How Can a New Speaker Choose the Right Topic for a Talk

tl;dr — Speak about something that you are curious about or deeply interested in, that people are already asking questions about

“How do I choose the right topic for a presentation?”

Recently I’ve been spending some time interviewing high profile conference speakers — it’s all part of understanding how we can best help those joining our new Aspiring Speakers Group.

One question that is asked over and over again by our aspiring speakers is, ‘how do you choose the right topic for your talk?’ This question is being asked by those that have the ambition to dip a toe in the water by giving their first talk at an event or conference but are nervous about choosing a topic to speak about or deciding what level to pitch it at.

People tend to obsess over getting the topic choice perfect and that’s understandable. The best advice I’ve ever heard, however, is to choose something you’re deeply interested in, that other people also want to hear about.

Jim Gough recently gave one of the most popular sessions at the QCon conference in a presentation titled, ‘How the HotSpot and Graal JVMs execute Java Code’. The advice he gave was that the first step is to find a topic that interests you, as the speaker, personally, something you are genuinely enthusiastic about. Your enthusiasm will then come across in your knowledge on the subject as well as your delivery. We had a great example of this from Bruno Shroeder who presented at one of our ‘Lunchtime Lightning Talks’ recently. Bruno spoke incredibly passionately about Gentoo Linux — a topic probably not on most people’s ‘must learn’ list, but nevertheless was something that Bruno was clearly extremely enthusiastic about. He spoke about the philosophy and how it identified with him and his presentation was incredibly well-received by the community.

Alex Blewitt, author and editor @ InfoQ agreed that having an interest was important but went further to say, “It’s always more interesting to have a personal slant or reason for wanting to talk about something.” He also said new speakers should not worry too much about the details. He advised, “The talk does not have to be too clever or too technical, just content that others would be interested in listening to.”

Robin Moffatt recently gave a series of talks on Kafka which received some of the best reviews we’ve ever had in terms of presentations we’ve organised in the London Java Community. We asked Robin for his thoughts on how to go about finding a topic that others would be interested in. He also agreed that your own personal passions were the best place to start but he also recommended that once you’ve identified this you should start looking out for the questions people are asking about the subject. Join or create the communities around this e.g. Slack, Reddit etc. Find out what questions are coming up over and over again and prepare a talk about that. If questions are frequently being asked, then it is clearly an area that people will be interested in hearing more about.

In summary, the advice from the experts is to find something you’re genuinely interested in, find out what the FAQs around that subject are and then prepare a talk around that.

One final note, I know that some will read this and, like Bruno, know instantly where their passions lie. Whereas many might well be left wondering “How do I know what I’m passionate about?” The advice I’d say to you is if you don’t know what your passions are, follow your curiosity… it’s much easier to find that way. There are a lot of posts about curiosity vs passion online, like, for instance, this one by Shaina Waterhouse “forget about passion, follow your curiosity”. Shaina says “Start noticing what repeatedly draws your attention. You might be surprised to realise you’re often looking up information on marine biology, environmental issues, or cooking tips.”

So if you can’t immediately identify your passions, the best place to start is with those things you can’t seem to stop thinking about.

Good luck all! If you’d like to give a lightning talk about something you’re interested in then let us know.

Don’t forget that you can sign up to our Aspiring Speakers Group here.

Founder of RecWorks (Tech Recruitment), Tech Career Hacker, Java User Group Founder (LJC), London CTOs Organiser, Mentor Match-Maker

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