How to Choose your Presentation Topic

outline of a head with lots of different thoughts coming out of it

A well-selected presentation topic can mean the difference between audience apathy and viewer veneration. Read on for our three-step guide to choosing the right topic for your talk.

Audience Issues

Before narrowing down your options, you’ll want to make sure that you’re well acquainted with the nature of your audience. This will allow you to select a theme that your viewers will be able to relate to, in turn creating the rapport that will secure their attention and ensure that your points are not only understood but remembered, too.

Let’s imagine that, while you’ve been allowed free rein over the actual contents of your talk, the subject itself has been limited to water-based pastimes.  If your audience consists mainly of first-year students, a presentation on white-water rafting would doubtless go down better than a talk on, say, big-game fishing, which in its turn may turn out to be perfect for a convention of highly strung businessmen.

By delving a little deeper into your viewers’ circumstances, you’ll be able to modify your topic further for maximum effect. Background research may reveal, for example, that your class of eager young students have just had their fees increased, making a trip to a world-class rafting location impractical. In this case, you’ll want to focus your talk on local, more affordable hotspots.

And in the case of your businessmen, you’ll want to take practical and environmental issues into account before finalising your topic and suggesting sites for a good day’s fish. It’s no good having your entrepreneurs packing their rods for a trip to Italy when volcanic ash has just downed all flights to mainland Europe.

Knowledge and Passion

By selecting a topic about which you already hold a certain amount of knowledge, you’ll cut down on your research time and allow yourself to concentrate on making the presentation as stimulating as possible. Topics with which you are already well acquainted are also likely to be presented with a more natural confidence and, if you’ve had significant experience with the subject at hand, you’ll likely find a good opportunity to boost your credibility by mentioning one or two of your own personal achievements in the field.

It goes without saying that if you have been granted full freedom in selecting your topic you should pounce upon the chance of presenting on a subject on which you are truly passionate. Remember, enthusiasm is contagious, and the chances are that when you speak on a subject that really excites you, your inherent fervour will help to keep the audience alert and engaged.  What’s more, by selecting a topic you love to talk about, you’ll be in a great position to defend your viewpoint if an unexpected debate arises during the Q&A session.

Bear in mind that the nature of the viewers should again be considered before settling upon your topic; if you’re fanatical about 1930s cinema and your audience’s interests lie in contemporary art, try to find a golden mean between both fields by choosing a topic that connects the two. A talk entitled “Snow White and the Seven Influences on Modern Art” might well satiate your audience’s desire to learn while simultaneously allowing you to explore new areas of your favourite subject.

Even if you have already been predesignated a subject to speak on, expanding your presentation to include sub-topics in which you are personally interested will give your pitch a far more breezy, personal feel.  It may be that you’ve been asked to deliver a talk on the future of mobile technology; would it not be possible in this case to dedicate the topic – or at least a fair segment of it – to the iPhone apps to which you’ve recently contracted a hopeless addiction? In so doing, you’ll dilute the monotony of facts and statistics with a healthy dose of charisma.

Consider the Purpose

Reflect carefully on the purpose of your presentation before settling on a topic and title. What is it you want the audience to learn? Do you want to motivate them into personal action, or muster moral support for your latest project? Perhaps you want to deliver bad news with minimal upset, or shed positive light on an unfortunate turn of events.

Whatever the case, the approach you take to the subject matter can drastically affect the tone and air of the entire presentation; the wording of the title alone is likely to hugely affect your viewers’ attitude towards the pitch to come. Generally speaking, you’ll want to base your topic on a particular angle of the subject at hand. By developing a concrete set of views and crafting your topic in accordance with these, you’ll give your audience the chance to relate to your opinions far more effectively than they otherwise would.

Taking the subject of universal healthcare reform as an example, you’d be well advised to settle either in favour of the concept or against it, rather than dillydallying over the pros and cons. If you waver between perspectives throughout the talk and end with an indecisive conclusion, your audience will only be left confused and aimless.  And remember that, whichever side of the fence you land on, data supporting your position should be cited throughout, and evidence for the opposing view should be exhibited and countered using strong statistics and examples.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the brain pays attention to the unexpected. When it comes to presenting unfortunate news to an anxious audience, the careful selection of focal points can help to euphemise an otherwise distressing state of affairs. If your line manager has asked you to prepare a talk concerning an impending redundancy consultation, try surprising your audience by focusing your topic chiefly on the moral and monetary support the affected can expect to receive. Giving comprehensive financial reasons for the lay-offs or repeating your speech on the company’s best interests will hardly help to motivate your staff at this sensitive time. Bearing in mind that the purpose of your talk is to soften a potentially devastating blow, the title should be worded as brightly as possible to inject some much-needed optimism into the situation.

Final Tips

Once you’ve chosen a topic, plan its contents from your audience’s perspective. Were you to attend a talk on the subject in question, what would you expect to learn, and by what means?  It may be that the use of props, animation or a quiz could prove most helpful.

Remember that an audience’s concentration levels tend to fall off track shortly after the introduction, so you’ll not do yourself any favours by including abbreviations or corporate jargon into your topic title. Instead, make the title as enticing as possible, with clear hints as to the knowledge your viewers will acquire as payment for their continued attention.

Finally, when the presentation is prepared, test its relevance by rehearsing in front of a friend or colleague; it may be that you’ve left out an obvious discussion point, the absence of which will leave your audience scratching their heads. By covering as many potential query areas as possible in the presentation itself, you’ll leave your question and answer session time short and concise – a great hallmark of any effective presentation.

Topic sorted? Make sure your audience have something to remember you by with our ten tips for a great presentation handout

By George Dixon


Published On: 2nd Jan 2012

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