What Not to Talk About
Be careful not to pick the wrong topic.
By William Daisak, CTM
“Good speaker, mediocre speech.”
Ever heard that comment? One of the first things a novice Toastmaster has to learn is the fine art of selecting a good speech topic. We’ve all heard wonderful speech topics that impressed us with the speaker’s cleverness. We’ve also heard some topics that might have worked better in the hands of a more experienced speaker, and some topics that probably would have been difficult even for a professional. The Competent Communication manual contains extremely helpful guidance for your first 10 speeches, but of course in the end it’s up to the speaker to come up with the right material. Knowing what not to talk about can be a key element in a successful presentation.
I’m a charter member of a brand new Toastmasters club. Being part of a startup has given all of us charter members a chance to learn from each other’s experiences. In a way, it also relieves some pressure. When you’re a novice in a club full of novices, you seldom have to worry about being followed by another member with the skills of a Winston Churchill, making you look bad by comparison. More likely, the next speaker has the skills of a Lucy Ricardo performing at Ricky’s nightclub. But learning together is part of the fun.
A truly gifted speaker could probably do a great speech on the topic of doghouse roof shingles, but few of us start off with that level of competence. The selection of a speech topic can get you going with a bang, or it can set up steep hurdles that will impede you. Hopefully we all know to tread carefully around subjects dealing with race, religion and sexuality. (Speakers who are not careful with those topics do generate memorable speech horror stories, however). Beginners may be prone to some more subtle speech selection pitfalls. Below are a few areas that I’ve seen give trouble to beginning speakers.
• My Nerdy Hobby – Wait a minute. I shouldn’t talk about my hobby? It’s a topic I know well and have a lot of enthusiasm about, so isn’t it a great thing to speak about? It might or might not. If your hobby is something like mountaineering or scuba diving, you probably have some very dramatic stories to tell that will work great (“The rescue boat came just as the Great White was upon me...”). If your hobby is something more prosaic like crocheting, you might have a harder job (“I had only moments to choose the right needle for the next stitch...”)
Before I’m accused of being unfair to crocheters, allow me to mention that I’m a stamp collector, something unfortunately seen by many as a nerdy hobby. Hey, I’m a very macho guy (I could show you my stamp tong scars). Early in my Toastmasters progression I decided to do a speech about my hobby. I could have done a technical presentation about how stamps are printed, the types of perforations on stamps, and the types of watermarks on stamps, but I quickly realized this would be the long-sought after non-addictive sleep inducer. Instead, I took a different slant and used stamps from my collection to illustrate the course of World War II. I showed stamps that illustrated the rise of totalitarian governments during the 1930s in Europe, stamps that showed how nations were overrun and occupied by aggressors, and stamps that showed the destruction wrought by the war.
This approach worked better than how I think my original approach would have worked, but I still had trouble getting my audience enthused. The lesson here is to carefully consider your hobby and come up with a way to convey your enthusiasm to your audience. If you’re not quite up to that challenge yet, save your hobby for a speech later on.
• Climb Every Mountain – We’ve all been moved by great speakers describing how they beat a serious illness or overcame obstacles in their lives. Speeches like this can be truly memorable. However, without sounding cold-hearted, this type of topic can come across as maudlin or preachy if not handled with a deft touch.
You’ll note that in the Toastmasters recommended progression through the Competent Communication manual, an inspirational speech is put off until speech number 10. This is a wise choice because this type of material really needs a little more experience to pull off well. Hopefully, your inspiring challenge will be overcome in time to give a great number 10 speech about it.
• What I Did On My Vacation – Sounds like a boring subject you had to write about in grade school after returning from summer vacation? It’s surprising the number of times I’ve heard speeches about a vacation trip, with pictures. Some of these have been really fun and informative. But some have gone like this: “Here’s a picture of the beach.” Click “Here’s a picture of a sunset.” Click “Here’s a picture of a monkey.” You wouldn’t do this to guests in your home (or you won’t do it to them more than once), so why do it to your beloved fellow Toastmasters? See the problem?
This isn’t a speech, it’s a slideshow. A speech about a vacation trip can work, but be sure you present it as a speech with a theme. “I’d like to describe some exciting moments in the history of Spain, with some pictures from my trip” or “Madagascar has some amazing plants and animals, as I’ll show you” or “Hoboken has some incredible delicatessen.” With this type of approach your pictures support your speech, instead of replacing it. Don’t subject your audience to something you’d hate to sit through on a visit to your friend’s house, after they got back from New Jersey (being from New York, it’s my birthright to pick on New Jersey).
• Passing Out – No, not a drinking problem, a visual aid problem. This happens if you bring an interesting object to discuss and pass around the audience. At first the use of a visual object seems like a refreshing idea, but there is a hidden danger here: The person or persons handling your object will be paying attention to the object you passed out, and they will stop paying attention to your speech. Distributing the object after your talk is risky, too, because you then detract attention from the next speaker. In most cases it’s better if you keep the object up front with you and show it from there.
• Everybody’s Talking – We had a time period in our club where three different speakers spoke on the subject of negotiating strategies, all in the space of about six weeks. All the speakers did a good job, but by the third speaker, the audience was hearing essentially the same material for the third time and just wasn’t with the speaker. The lesson here is obvious: Give tired subjects a rest.
• A Brief History of – We had a speaker who set out to talk about the Big Bang Theory of the Universe in a seven-minute speech. Although the Big Bang took place in about a zillionth of a second, seven minutes wasn’t enough time to describe it. All the speaker had time to do was whet our interest in this complex topic. Be sure to avoid topics that just can’t fit in the allotted time. If it’s a topic you still want to talk about, try to find some subset of it that can be reasonably covered in a short speech.
• “Please Listen with an Open Mind...” – There’s a popular story circulating about a new member who joined a club in an area where hunting is popular. He gave a speech about gun control and endorsed restrictions on gun purchases. After his speech, the Toastmaster stood up and said, “I’m sure that I speak for all of us in suggesting that we cancel the rest of our scheduled events for this meeting and spend the time refuting the things our last speaker said.” While a gifted, highly experienced speaker might relish the challenge of persuading a highly hostile audience, it’s probably not the best route for a novice. Also, being tarred and feathered can be discouraging to a beginner.
We all want to grow and succeed in Toastmasters, and taking on challenges is part of the learning process. However, beginning speakers need all the help they can get developing those skills. Picking the wrong topic can set a difficult initial hurdle that most beginners are better off without. Be sure that uphill struggle is part of your exciting speech about mountain climbing, not the result of a poor topic choice.
William Daisak, CTM, is a member of BPMI of Schenectady Speakers, a corporate club in Schenectady, New York, and standup comedian. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.