Because “imagine everyone's naked” is terrible advice

The Idea

Sometimes it’s easy. You know that you’re the world’s foremost expert on the brands of toothbrushes that Sinéad O’Connor used between 1988 and 1991. You know that you can create a talk about her toothcare that is so poignant that it will fundamentally make us rethink our station in life. You want to do this talk.

sinead o'teeth

What if it’s not that easy? What if you’re not some eclectic expert on something? You’re interested in giving a talk, but what should you talk about? It can be a little daunting.

First of all — and say this with me — most speakers are pretty stupid. Really! They’re no more special than you or me. They just have the advantage in two areas:

  1. They’ve done this particular something a lot
  2. They want to talk about it

That’s it. And that can be you.

Keep the focus small

The best part is that you can be an expert in most things. You don’t have to give a talk that encompasses the entirety of the human condition: instead, focus on something really, really, really small and start learning everything you can about it. Your talk doesn’t have to recap everything you’ve ever learned in your life; you can spend a few weeks looking at a small aspect of something that interests you and talk about that.

What’s more, you don’t actually have to be an expert. I’ve sat through hundreds of talks from “experts” that were boring and terrible to live through. I’ve also listened to beginners talk about subject matter that I knew very well, but it was still interesting to me because it made me rethink with fresh eyes something that I had thought I had known all about. That’s really what it’s all about: making your audience reconsider their own perspectives. You don’t have to be smarter than them or even be more correct than them to do that.

What tickles your fancy

Try to avoid starting with something you know nothing about. It’ll bite you. Instead, as you might expect, start with something that fascinates you. It serves as a good foundation for future learning on the subject (and you most certainly will learn as you build your talk: when it’s your ass on stage, you find yourself working hard to avoid potential embarassment if you can avoid it).

Make sure to have a little bit extra, too. You don’t want to be stretching your time while you’re up on stage, because with nerves and fast talking you’ll probably end up under time anyway. You want to find a subject to talk about that is a little meaty, so that even if you can’t cover quite everything in your talk, you can go over it in more detail in Q&A.