Scholar Hacks: How to Pick a Topic for A Speech

1. Start early in order to give yourself time to mull it over and/or change your mind. One of the biggest errors a student can make is waiting until the last minute to decide on a speech topic. This is problematic for several reasons. First, because the topic process is foundational and more time-consuming that many folks realize. Second, because waiting until the last minute to decide means you have less time to do research, you may find yourself with very little time if an idea doesn’t pan out.  I suggest students give themselves several hours, ideally spread out over a few days to think of a topic and begin the process researching.

Here’s how I do it: I like to brainstorm in the morning when I’m most creative and sharp. I make myself a cup of tea, then to to my desk where I make a list of ideas. In this initial process, I do not censor myself; even wacky and/or bananas ideas go on the list as potential options. Then I try to give myself a break (from 30 minutes to several days) and go back to my list with fresh eyes. Things reveal themselves as they are (i.e. good or bad ideas) when you have time to let them sit. At that point I begin to edit.  I scratch through any totally unfruitful ideas and work to extrapolate muddy ideas until they’re crystal clear. I know they’re clear when I can explain them easily to one of my friends/family members and/or write a thesis statement (or tl;dr-type statement)

**A note about brainstorming: save your work. If I’m writing with a stylus on my tablet, I make sure that I save my notes (my app does this automatically.) If I’m writing on a whiteboard (love whiteboards for brainstorming because they’re infinitely rewritable) I take a picture of my work before erasing it. I know people who create a “junk drawer” of unused ideas/research on Google docs, Evernote, or the like. I cannot tell you how many times I thought I was going in one direction with a speech or essay and then had to change course and go back to work I had already ditched. You don’t want to do work all over again.

tl;dr: start early, give yourself time to change your mind, save your notes. Didn’t start early? Check here.

2. Choose topics that satisfy the following requirements:

they’re important/relevant to you

they’re important/relevant to your audience without offending or silencing them as an active party in the speech act (note: offending is different from challenging them with a well-thought out speech)

there is enough information/scholarship on the topic that you can sustain a learned, thoughtful discussion

there is not so much information/scholarship that you are, figuratively speaking, beating the dead horse with your speech.

tl;dr: pick a topic that’s fresh, fruitful, interesting, and/or useful for yourself and your audience.

3. Trace out possible trajectories for your speech. Now that you know a basic idea of what you want to talk about, decide what you want to say about it and how. This is an extension of brainstorming, but instead of listing ideas with an interest in breadth, you will want to go deeper and deeper into one idea. Research will help with this process. Be willing to be moved by the research process, but remember to keep the whole speech in mind. I do this in one of two ways: I either open a Google Doc and list possible bullet points w/research attached until I have a possible outline, reorganizing/adding along the way; or I draw a thought map on my tablet or white board and make connections by drawing and labelling them.

tl;dr: flesh out your ideas, with the help of research.

4.Take into account the requirements/constraints of the speech. The importance of this point is obvious in the classroom: Don’t give a 2 minute improvisational speech when you’re assigned a 7-9 minute informative speech; Don’t try to say everything about the history of North Carolina in 5 minutes. However, it’s also important to think about the parameters of any speech you give “IRL.”

think about the environment (is it a ballroom at your best friend’s wedding, is it a meeting you’ll give in front of your boss, is it a citizen-forum for a local environmental issue? is it loud? will you have a microphone? will it be raining? prepare for contingencies at this point.)

think about the time you have to speak and how it will affect your topic.

think about the desires, ideas, beliefs, and so on of your audience members. Your audience is full of people with different ways of thinking. Remember if you pick an alienating topic, your job will be that much more difficult; you will have to be especially cautious in your approach. Choose a topic carefully.

tl;dr: choose a topic after considering the parameters of your speech and the environment where it will occur.