6.3 What If You Draw a Blank?

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand and conduct a basic personal inventory.
  2. Explain how to identify and use finding aids for topic selection.
  3. Examine the importance of polling one’s audience to determine speech topics.

A woman scratching her head

Uh-oh, what if you have no clue what to speak about at all? Thankfully, there are many places where you can get help finding a good topic for you. In this section, we’re going to talk about a range of ways to find the best topic.

Conduct a Personal Inventory

The first way to find a good topic is to conduct what we call a personal inventory. A personal inventory is a detailed and descriptive list about an individual. In this case, we want you to think about you. Here are some basic questions to get you started:

  • What’s your major?
  • What are your hobbies?
  • What jobs have you had?
  • What extracurricular activities have you engaged in?
  • What clubs or groups do you belong to?
  • What political issues interest you?
  • Where have you traveled in life?
  • What type of volunteer work have you done?
  • What goals do you have in life?
  • What social problems interest you?
  • What books do you read?
  • What movies do you watch?
  • What games do you play?
  • What unique skills do you possess?

After responding to these questions, you now have a range of areas that are unique to you that you could realistically develop into a speech. Here are some unique inventory items that could be turned into speeches for some of the authors of this textbook:

Richard A. Welter

  1. Grew up as an air force dependent and lived on the island of Crete
  2. Is a puppeteer
  3. Has two puggles (half pug/half beagle) named Daikin and Teddy

Edith D. Cates

  1. Worked as a teacher for the Medicine Chief of the Bear Tribe Medicine Society in Spokane, Washington
  2. Was codirector of Bear Tribe Publishing Company
  3. Specializes in storytelling

Bess E. Rigsby

  1. Is an avid fan of the Baltimore Orioles
  2. Spent a month in South Korea as part of a study/travel group
  3. Is a history buff who likes visiting historic sites and national parks

Carl N. Cundiff

  1. Briefly lived in the Dominican Republic with his family as a young boy
  2. Is a DJ
  3. Occasionally practices yoga

We wanted to note these interesting facts about our personal lives to illustrate the fact that each and every one of us has done unique and interesting things in our lives that could make really interesting and informative, persuasive, or entertaining speeches.

Use Finding Aids

If you’re still just stumped after conducting a personal inventory, the next recommendation we have for helping you find a good topic is to use a finding aid. A finding aid is a tool that will help you find lists of possible topics. Let’s look at four of them: best-seller lists, organizations that tally information, media outlets, and the Internet.

Best-Seller Lists

A best-seller list is a list of books that people are currently buying. These lists often contain various subdivisions including fiction, nonfiction, business, advice, or graphic novels. Table 6.1 “Best-Seller Lists” contains a range of best-seller lists to examine:

It is important to realize that your goal in looking at best-seller lists is not to choose a book to serve as the topic of your speech—unless you’ve been assigned to give a book review! The point is that while all these lists indicate what people are reading, you can use them to find out what topics people are generally interested in right now.

Polling Organizations

In addition to numerous sources for best sellers, there are also a number of polling organizations that regularly conduct research on the American public. Not only are these organizations good for finding interesting research, but generally the most recent polls are an indication of what people are interested in understanding today. For example, The Gallup Organization regularly conducts polls to find out Americans’ perceptions of current political issues, business issues, social issues, and a whole range of other interesting information. Often just looking at the Gallup Organization’s website can help you find very interesting speech topics.

Table 6.2 Tallied Information

Name Website
The Gallup Organization http://www.gallup.com
US Census Bureau http://www.census.gov
Polling Report http://www.pollingreport.com
Rasmussen Reports http://www.rasmussenreports.com
Zogby International http://www.zogby.com
Pew Research Center http://pewresearch.org

Media Outlets

The next great ways to find interesting topics for your speeches are watching television and listening to the radio. The evening news, the History Channel, and the National Geographic channel can all provide ideas for many different speech topics. There are even a host of television shows that broadcast the latest and most interesting topics weekly (e.g., Dateline, 20/20, 60 Minutes). Here are some recent segments from 20/20 that could make interesting speeches: former Tarzan actor, Steve Sipek, has lived with tigers for forty years; the science behind the Bachelor phenomenon; the world of childhood schizophrenia; and a girl born with a rare “mermaid” condition.

As for listening to the radio, talk radio is often full of interesting possibilities for speech topics. Many of the most prominent talk radio shows have two or three hours to fill five days a week, so the shows’ producers are always looking for interesting topics. Why not let those producers do the investigative work for you? If you’re listening to talk radio and hear an interesting topic, write it down and think about using it for your next speech.

As with the best-seller list, it is important to realize that your goal is not to use a given television or radio program as the basis for your speech, much less to repeat the exact arguments that a talk radio host or caller has made. We are not advocating stealing someone’s ideas—you need to do your own thinking to settle on your speech topic. You can certainly use ideas from the media as contributions to your speech; however, if you do this, it is only ethical to make sure that you correctly cite the show where you heard about the topic by telling your audience the title, station, and date when you heard it.

The Internet

You can, of course, also look for interesting speech topics online. While the Internet may not always provide the most reliable information, it is a rich source of interesting topics. For example, to browse many interesting blogs, check out http://www.blogcatalog.com/ or http://www.findblogs.com/. Both websites link to hundreds of blogs you could peruse, searching for a topic that inspires you.

If you find yourself really stumped, there are even a handful of websites that specialize in helping people, just like you, find speech topics. Yes, that’s right! Some insightful individuals have posted long lists of possible topics for your next speech right on the Internet. Here are some we recommend:

Using the Internet is a great way to find a topic, but you’ll still need to put in the appropriate amount of your own thinking and time to really investigate your topic once you’ve found one that inspires you.

Poll Your Audience for Interests and Needs

The last way you can find a great topic is to conduct a simple poll of your audience to see what their interests and needs are. Let’s handle these two methods separately. When you ask potential audience members about their interests, it’s not hard to quickly find that patterns of interests exist in every group. You can find out about interests by either formally handing people a questionnaire or just asking people casually. Suppose it’s your turn to speak at your business club’s next meeting. If you start asking your fellow club members and other local business owners if there are any specific problems their businesses are currently facing, you will probably start to see a pattern develop. While you may not be an expert on the topic initially, you can always do some research to see what experts have said on the topic and pull together a speech using that research.

The second type of poll you may conduct of your potential audience is what we call a needs analysis. A needs analysis involves a set of activities designed to determine your audience’s needs, wants, wishes, or desires. The purpose of a needs analysis is to find a gap in information that you can fill as a speaker. Again, you can use either informal or formal methods to determine where a need is. Informally, you may ask people if they have problems with something specific like writing a business plan or cooking in a wok. The only problem that can occur with the informal method is that you often find out that people overestimate their own knowledge about a topic. Someone may think they know how to use a wok even though they’ve never owned one and never cooked in one. For that reason, we often use more formal methods of assessing needs.

The formal process for conducting a needs analysis is threefold: (1) find a gap in knowledge, (2) figure out the cause, and (3) identify solutions. First, you need to find that a gap in knowledge actually exists. Overall, this isn’t very hard to do. You can have people try to accomplish a task or just orally have them explain a task to you, and if you find that they are lacking you’ll know that there is a possible need. Second, you need to figure out what is causing the gap. One of the mistakes that people make is assuming that all gaps exist because of a lack of information. This is not necessarily true—it can also be because of lack of experience. For example, people may have learned how to drive a car in a driver education class, but if they’ve never been behind the wheel of a car, they’re not really going to know how to drive. Would giving a speech on how to drive a car at this point be useful? No. Instead, these people need practice, not another speech. Lastly, when you determine that the major cause of the need is informational, it’s time to determine the best way to deliver that information.

Key Takeaways

  • Conducting a personal inventory is a good way to start the topic selection process. When we analyze our own experiences, interests, knowledge, and passions, we often find topics that others will also find interesting and useful.
  • A speaker can investigate finding aids when searching for a good topic. Various finding aids have their positives and negatives, so we recommend investigating several different finding aids to see what topic ideas inspire you.
  • One way to ensure a successful speech is to identify your audience’s interests or needs. When the speaker’s topic is immediately useful for the audience, the audience will listen to the speech and appreciate it.

Exercises

  1. Look at the questions posed in this chapter related to conducting a personal inventory. Do you see any potential speech ideas developing from your personal inventory? If yes, which one do you think would impact your audience the most?
  2. Take a broad subject area and then use two of the different finding aids to see what types of topics appear. Are you finding similarities or differences? The goal of this activity is to demonstrate how taking a very broad topic can be narrowed down to a more manageable topic using finding aids.
  3. For an upcoming speech in your public speaking class, create a simple survey to determine your audience’s needs. Find out what your audience may find interesting. Remember, the goal is to find out what your audience needs, not necessarily what you think your audience needs.

This is a derivative of Stand up, Speak out: The Practice and Ethics of Public Speaking by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.