible speaker. Your knowledge must cover not only what you plan to say, but go beyond that so that you are able to comfortably handle questions afterward.
  2. Am I passionate about this topic?
    Passion for spreading your knowledge about a topic is the fuel that will power your speech delivery. Your posture, your gestures, your eyes, your facial expressions, and your energy level are all elevated when you talk about topics you enjoy. Likewise, all of these suffer when you talk about topics that you find mundane.
  3. Does my audience care about this topic?
    If your audience doesn’t see value for themselves in your topic, there are two possibilities. Either they don’t show up, or they show up and tune out. In either case, you are wasting your breath. Every successful speech must contain explicit value for your audience.

Imagine you had an encyclopedia full of potential speech topics. (Actually, you do!) Based on the answers to the three questions above, you could sort every one of them into one of eight speech topic zones. Seven of these zones are flawed, but one is golden!

Zone 1: Perfect Speech Topics

Synopsis: You possess both knowledge and passion for the topic, and your audience wants you to share both.

This is the perfect combination, and the smart speaker draws speech topics from this zone all the time. Your knowledge of the topic assures that you’ll be confident. Your love of the topic assures that you’ll be passionate. On top of that, you have an enthusiastic, open audience.

Whether you end up speaking about topics in this zone by strategy or by luck, you’re in a great position to succeed. Speak and change the world!

But, what if you have to give a speech, and your topic isn’t in Zone 1? Does this mean you are destined to fail? Sometimes you are, and sometimes you aren’t. Read on to find what you can do to move topics into Zone 1 before you deliver them.

Zone 2: Content-Rich, but Passion-Free Speech Topics

Pros: Your expertise is solid, and your audience craves your knowledge. That’s a great fit.

Cons: There’s nothing about the topic that excites you. Consequently, speeches in this zone tend to be delivered with a monotone voice and body language which betrays your disinterest. In short, Zone 2 topics are snore-fests.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

Rediscover what motivated you to become an expert in the topic, and find your passion again.

Your audience is coming in with novice eyes, and this topic is full of exciting unknowns. Try to see the topic from their perspective. If you find this difficult, ask potential audience members what interests them about the topic. Their responses should rekindle your passion by reminding you that the topic is full of questions that need to be answered — and you have the answers!

Zone 3: Great Speech Topics for a Different Audience

Pros: You are an expert, and you love sharing that expertise with anyone who will listen.

Cons: Unfortunately, your audience does not fall within that group.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

There are two very different approaches you can take:

  1. You’ve got to find the value for your audience. A great way to do this is by finding common ground between your speech topic and a subject that the audience does care about. Draw parallels, craft metaphors, and you can make this speech topic interesting to your audience.
  2. Save this speech topic for a different audience. Out there, somewhere, there’s an audience that shares your passion and wants to hear what you have to say. You’ve just got to find them.

Zone 4: Fascinating Speech Topics You Know Nothing About

Pros: Both you and your audience are really excited about the lessons waiting to be revealed.

Cons: Unfortunately, you don’t know your stuff well enough to impart wisdom or convey meaning. Indeed, your audience may know as much or more than you!

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

With these speech topics, you are standing in extremely fertile ground. Again, there are two approaches you can take:

  1. Develop your expertise. It won’t happen overnight, but through hard work you can make it happen. Your passion and an eager audience (which have made this a Zone 4 topic) provide excellent motivation for you to succeed.
  2. Admit the limits of your expertise, and ditch the traditional speech format for one where you are facilitating discussion instead. Under your leadership, the discussion can lead the audience to explore issues, brainstorm new ideas, and discover solutions collectively.

Zone 5: Speech Topics Someone Else Should Deliver

Pros: The audience is enthusiastic and receptive.

Cons: These speech topics don’t excite your heart or your intellect.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

Probably not, at least not for a long, long time. You need to develop some expertise, but that’s hard to do without passion for the topic. Cultivating passion is difficult without minimal expertise. You might eventually get there, but you would be more effective digging into other speech topics. Leave this topic for someone else to deliver.

Whatever you do, don’t try to bluff your way through a Zone 5 speech. The audience will sense your lack of knowledge and passion, and your credibility will be shattered.

Zone 6: Speech Topics that Don’t Even Interest You

Pros: You are an expert on the subject.

Cons: Neither you or your audience care.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

It will be very difficult. You’ll either have to kindle your own passion, or find meaning for the audience. If you get either one, that will help you with the other.

But, as with Zone 5, you should probably devote your energy elsewhere.

Zone 7: Personal Hobbies, Not Speech Topics

Pros: You are fascinated by the topic.

Cons: You are not yet an expert, and your audience does not share your fascination.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

Surprisingly, maybe. Having passion for a topic provides great motivation, and can motivate you to develop your own expertise, as well as seek out reasons why the audience should care. Compared to Zone 5 and Zone 6, Zone 7 is most likely to produce useful speech topics for you.

Zone 8: “Like-Watching-Paint-Dry” Topics

Pros: Eight is a nice number. (Er… no pros.)

Cons: You don’t know the material, or care about it much either. Your audience is apathetic too.

Can you transform this into a Zone 1 Topic?

No, you can’t. Don’t waste your time.

Example Scenario

Sadly, talks which fall into this dead zone are quite common. Think of mandatory seminars which employees must attend in the workplace. Perhaps your company purchased a training module, and it’s your job to deliver it to your fellow employees. You don’t know the topic very well, and it doesn’t excite you. Your audience’s attendance is mandatory, but they don’t really want to be there either.

A Multitude of Speech Topics for You

Okay, here’s your homework:

  1. Brainstorm a list of topics. Don’t censor yourself. It can be anything that you could possibly talk about, or that you’ve ever heard of someone talking about.
  2. Now, take the list and categorize them into one of the zones by asking yourself:
    • Am I an expert on this topic?
    • Am I passionate about this topic?
    • Is my audience interested in this topic?
  3. The topics in Zone 1 are your best candidates. If there are none in Zone 1, check Zones 2, 3, and 4, and figure out what you need to do to get them into Zone 1.