What you choose to focus on in your talk is the product of many things: the content that inspires you, the level of depth you’re comfortable sharing, and what you learn as you take your topic for a test spin with others.
No perfect order of operations exists to picking your talk topic. You might’ve already found a venue to speak at (which we get to in the next chapter), one with its own guidelines on format or topic. Or, maybe you’re starting from scratch, and you’re looking for some parameters to make initial brainstorming sessions as productive as possible. At the end of the day, what we’re aiming for is a fruitful topic you feel really comfortable speaking about.
This is a praise song for “intro to ABC” talks: if you’re feeling anxious about blowing minds or going deep on a particular topic, stick to the basics.
My early inspiration came from introducing my projects to coworkers. At my job, I focused on web performance and ways to clean up site templates to make everything load faster for our users. People would ask, “How did you save so many image bytes?” I’d break down the steps, along with the pros and pitfalls of implementing each fix.
I trotted out this presentation to more teams and shared what I learned on the company blog. By then, I could also point to huge wins from existing work as examples, and I’d reframe the topic to land best with each team—focusing on how our site speed compared to competitors’ when presenting to the marketing team, or how many milliseconds we’d shaved off when presenting to developers. Through writing and having these conversations, I grew more comfortable both building a narrative around my work and sharing it.
And that’s a talk! Your topic doesn’t have to be the most inspiring, thought-leadering idea in the universe. 101 talks are a terrific way to gain practice: the information often applies to a wider spectrum of job roles (aka more people wanting to learn), they are versatile and can be tweaked per audience, and conferences are generally eager for them. Plus, you have a built-in test audience through your work (if you’re in-house) or with potential clients (if you’re freelancing).
So don’t discount intro-level talks. Even though I’ve branched out into speaking on deeper, more technical topics, I still think audiences get the most out of my intro-level talks, because the content is entirely new to them. They’re super-engaged during Q&A, and they highly rate my talks after the conference concludes.
Another way to finding your topic: look no farther than your own desk (or laptop). What do you spend lots of your day thinking about or working on?
Large projects are great sources of inspiration, because they feature so many facets you could shine up for a talk. No matter what facet you choose (tools! human stuff! problem solving!), your future audience has felt its challenges.
Maybe you want to give a how-to on the language you learned to code a project, or walk through how you chose one tool over others. Maybe your project received feedback from stakeholders late in the game, and you want to share how you’ll get buy-in earlier next time. Or you might talk about initial bottlenecks, like deciding on and coordinating an approach that worked for all the teams involved.
Each of these possible topics contains a relatable story, an inspiration, a demonstration, or a new approach for someone in your audience. But which? To get your mind whirring, let’s check out a few facets of the challenges in your meaty project.
Examine your biggest project hurdle, and ask: Was the hardest part people-related or deliverables-related? This can help you understand who your primary audience might be, or what format (a how-to, a workshop, even a panel) best fits. For instance, talks about people and culture can apply to a broader audience, with varying roles or levels of experience. A deliverables-driven talk heavy on technical specifics might match a more niche event—or, you could take a 101-level approach to the technical bits to attract a more general audience.
Another approach is to examine the entire timeline, not just how you overcame a challenge. Was the roadblock a surprise? How could you reduce the likelihood of it happening in the future? Did it affect others, and how did you work with them or communicate the problem? Process talks like these are nice starter topics, because they have a natural story arc (encountering a problem, working through it, achieving results, reexamining initial assumptions), and people tend to be curious about how others do their work.
In hindsight, could you have chosen other, better approaches? What would you want to teach (or warn!) others, based on what you learned? Some of the best talks wrestle with mistakes or outright failure—they tend to be very relatable (aka human), and the stakes can make for a compelling setup.
While not a requirement, “juiciness” is another angle to consider as you vet your topic (a good hook also helps your odds in the talk submissions process). Sample juicy aspects and scenarios include:
Picking a topic that has some drama (and balancing that with solid takeaways) helps keep an audience engaged throughout your talk.
You have a few contenders—now size them up to see if they have enough weight to carry an entire talk. Check your topic’s potential by naming concrete takeaways, identifying a story structure, and testing your topic against constraints like talk format or time slot.
The takeaways matter the most to your audience. Often, if an audience member is employed by a company, they’ll need to make a case to their manager to attend an event. Weekday events like conferences want to make it easy to “sell” a boss on the expense and time away from the office, so they’ll construct a lineup of talks to help people be better coworkers and employees. List the immediately actionable lessons you could share from your topic. What could the audience implement when they’re back at their desk? How can you frame your topic to inspire people to try that work? Would those benefits appeal to a higher-up sending an employee to see your talk?
You also want your audience to get a solid grasp on any context they need to understand your points. Will they have enough prerequisite knowledge, or will you need to spend time teeing up your topic?
Think about how you’ll deliver those takeaways. Don’t worry about nailing down a solid outline or full structure now (we’ll talk about writing the talk in Chapter 4). Do explore how each takeaway might lead to the next (maybe you opt for a linear story arc, with a clear beginning, middle, and end) or how they fit together (maybe you choose a more thematic approach).
If you already have sights on an event, adopt its format or time slot and go from there. For example, if you’re sharing a case study or demo, sketch out the project challenge or what steps to showcase. If you’re crafting a workshop or tutorial, note what skill or deliverable you’d like attendees to leave with, which examples to present, or how you’d like to divide the time (lecture versus small groups versus hands-on practice).
Consider how long it might take to cover your topic. Minutes? Hours? (Speaking opportunities run the gamut!) How much time do you need to dedicate to sharing prerequisite context before moving onto actionable lessons? Jot down an outline, using one index card per thought, and see how many cards you need to introduce and support your thesis statement. If you’re adding more cards that go on a long tangent, or if it takes a lot of time to lay the groundwork, you may need to revisit your original angle.
Otherwise, if your topic sails through these checks—clear arc, strong takeaways, appropriate fit for your format or time—you’re ready to level up and get to workshopping.
Hooray! You’ve got an angle on a topic you believe has legs. But before you dive into writing, take your topic for a test run—make sure it resonates with others.
My favorite way to vet a potential topic is to write about it. Writing helps me figure out which of my thoughts I really mean—or which ones lead to ideas I can build on. (This is great for experimenting.) Sharing what you’ve written—to a group of friends via email, or to internet strangers via published article or blog post—can give you insight into what ideas or approaches to a topic resonate best, which in turn helps you learn more about how to present the information.
I’ve been most confident presenting content I’ve written about numerous times. Because I’ve already articulated my thought process and defended my reasoning in text, I don’t worry as much about whether what I’m saying makes sense to other people. From my public posts, I’m able to iterate on how I communicate my points by responding to comments on the article, questions on Twitter, or feedback from my coworkers. Shaping a talk becomes an everyday process—I can take my time developing my future topics and share them as I feel comfortable.
Or maybe you learn best by doing: try giving a mini-presentation. Again, you might start with friends or colleagues. Or go for an event with more structure. For example, at an Ignite Talk, a speaker has five minutes total to explain their subject while using twenty slides that automatically advance in fifteen-second internals. Sticking to such requirements (a lot of information in a very short time) could help you uncover the most important aspects of your topic. As with writing, giving a mini-talk also offers the opportunity to receive early feedback. I've gotten great questions during Q&A that made me realize I should include content on how to get other people to care about site speed; this shaped my performance talk for the better.
The paradox of topic choice is real. It can be tough to believe you know enough on a particular topic to speak on it; it can also be tough to narrow things down to the one thing you want to present on. Take time to think through your topic, and see what feels the most fruitful for you and your potential audience.