Manner of Speaking: Looking for a Speech Idea?

Manner of Speaking: Looking for a Speech Idea?

Think of a universal theme and apply it to your own life. 

By Ron Palermo, DTM

Next Friday is your club’s International Speech Contest. The last few days have been overwhelming as you have felt pressured to come up with a brilliant theme. You practically drive yourself insane worrying about what to say as you search for a theme for all ages.

Relax! The good news is that virtually all the speeches that have won the World Championship of Public Speaking follow a trend: All the champions took an old theme and, by applying their own spin, made the speech fresh and memorable.

How can this be true? Aren’t we speaking to intelligent audiences that have heard, seen and felt it all? Many seasoned Toastmasters have listened to hundreds, maybe even thousands of speeches. Don’t we need to impress them? Shouldn’t we blow them away with a brilliant new idea?

The simple answer is no. In fact, there are only a few universal themes that appeal to the human heart and mind. It’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll come up with an unprecedented concept.

Western beliefs support this position. The Biblical passage Ecclesiastes 1:9 states “...there is nothing new under the sun.” A Professor of rhetoric once told me that the Ancient Greeks considered all the important themes and what we discuss today are merely footnotes. Even Shakespeare was known to have used very few original ideas, “stealing” his material from the great storytellers who preceded him.

Instead of trying the nearly impossible, why not use a proven formula? Use an old theme and say it your way. We see this pattern of an old idea presented in a fresh manner year after year at the world championships, and the last few have not been exceptions.

In 2004, World Champion Randy Harvey spoke on the age-old theme of a father-and-son relationship in his speech titled “Fat Dad.” He told a touching story about his father’s role modeling. We all knew the importance of good parenting. We learned that not only are the sins of our fathers passed from generation to generation, their good deeds are too.

2005 International Champion Lance Miller followed the same pattern. His speech was titled “The Ultimate Question.” Although it was a profound-sounding title, it did not delve into a metaphysical concept. It was about validating people wherever and whenever you can. And although the theme was simple, the speech had a profound effect on my life as I’ve tried to incorporate Lance’s advice throughout my everyday experiences.

In Washington, D.C., last August, our current World Champion, Ed Hearn, followed the pattern. In “Bouncing Back,” Ed said “Success in life is only about 10 percent of what happens to you; the other 90 percent is what you do about it.” He reinforced a concept we often hear and know in our hearts. His illustrations using a metaphoric punching bag helped us visualize this theme in his unique way.

This issue of newness versus universality reminds me of a heated debate that occurred several years ago between the blockbuster movie Titanic director James Cameron and Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan. In one of a series of scathing reviews, Turan attributed the tremendous commercial success of the film to his belief that “...audiences have been sadly eager to embrace a film a witless counterfeit....”

After ignoring the countless other attacks, Cameron could no longer keep silent. In a letter to the editor, the movie director responded to the critique by stating that “this is paternalism and elitism in its worst form and utterly insults the audience.” He went on to argue that Titanic’s success was attributed to fulfilling the audience’s needs in its use of universal themes such as the dichotomies of marrying for love versus security and machine versus nature, as well as many others.

If audience approval is the measure of success – a goal of every Toastmaster – then I believe Cameron was the clear winner in that debate.

Next time you need to find something to say, simply think of a universal theme and apply it to your own life. You will discover something that appeals to any audience. Save time trying to attain the elusive new idea. Do something better; find your idea!

Ron Palermo, DTM, is a member of Adelante club 9020-55 and can be contacted at