This week, my students prepared for their persuasive Ignite presentations. I also received an email yesterday from Jessica Davenport asking me about her Ignite topic for an upcoming presentation. For many people, selecting a topic is really, really difficult. How can we make sure we’re picking the right topic for ourselves and our audience?
Andrew Dlugan’s article “The Secret of Choosing Successful Speech Topics” is a great place to begin. Dlugan suggests we start by asking three questions: 1) Am I an expert on the topic?, 2) Am I passionate about this topic?, and 3) Does my audience care about this topic? (Source). Since I have too many students to conference with each of them individually, over the course of two days, we engage in brainstorming and topic selection. Last class, I had all students brainstorm 10-20 potential topics. I had them write down things they were passionate about and had personal experience with. Those lists could be as broad and simple as the example below:
Some students already know EXACTLY what they want to talk about. They know for a fact their presentations will be about music, and that’s that. I have those students brainstorm 10-20 different ways they could approach the topic of music. So their lists might look more like this:
After brainstorming 10-20 topics, I ask students to put a star by their top three favorites. (Superteacher Side Note: I’ve found that using three favorites works well for the classroom because it allows students to have a back-up plan in case their first choice gets swiped by a fellow classmate.) Then, I have them get out of the individual brainstorming mindset and get into teams to hash out the items on Andrew Dlugan’s list.
I divide my students into random teams of five. I try to make sure every group has people from multiple degree programs to help ensure a wide audience is represented. Then, I ask them to participate in an activity together with their top three favorite topics. Each student must go around and explain their three topics, their personal experience with each of the three topics, and why they think that topic matters to their audience.
My students had homework last class. I asked them to do some research on those top three topics and to come to class with some ideas on source material. I also asked them to consider personal stories they might tell that relate to their top three topics.
When they arrived in class today, I had them get back in their groups and discuss their homework. Once all five students finish discussing their homework, I ask the group to vote on which of the presenter’s three topics they like the most. Sometimes the presenter selects his/her topic based on the group vote. Sometimes the presenter tweaks his favorite topic based on the group’s input and advice. Sometimes the presenter ignores the group altogether. The exercise is important because it gets the person talking about potential topics and helps in the topic decision making process.
Today, we also put a focus on narrowing the focus from topic to thesis statement… also known as the speech’s “big idea” according to Nancy Duarte. We discussed the three qualities of a big idea from Duarte’s Resonate and dissected both strong and weak big ideas on the board as a class. I asked the groups to form their teams of five one more time in order to define their big ideas. 100% of students today left class with a solid, persuasive, strong big idea for their Ignite. And most of my students now understand that brainstorming, topic selection, and coming up with a core argument is NOT an easy task… It’s a process that takes days, lots of thought and research, and collaboration/feedback from other people.
Some other terrific resources on selecting a topic – whether you’re doing an Ignite presentation or not – include “Speak From Your Strengths” by Ethos3 and the first few tips in “Organization and Preparation Tips” by Garr Reynolds.
What are your tips for selecting a strong topic for a presentation?