Finding ideas for a speech
One of the most common reasons holding people back from Public Speaking is that they do not know what to talk about. I have been to many Speakers Clubs where a member has said to me that they would love to deliver a speech at a future meeting but do not know what to talk about.
So let me give you some ideas of where to look and how to come up with ideas to talk about.
And this applies every bit as much creating engaging work and business presentations.
First however let me give you a fundamental principle that all speeches need to adhere to, for them to work.
The best and simplest rule for engaging speech content is simply:
- ‘Talk about something you are familiar with and find a way of connecting it to the people in the room.’
And remember, as the audience listens to you they are responding in a particular way:
- ‘I am listening to you , but I am thinking about me.’
Always bear that in mind when considering a topic to speak on,
because on the one hand, I have heard many speakers talk about a subject that they know well, one they might even quite passionate about, but the audience has no connection to the subject and so, even though they might be politely appreciative of the speaker’s enthusiasm, the speech does not engage them.
And on the other hand, I have listened to speakers who opt for a subject because they think it might interest the room, but they lack a proper connection or knowledge to the subject to have real authority to talk about it.
For example I might choose to talk about classical music.
I used to be a professional musician and I love classical music – so it is ideal subject for me.
And I know a bit about classical music.
However I might find I struggle to engage a room full of 15 year olds with it.
I know this to be true because at that age my own children used to refer to ‘Daddy’s rubbish music’
(in truth, if I remember correctly, those might not have been the exact words they used.)
So therefore I decide to talk to them about Ariane Grande, but they struggle listening to me, because they feel I lack the knowledge or experience on the subject to offer them any new or interesting insights.
In neither case does it mean I should immediately abandon that subject and look elsewhere.
In the first example I could make an effort to make Classical Music more relevant to them, maybe I could start by introducing some music that they know from TV or from adverts, like Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet as the theme tune to ‘The Apprentice’ or I could tell them that the football Champion’s league anthem is an adaptation of Handel’s Zadok the Priest.
In the second case if I really want to talk about Ariane Grande, maybe I could use her as an example of the value of her having an all-round stage background to be a top performer, or maybe I could compare her to R & B artists from previous generations that I do know about or maybe I happen to have the very specific knowledge of knowing the person who gave her acting lessons before she became a famous singer.
In each case, I am attempting to take my knowledge and connect it to their world.
If I am asked to speak at a Speakers Association, it would seem to make sense to talk about Public Speaking. I should know something about what I am talking about and the audience should be interested in the subject.
However, if all I do is talk about how speaking interests me, that still might not connect, especially if many of them at this stage are simply very nervous about speaking.
Therefore if I realise that the best way to connect is to talk about facing the fear and taking that first step, I might not even need to talk about speaking at all, instead I could share my experiences as a musician as my own personal example of overcoming the fear of going on stage and in the process will probably connect better with them, because I will have satisfied that golden communication principle of
‘Talking about something I am familiar with and finding a way of connecting it to the people in the room.’
Finding ideas for a speech
As long as you are talking about your personal experiences in a way that relates to your audience, you immediately have the largest source of potential material at your fingertips. Personal experiences have the greatest potential for speech material because they automatically fulfil all of the criteria for being a good speaker:
(i) you are an expert on the subject. (Of course you are – you were there; it is your experience and no one has greater expertise on you than you)
(ii) choosing an experience that relates to your audience means you have an instant connection. (I remember how many school students struggled to find something to talk about because they thought they had to impress their audience with superior knowledge or some educational insight. As soon as they realised that needed to relate, not impress, it all became so much easier. Now they could talk about everyday shared experiences: forgetting the homework; missing the bus to school; first day anxieties.)
(iii) and most importantly, a personal experience is probably already in the form of a story; it is likely therefore to contain a clear visual element and because it was your own experience – you don’t need many notes!
Personal Experiences as metaphors
Often we will not have the exact experience to relate to our audience, but we might have one that is either similar or covers the same emotional content. And if your example seems a little humble in comparison to the issue under consideration, in order not to risk ‘offending’ your audience by assuming full equivalence , you might consider an introductory phrase to your example like:
‘maybe in a smaller similar way’
‘I am not suggesting this is quite as major, but I do remember…’
and now even though, for instance, you cannot fully claim to understand the full anxiety or being displaced to a completely foreign country, you might be able to relate a little by sharing your feelings at leaving home for the first time;
although you have never had to organise a school camping trip for 30 children, you do remember how challenging it was to everything together for a day out in the park with your 2 children and their 2 best friends
although you have never had to deliver a key note speech in Wembley conference centre for 2000 people, you do remember how the trauma of being best man at your brother’s wedding.
The significant element of a metaphorical or parallel experience is not having the same experience, but having an experience that leads to the same message.
So you may not have a relevant example to share from your own life, you may not have a metaphorical or parallel experience that leads to the same message – maybe you know someone who does!
As a man I cannot claim actual experience of giving birth, but I can say:
‘I remember my wife saying…’
So maybe I don’t have the experience myself, but I am closely related to someone who does.
How many biographies have you seen that claim to offer the ‘truth about…’ as written by their butler, best friend, brother-in-law or any connection that suggests they have a higher level of authority than the average audience member.
If your own personal or extended circle of experiences fails to come up with suitable examples, there is always one further step and that is famous people who might have the relevant experience:
‘I read recently..’
And to give extra weight to your argument, try to choose someone that the audience might be inclined to like or respect and the more recent the example, the more impact it will have.
I am a great fan of Dale Cargnegie’s famous book, ‘How to win friends and influence people’ and when recommending it I always urge people to look past the examples and focus on the principles and messages, because an old reference to a 1920s criminal might cause one to feel that the message itself might also be a bit out of date. However if the message is current, the story does not necessarily need to be. In fact you might even make a point of emphasising that your message has been true across the ages.
Myths, Fairy Stories, Religious examples
I am sure I might be offending some people by putting religious examples in the same category as myths and fairy stories, but the my reason is that these are all examples that exist in the collective consciousness, so using the example of Joseph and his coat of many colours to support a message of how character, persistence and unswerving integrity wins through in the end, could be appropriate, as could Cinderella, as could the Odessey.
If we go back to my initial principle of speech content:
- ‘Talk about something you are familiar with and find a way of connecting it to the people in the room,’
clearly the closer you are to the centre of your own experience, the more familiar you will be with what you are talking about and the more credibility you will have. The further away you move from the centre of your own experience, not only are you further away from that position of unique first-hand knowledge, but the more likelihood there is that members of your audience will have as much or maybe even more knowledge of the examples you are using.
Once you have worked out the message of your speech, you might find you could use examples from several categories. I would recommend having an assortment of stories and examples that you could use. Some days you may use one or two of them, other days many more.
So that having decided how much you like the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours and how much that says to you about character, persistence and unswerving integrity winning through in the end, you might be able to support your speech with other cultural references that lead to the same conclusion; you might be able to talk about a specific politician or leader whose actions indicate the same values; you might be able to refer to you sister who was put into a very uncomfortable situation at work that required her to choose between her career and her principles and you might be able to tell your audience of a personal example where ‘maybe in a smaller similar way’ you also had to make some choices.
- The best source of speech material is yourself
- Look for experiences that relate to your audience’s situation
- If you cannot find the right experience yourself, widen your circle
- Remembering that the further your example is from the centre of yourself, the less unique the example is to you.