How to Find a Topic to Talk About Using the Inventory Method

Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from the book Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking by Poornima Vijayashanker and Karen Catlin. All of our 50/50 Pledge readers get a special 25% off discount on the book as a thank you and as a resource to help you get you up on stage sharing your knowledge.

So you’ve just decided that you’re ready to give a talk. Congratulations! Now comes the hard part: Picking a topic that you are excited to talk about.

Too often, people worry about coming up with topics that are new and novel, because they think that’s what people want to hear. But when speakers try to cover something that’s new to them, they end up adding a lot of time to the process of preparing their talk (and preparing a talk takes a long time as it is!). Why? Simple: They need to go out and research the topic because they don’t know anything about it.

Save yourself time by talking about what you already know. You come with experiences under your belt that are truly valuable to others. And the best topics are the ones that you are already enthusiastic about. Your pre-existing knowledge, combined with your natural interests, can work wonders - you’ll have fun preparing and giving your talk, and your audience will feel your enthusiasm and enjoy it, too.

Many Experiences = Many Speaking Topics

There are plenty of things that you can speak about, areas where you have a lot of knowledge and experience but might not realize it:

  • Technical topics (e.g. programming languages and frameworks, design methodologies, and product-building tools)
  • Tech business topics (e.g. customer needs, project management tools, and content marketing)
  • Personal development topics (e.g. strategies to thrive in your career or how to express yourself creatively at work)

Find An Experience to Talk about with the Inventory Method

The Inventory Method is a way to reflect on your past experiences to find a topic you’d be confident in speaking about. We like this approach because it helps find problems that others in your field are likely to experience as well. It’s also helpful to combine this method with some input on your audience, so you can either choose a more focused or broad topic, based on the experience level of the audience versus your own.

Learning and Sharing from Significant Projects

Start by taking stock of any and all projects you’ve worked on during the last six to twelve months. Add them all to a list - if it feels short or incomplete, you can also include significant projects from another time if you have some in mind. Pick one project on your list that you found interesting, and reflecting on it you’re able to pull up some memories or learnings.

Next, thinking about that project answer these questions:

  1. What was the purpose of the project? What problems did your project aim to solve? What were your goals?
    • Getting clear on the details of the ‘why’ will be helpful when it’s time to think about the ultimate mission or goal of your talk, too.
  2. What were your particular contributions? If you were part of a team, what were your contributions to the project?
    • You’ll be able to create a much more authentic relationship with your audience if you share with them specifics about what you worked on, and how you used your expertise to work with your colleagues.
  3. What were your challenges? What troubles did you face? Was there a challenge that got you or your team stuck? How did you jump over these hurdles? Did you adopt a new technology or create a new process?
    • While it’s a nice thought that you completed your project without any speed bumps… that’s impossible! In our experience, people enjoy hearing stories about what didn’t work almost as much (if not more!) than what did work.
  4. What did you learn, and how did you learn it? How did you get started on a new technology, programming language, market segment, or career skill? Did you take a class? What books, websites, or other resources did you find helpful?
    • Get into the details. Instead of just saying ‘I learned some Ruby’, share exactly what you did - was it through Codecademy classes? Local events in your city? Lonely Saturday nights at home? The details make it seem more familiar to your listeners, and they can start to see some of themselves in your experiences.
  5. What’s your advice to others in your shoes? What advice do you have for people doing a similar project? What do you wish you had known before you started? What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again? What are your cautionary tales?
    • This one is usually the easiest one to remember as you work through the inventory, as it’s the most recent. But try to dig a bit deeper - sometimes it’s at this point that a project you thought wouldn’t be ‘talk worthy’ is actually full of interesting lessons to share.

Review your answers about the one project you chose. Be honest with yourself - Is there enough here to create a talk? How long would it be?

If you struggled to come up with clear answers, pick a different project and go through the questions again. We find people usually hit an idea that’s really great after running through only 1 or 2 (maybe 3!) recent experiences or projects.

When you find a topic with enough material, that’s your tentative talk idea. The hard part is over!

Want to learn more practical, actionable public speaking tips specifically geared toward tech workers? Get your copy of Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking by Poornima Vijayashanker and Karen Catlin.  All 50/50 Pledge readers get a special 25% off discount!