The key to a successful speech is to be speaking on the right topic.
There is a very effective formula for identifying the right topic. Its criteria are: you have to know your topic well; you have to care about your topic; and you must want to tell the audience about it.
This was Dale Carnegie’s approach to public speaking. The way Mr. Carnegie put it was that you have to earn the right to talk about your topic, you have to be passionate about your topic, and you must have a burning desire to talk about your topic.
You’ve probably seen this formula at work. It might have been a business presentation where the presenter clearly knew the subject well, was fired up about it, and whose enthusiasm spilled over to the audience. Maybe it was a fire and brimstone sermon that made you sit up and take notice. Or perhaps it was that ratepayers’ meeting where one of your neighbours, whom you never thought could make a compelling speech, carried the night by convincing everyone that speed bumps were indeed needed on your street. Think back about every really effective speech you’ve ever heard and you’ll discover that all the speakers knew their topic inside out, felt strongly about it, and eagerly wanted to get their message across.
If you know everything you need to know about your topic, distractions, interruptions, or losing your train of thought won’t bother you. If you really care about your topic, you won’t fall into the trap of worrying, during your delivery, about how you look and sound. If you really want to get your message across, you’ll do so with feeling and enthusiasm, and your audience will catch your mood.
On the other hand, if you try to make a speech about something you don’t know much about, you will fail. You can’t give a successful talk when you don’t know what you’re talking about. There are two ways to gain enough knowledge about a subject to know it’s the right topic: study and experience. It’s all the better if your remarks are based on both study and experience.
How do you know when you’re sufficiently qualified to speak about a subject? A reasonable rule of thumb is that if you know more about the topic than do most of the people in your audience, you’re qualified. If most of your listeners know more about the topic than you do, there isn’t much you can accomplish; unless, of course, you’re bringing a completely new approach or angle on the topic.
Because you’re going to be speaking on a topic that everyone in the audience is interested in (or, presumably, they wouldn’t be there), it could happen that there will be one or two people in the audience who know as much about it as you do. That doesn’t matter. They will still be interested in what you have to say because they will be curious about your experiences and how those experiences affect your views. That’s why you will often see a panel of speakers dealing with the same topic; they’ve all had different experiences and all have different views because of that.
What happens to the formula if you have significant knowledge about a topic, but it doesn’t excite you and yet you’re the only one available to give the talk? This is when you have to become an actor, and act as if you really care about it. Start your presentation as if this topic is the most important thing in the world to you. An amazing thing will happen. After a moment or two you’ll start to feel the way you’re acting and criterion number two is met.
You might also run into the situation where you simply don’t want to give the talk. Perhaps, for example, you’ll have to travel a long distance at an inappropriate time. In these circumstances you must rationalize wanting to give the talk. Accept whatever reasons exist for your taking on this task, such as pleasing your boss, an important client, or a good friend. Maybe your particular experiences most closely parallel the audience’s interests. Finding a way to rationalize wanting to give the talk meets the third criterion.
The confidence generated by a thorough knowledge of your subject, bolstered by your sincere belief in what you’re saying, riding on your desire to impart this information and feeling to your audience, comprise an unbeatable combination that will render a lacklustre presentation impossible.