Maybe I’ve gone crazy, but I’m going to depart from this blog’s usual debate content (with a little bit of impromptu sprinkled in) and use this article to discuss one of the most important things I’ve learned in my years competing in speech: how to choose a good topic. I’ve competed for four years and have had at least one platform speech for every one of those years, and between those and the tens of platforms I’ve watched, I feel I’ve picked up enough that I may be able to help out if you feel like this is an area you struggle with.
Here’s my main point: most speeches are either A) personal, but not relevant or B) relevant, but not personal. Your job is to find a topic that strikes the correct balance.
What’s the goal?
First off, I would offer this idea: the best speeches are the one that leave the biggest impression on your judges. Having a important, highly personal, or entertaining topic is great, but if your judge leaves the room the same as they came in, what’s the point? I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a speech that never gets ranked high and changes someone’s life than even a speech that wins Nationals and is forgotten. (Paradoxically, the speeches that really change judges are the speeches that do well in competition, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
A speech that changes someone has to meet two main criteria when it comes to the content: it has to be relevant, and it has to be personal.
What happens when it isn’t personal?
We all have that one friend who always seems to have something to say. Even if they have no experience with a particular situation, they still love to give you advice if it’s something you’re going through. If you’re like me, you tend to tune these people out: how can I trust you if you have no personal experience with the matter at hand?
This sentiment applies to speeches as well. It’s not that a judge won’t listen to you if you don’t have a personal connection to the topic, it’s that they will take it more seriously if you do. If you have a personal connection, that tells the audience that this is something truly important to you, and that you have some real wisdom to share with them. If you have a strong bond with the topic, it boosts your credibility (ethos), and your emotional connection will shine through (pathos).
When speakers choose a speech with no personal attachment to it, it’s usually because they’re trying to pick something relevant (more on that in the next section). They choose a speech that is super important or applicable, but in doing so they choose something that’s out of their area of experience. Even with an extremely deep or important topic, speaking without a personal connection usually leads to a dry speech. Stories grab attention, but that works far better if you’re telling your own story instead of reciting someone else’s.
What happens when it isn’t relevant?
As an random example, let’s say that I’m the legendary rock climber Alex Honnold and I want to give an informative speech about climbing. (Google him or go watch the documentary Free Solo if you don’t know what I’m talking about, it really is cool stuff.) My speech might have a lot of interesting personal stories and information about climbing, and the personal connection may be good enough that I excel in competition. But, that’s only good if the point of my speech is to entertain. To my audience, it’s not relevant enough to them to change the way they live their lives (most people don’t spend a lot of their time rock climbing with no ropes).
On the other hand, what if I opted to do an informative or persuasive speech on conquering fear? This is something that’s relevant to everyone: even if you don’t climb El Capitan on a regular basis, you have other fears. This gives my audience something that they can directly apply to their lives, with the personal connection making it an interesting speech. I can use my own stories to develop on the topic, which is relevant enough to truly impact my judges.
How do I apply this?
Ok, hopefully we’re on the same page and you’re looking for a topic that’s both personal and relevant. What are some ways to generate ideas?
- Find what’s impacted you
My first tip is to think about things you’ve learned, quotes you’ve heard, advice you’ve received, anything that has changed the way you view the world. If you’re trying to impact you audience, start by looking at yourself. If the topic you’re considering isn’t part of your philosophy, or something you regularly think about, it’s not good enough. Remember, a topic being interesting doesn’t make it a good speech. Liminal spaces are interesting, but they haven’t changed the way I live my life. Minimalism doesn’t sound interesting, but it’s part of the way I live.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment
If something doesn’t sound like it would work as a speech, don’t immediately brush it off. Sometimes, a topic just needs to be tweaked to fit the format. For example, a broad topic can be made more specific, giving you more time to polish a very specific thesis. (Side note: this is the same thing I would recommend doing with impromptu topics.) For example, my informative wasn’t on minimalism in general: it was three lessons that minimalism taught me. Another way you can experiment is by taking a topic that seems too common or generic (conquering fear) and coming at it from a different angle (some fears shouldn’t be conquered).
- Look at ALL your options
Finally, if it really seems like nothing is clicking, don’t lose sight of the fact that you do
have options. Every single one of us has been shaped by our own personal combination of experiences, lessons, and relationships. If we’re being honest, you could take any one of these and make it into an amazing speech. Even if some of the ideas seem silly, if you were told that you had to give a speech on them, you would be able to do it. If you’re getting desperate or just need to get those creative juices flowing, think of a random experience, extract a thesis from it, and start writing. Even if you don’t end up using the draft as an actual speech, it could trigger an idea that you eventually do use.
I really hope that this helps you! If anything is confusing or you have anything to add, definitely leave a comment, I read them all!
Jeremiah Mosbey is a current NCFCA-er who competes at the national level. Formerly a policy debater, he made the switch and is looking forward to the new experience of value debate in 2023. Debate aside, he competes in a variety of speech events with an emphasis on Platform and Limited Prep. He’s extremely involved in the speech and debate community, crediting much of his growth as a high school-er to the lessons learned and relationships made through NCFCA. Jeremiah loves helping younger competitors and watching them gain the same love for the activity that he has.