I prefer giving most speeches with relatively little preparation–no scripts and few rehearsals. It is a challenge that stretches me, and it is great practice for life and work. Even more personally important, it helps me speak from the heart instead of falling into mindless performance.
But if I’m going to wing it so much, I’d better have a pretty good system for making it powerful even without the advantage of weeks of preparation.
Well after years of doing it, with preparation times varying from months to weeks to days to hours to minutes to literally 2 seconds, I’ve figured out how to very quickly come up with a powerful speech.
If you become very familiar with your process or formula (so practice, practice, practice!), you can use it with detail while writing a speech in advance, you can use it quickly when you’re only given a few minutes to throw a speech together, and you can even continue planning your speech while you’re already delivering it!
So here’s the first and most important step in creating a speech:
Choosing Your Topic and Purpose
I spend more time on choosing my topic than you might expect. And even once I know my topic, the exact purpose for which I will use it can take me quite a while to determine. Here are two reasons why:
1. It is absolutely the most important part of your preparation: If the speech is going to be effective, you have to be speaking on a relevant topic and using the topic in a powerful way. It must fit your audience–their interests and needs. And it must fit you–your recent and current feelings, experiences, and education.
So even when I’m given a very short time for preparation, I spend a large portion on choosing the topic. When I used to compete regularly in impromptu speaking with 2-minute prep times, especially once I had gotten good at it, I often spent the entire first minute just deciding which of the suggested topics I should use and what the point of my speech would be.
2. The choosing process actually generates some of your best content: If you think “writer’s block” is tough, try “speaker’s block.” It can be incredibly difficult to decide what to say when faced with a direct question: “What should I say about this?” Every ounce of doubt inside you sends you into a panic and keeps you from thinking clearly. This is especially true when you’re faced with a difficult deadline (for instance, you may be given 2 minutes to prepare your speech).
But the good news is, before you throw the content-question at yourself, if instead you focus on the topic-question, content can more easily present itself. When you’re wondering, “Should I speak on that or this?” the pressure, instead of being on the detailed content, is on the general topic. So while you are in the process of coming up with your decision, your mind is free from the “What should I say about it?” pressure, and the “what”-content can start flowing naturally. “If I speak on A I could tell this story. Oh, but what I’ve been studying could fit really well into B! And I could use that quote I heard!”
I have found that, especially when under a time crunch, some of my best content flows very naturally when I’m still focused on weighing the advantages and disadvantages of competing topics.
10 Helpful Questions
So what makes for a good topic and purpose in a speech? It depends on the speaker, audience, context, time, and lots of other variables. But here are a some questions that may help get your mental juices flowing:
• What have I been thinking about most lately?
• What would facilitate a remarkable personal connection or story I can share?
• What would the audience trust me to teach them?
• What are my audience’s interests and goals?
• What are my audience’s problems and needs?
• What is my audience expecting and hoping to hear?
• What would my audience find significant and memorable?
• Do I really care about this topic and believe in this purpose, so that I can speak from my heart?
• Do I really feel comfortable and confident about choosing this topic and purpose?
• And last but not least, will it fit my allotted speaking time and venue well?
Takeaway: Remember that the topic and purpose of your speech is by far the most important part of your preparation. It must fit you, the audience, and your speaking situation. On it hangs the success of your entire speech. So devote plenty of time to choosing it carefully. As a bonus, your choosing-time just might generate great content before you even start on step 2!
What suggestions can you share for coming up with a powerful topic and purpose for a speech?