by Patricia L. Fry, CTM
©1998, Toastmasters International
Are you often at a loss for a speech topic? Do you find yourself hashing over the same tired subject in every talk you give? Maybe you're in awe of other Toastmasters who always seem to have something fresh to say. “Where does she get her ideas?” you wonder.
But if you claim you can’t come up with good speech ideas, I'll say you aren’t paying attention. Your world is brimming with ideas. For example:
In your first Toastmaster assignment, you're asked to “break the ice” by talking about yourself. Not only does this give your fellow Toastmasters the opportunity to get to know you, but it helps you get over the first-speech jitters by addressing a reasonably easy topic.
You can continue this trend by crafting speeches around specific aspects of your life and life experiences. Maybe you're in an unusual line of work or you have a unique perspective on customer relations. What are your hobbies? How do you volunteer? Do you travel?
A fellow Toastmaster presented a fascinating speech about her experiences traveling by jeep in Costa Rica and how the natives she met along the way impacted her life. I once shared my love for African violets with club members through a demonstration on how to start new plants from leaves. And another time I talked about some of my incredible experiences communicating with animals.
They key to creating a speech from your own experiences is to extract the fascinating and useful from the mundane. Al “all about” speech isn’t nearly as effective as one with a narrow focus. For example, instead of talking about your life as a dentist, tell what inspired you to choose dentistry as a profession, talk about your embarrassing moments as a dentist or reveal experiences with frightened patients and how you worked around their fears.
Maybe your job isn’t really anything to write home about. But think about what you've learned over the years. Could you talk about how to work with difficult people, for example? Maybe you're particularly organized and could coach others on how to organize their lives. Maybe you've found a way to arrive at work refreshed and renewed despite a hellish 90-minute commute. Who wouldn’t want to learn that secret?
If you still can’t think of anything about your life worth sharing, recall what aspects of your life friends and acquaintances often ask about. What do you discuss in small talk at social events? Your weekend dog obedience classes? Your volunteer work at a woman’s shelter? Your twin boys? Your hood ornament collection? If it’s something people seem interested in during social conversations, it’s probably worthy speech material.
Talk about what you want to know. Maybe you're curious about what a horticultural therapist does or you'd like to know more about attracting birds to your yard. Plan a speech around that topic and you'll have the chance to learn about it.
A couple of years ago, I got fed up with the plethora of garage-sale signs that remained plastered on posts and trees around our neighborhood long after the sales were over. I wondered if there was an ordinance against this practice and, if so, why it wasn’t enforced. I wanted to know how our majestic oak trees were affected by people driving 3-inch nails into their trunks. I thought others might be interested too, so I spoke on this topic at a Toastmasters meeting.
Two years ago, I was taking Western line dance lessons. I was fascinated by the instructor’s teaching methods and wondered if I could teach it. Curiosity got the best of me, and for a manual speech, I wore Western attire and actually performed and taught a familiar line dance to club members one evening. I could have followed up the lessons with additional talks on the origin of Western dancing, a show-and-tell session of Western dance wear and, perhaps, a demonstration of other styles of Western dance.
I once suffered a mild heat-related illness and wanted to know more about how heat affects us. I launched a study and created a speech designed to alert others of the dangers on a hot summer day.
Throughout the course of your day, key in to your own conversations as well as to those around you. Idle conversation will never be the same once you learn how to extract ideas to use in developing potential speeches. A conversation with a neighbor expressing her growing fear for her safety in the neighborhood might result in a prize-winning speech featuring steps you can take to ensure your safety at home and while traveling.
Overhearing someone complain about waiting in line at the post office might be impetus for you to create a speech on 10 things you can do while waiting, or how to turn waiting into a positive experience.
Someone once complained to me that he didn’t know what to get his grandmother for Christmas. I turned that problem into a speech featuring great gift ideas for the elderly.
We all know people who are worth talking about. For example, I have a friend who started a unique adopt-a-grave program in our local pioneer cemetery. This gave me material for several interesting talks.
Do you know anyone who might inspire some good speeches? It could be a former teacher who influenced your love of reading; an exceptional boss who earns the respect of his employees by listening and using a lot of praise; a woman who, because of a sun allergy, started making her own hats and has now created a blooming business designing sun hats; or a quadriplegic teen who coaches youth basketball.
Don’t overlook people you know, people you've met or those you've read about, as potential speech topics.
Newspapers, magazines and television are great sources for speech ideas. Find out what’s happening, establish your own slant, and you have the beginnings of a speech.
A news report on the rise in the number of fatherless families might prompt you to talk on the value of having both a mother and a father in the home. You could talk about organizations that have cropped up in support of fathers and fatherhood. Or you could organize a speech featuring 20 things parents can do every day to develop closer relationships with their children.
Keep a clipping file and you'll never be at a loss for a speech topic.
What are you passionate about? What are you pet peeves? Maybe you take your obligation to Mother Earth seriously by recycling, avoiding wastefulness and using biodegradable products, and it irks you to see fellow Americans shirking their responsibilities in these areas. Why not recycle you ire into knowledge and create speeches that teach others about your interests.
There was a time in our community when youngsters were vandalizing our pioneer cemetery. Grave markers were removed and tossed about, new plantings were uprooted. I was already giving historical talks featuring the cemetery’s earliest burials to adult groups and decided to take my show into the schools. The results were immensely positive.
These days a number of topics provoke impassioned responses: the homeless situation, drug abuse, gang violence, recent court decisions, pornography on the Internet to name a few.
Learn to find speech topics everywhere you go. For example, talking to the father of one of my grandson’s Little League team members, I discovered that he’s a professional storyteller who uses his craft to rehabilitate prisoners and help at-risk teens. This man provided me with some fascinating speech material.
A couple of months ago, while waiting in line at the post office, I met a senior citizen who works as a handy-woman. She inspired me to prepare a talk featuring some of the businesses local retirees have started.
Carry a note pad with you at all times. You never know when and where inspiration will hit.
Turn an idea into several speeches. I often give speeches on local history throughout the community. Of course, I need a little different slant for locals than I do for a visiting Elder Hostel group and yet another focus for students.
If your topic is home-schooling, for example, you could talk about who’s home-schooling their children, why they're choosing to home-school and the results they're getting. Another speech might focus on the home-school environment — how do parents keep their child focused on studies, where do they get their materials, how closely do they stick to the prepared curriculum? Another angle might be a report on how the school system views and supports home-school parents. Additionally, you could talk about the social implications of home-schooling. Are the children getting enough social interaction with other children and how is this being arranged?
Still can’t think of anything to talk about? Start paying attention. You may be surprised at the abundance of ideas that surround you.
* * *
Patricia L. Fry, CTM, a frequent contributor to The Toastmaster, is a full-time writer living in Ojai, California.