How To Choose A Topic For Speaking

“The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” observed Academy Award winning movie producer George Jessel. I think there is some truth to that for many of us.

As a regular speaker at conferences, SQLSaturdays, and other organizations, I’m often asked about public speaking. Some ask about preparation. Others ask about getting started. The most common question is about selecting a topic. That’s one question I can’t answer; I can only share how I do it.

Sharing Your Experiences

Let’s start with the mindset. The way I approach selecting a topic is to first remind myself that I’m not claiming to be an expert in the topic. In fact, I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, really. I don’t pretend to know everything about a subject.

When I speak, my goal is simple – to share my experiences and hopefully help someone else who’s about to go through something similar. Whether it’s troubleshooting a poorly performing server or helping to coach a new technical manager, I want to give them the benefit of my trials and observations. This takes the pressure off of me.

Selecting Potential Topics

As I think about potential topics, I usually consider a few things. First, I look for topics that I’m already pretty familiar with but would like to learn even more. Most every session I give requires me to do research. Preparing to teach something is the best way to really learn it. So, if you’re going to have to do some research, it may as well be in something that interests you, something you’d like to learn more about.

I also look for topics that are underserved in the community. Or put another way, I seek topics that have broad appeal but haven’t been done over and over again by other speakers. These topics aren’t necessarily obvious at first, but if you persist you can usually identify a few.

Finally, I tend to favor entry-level to mid-level topics. Sure, there’s a lot of glory in providing the very high end sessions, but the vast majority of attendees will not be ready for that depth of content. There’s a great need for entry-level to mid-level sessions. This goes back to the prior point: if other speakers tend to gravitate toward the high-end sessions, the mid-level sessions may be underserved in the community.

Creating An Abstract

Once you’ve selected a topic, the next step is to write the abstract.

Creating an abstract is an art. You’ve got to give people a reason to come to your session (or the program committee a reason to select your session for the conference). Stating just the facts about the session in a dry way won’t do that. Make it catchy. Make it compelling.

The title is the first impression they’ll get so you’ll want to put some thought into crafting a good title for your session. Consider titles like:

  • From Zero to Replication in 30 Minutes
  • The Four Pillars of Performance Tuning
  • Manage Your Calendar Or Someone Else Will

The body of the abstract supports and clarifies the title. I usually start with a description of the problem and then talk about the information I’ll convey in the session to help solve the problem.

A Sample Abstract

Consider this real-world abstract that I’ve delivered many times at conferences and Lunch & Learns.

Say Goodbye to Boring Meetings
Ever been in a meeting that drones on and on? It starts late, runs long, and doesn’t really accomplish anything. It’s a complete waste of everyone’s time. Worse yet, since nothing was resolved you’ll have to have a follow up meeting. Argh!

In this session you’ll learn some of the keys to conducting an effective meeting. You’ll gain practical tips for making your meetings more productive and dramatically improving one of the most inefficient parts of your day. You’ll also learn how to help improve meetings your don’t run.

Submitting the Abstract

Once you’ve created the abstract, share it was a few people that you trust to provide candid feedback. Ask them for help with refining your draft to a polished and professional form. Then you can submit it to the local user group, SQLSaturday, Lunch & Learn, or conference.

For More Information

A couple of years ago, I shared my experiences with and techniques for creating presentations in an article I wrote for Simple-Talk.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start speaking.

Got any other tips that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear from you with your tips for selecting a topic.

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15 Responses to How To Choose A Topic For Speaking

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