Each time I teach a new group of students, we spend more time than they’d like to on brainstorming for a persuasive speech topic. When I ask them to come up with a list of 15-20 potential topics, they groan and say, “But I already know the one topic I want to work with! Why do I have to brainstorm more?”
Ultimately, that one topic is rarely the one they end up using. Why? Because that topic is presenter-centered as opposed to audience centered and is tired and worn out as opposed to exciting and new.
Consider the speech topics on TED. You don’t hear presenters discussing abortion, the second amendment, the death penalty, and the legalization of marijuana. Audiences don’t want to spend 20 minutes listening to that. First, their minds have long been made up on these hot button issues. Second, we’ve been hearing both sides of these topics for as long as we’ve been living on this planet. If I hear one more student try to talk about violent video games, I’m going to jump out of the second story classroom I typically teach in.
So how do people pick a persuasive speech topic? I can tell you what they do NOT do… They don’t go to Google and type in “persuasive speech ideas.” Any topic you find on a persuasive speech idea website doesn’t work. These persuasive speech idea factories are impersonal and cliché. Instead of having Google do the work for you, follow these four steps to selecting a persuasive speech topic:
Step One: Brainstorm. No, I mean ACTUALLY brainstorm. Lazy people don’t give speeches that resonate. People who refuse to brainstorm (or people who only brainstorm for a minute or two) haven’t exhausted all of their options. The best way to ensure you’ve come up with the perfect topic is to eliminate everything else. That’s what the brainstorming stage is all about.
In Nancy Duarte’s Resonate, brainstorming is compared to “mining for gold” (Source). The only way to ensure you’ve hit the jackpot is to get rid of all of that dust and dirt. After all, brainstorming is a creative process. If you can’t spend time being creative, your presentation will never touch the minds and hearts of your audience.
So what’s the best way to brainstorm? Many articles have been written on the subject, but I highly recommend Ethos3’s “How To Brainstorm Productively for Presentations.”
Step Two: Consider your audience. Audiences have seen hundreds of presentations, and they don’t want to sit through yet another boring waste of time. Audiences like exciting, new topics… They don’t want to hear something tired.
There is a direct relationship between the success of your presentation and how much time you spend focusing in your audience. It’s important to ask yourself the following five questions about your audience:
1) What do they care about?
2) What do they already know about?
3) What are they sick and tired of hearing about?
4) How can I best reach them?
And, most importantly, 5) How can I tweak/edit/revise my current message to meet their needs even more than they ever thought possible?
Audience analysis is an essential yet frequently overlooked step in the presentation preparation process. I highly recommend completing Nancy Duarte’s Audience Needs Map from her book Slide:ology for every single presentation you deliver in the future.
Step Three: Make it personal. You’ll never convince an audience to change their minds or their actions unless you can touch their hearts. You’ve got to pick a topic you know and love.
Knowing a topic means that topic is your life’s work. You haven’t spent three hours researching this topic on the Internet… You’ve spent years deciding how you feel about this particular topic and why. Loving a topic means that topic is your passion. You live and breathe this topic. You could talk about it every single day and still look forward to the next day’s conversation.
Again, consider TEDsters. For most presenters, their Talk is their life’s work. One of my most recent favorite speeches was delivered by Angela Lee Duckworth. Duckworth talks about grit and the relationship between grit and success. If you take a look into her background, you’ll find that Duckworth has been researching, teaching, and learning about this for years.
Believe it or not, there are persuasive speech topics that have lived inside you for almost as long as you’ve been alive. These are the things you obsess about on a daily basis, the ideas you love, the people and places you enjoy. The brainstorming phase will help you to decide what, exactly, these topics are. Making that topic personal by adding your own experiences, research, and stories will help that topic resonate with other people as much as it resonates with you.
Step Four: Make it interesting. Even the most fascinating topics become boring in the hands of an ill-prepared speaker. You have to spend as much time as possible making your message interesting so that your audience will listen and love your speech.
Garr Reynolds recently wrote “Lessons in Engagement from Flight of the Conchords.” This is a great place to start if you want your presentation to be interesting as opposed to boring. I’d also recommend that you craft a message that follows the 10 TED Commandments.
So brainstorm until you figure out how to put a new and personal spin on a tired topic. Pick something you know and love, something you live and breathe. Make your persuasive message exciting and unexpected. Enchant us. Thrill us. But, most importantly, put in the long and hard hours preparing so that your audience embraces and accepts your persuasive message. To learn more, I highly recommend the book on persuasive speaking: Nancy Duarte’s HBR Guide To Persuasive Presentations. Purchase it here.