"But what should I speak about?"

The most common refrain of any presenter is probably 'I don't know what I can talk about'...whereas in reality most of us spend much of our day in casual conversations, talking about 'stuff'.

When training school children, as I occasionally do, the irony is never lost on me that there are times when I have to work very hard to hold their attention and stop them chatting away to each other, and then when it is time for them to prepare a short speech, it is the same children who then say they have nothing to talk about.

So maybe the real question is:

'How can I use what I talk about anyway, to create something that would appeal to an audience?'

So what do we spend our time talking about?

Personal interests or hobbies, what we did over the weekend, our families, regular or special events, general observations about life and work, or even the occasional random, sparkling thought that pops into our head.

Good subject matter is simply, anything that is able to appeal on two levels:

1. By sharing a human perspective (so that members of the audience can empathise with the subject on a personal level)

2. In the process uncovering a deeper truth or broader principle (so that the audience makes connections with subject matter on a universal level).

This is why endless personal success stories about struggle and ultimate achievement continue to have their appeal, because:

  • we can empathise with the struggle on a personal level and
  • learn life's lessons with the speaker on a universal level.

(And there in a nutshell you also have the basic plot of most 'blockbuster' or 'romcom' films.)

Our problem, is that when preparing for a presentation we often sabotage ourselves before we even start, because we feel unable to come up with something 'significant' to say.

Be reassured: most brilliant things have already been said!

Therefore rather than looking for 'something significant to say', just start by 'saying something' and then search for a 'significance' in what you say that may work on either or both of those two levels.

Let us imagine that I am interested in the history of the railways in the UK!

Of course, the history of the railway may be very interesting in itself, especially if the audience is mechanically, technically or historically minded.

But even so, a list of dates, locomotive specifications, passenger numbers and branch lines - however informative - may still not engage the listener on either the personal or universal level.

So how can I appeal on a personal level?

By connecting on an emotional level:

  • I may be able to communicate my enthusiasm for the railway in a way that touches on everyone's sense of enthusiasm for their own particular subject
  • I could explain the effect the expansion of the railways had on the daily lives of ordinary people
  • I could highlight the resulting upheaval in personal lives and help the audience relate that to their own issues with change.

How could I appeal on a universal level?

By making connections on a more intellectual level:

  • Maybe the introduction of the railways could be shown to parallel the introduction of other new ideas that we have experienced
  • I could give specific modern examples of migrant workers who are also engaged on very dangerous construction projects without any proper rights or protection
  • Or I could try to relate the subject to a current issue...

For instance, as I am writing this, the UK government is proposing to increase regulation on 'payday loan' companies.

A financial expert has just come on the radio to comment that the loan industry is simply going through a typical evolutionary path for many social innovations: from someone's bright idea, to unregulated practice, excess and abuse, through to legislation being introduced to protect the vulnerable or unprotected individual from exploitation.

Again - are there parallels I can draw to the early days of the railway?

As speakers we may have to search long and hard to find a subject that is guaranteed to appeal to a particular audience. 

Simpler is to start by looking at situations, thoughts and interests that are immediately around us, and use them as the seeds to develop material to relate to people on both a personal and on a universal level.