Finding something worth talking about

"I don’t know what I’d talk about," people often tell me when I encourage them to think of topics for conferences and events. "I don’t know what to write about," they say when I encourage them to blog. "I’m not an expert. I don’t know anything."

I get that imposter feeling as much as anyone else. I wonder what I know and why people are interested. I worry that the next presentation, the next article is when I’ll be unmasked as just another newbie. Sometimes I think that my enthusiasm is the main reason why people listen, because they already know everything I’m saying. I hate wasting time by not adding anything new.

You might recognize these things as reasons that stop you from standing up and speaking. Before you can think of improving your presentation skills or even becoming comfortable in front of the crowd, you need to find your _why_–your reason to speak, something worth talking about.

I struggle with this every time I see a call for participation or come across a conference I want to attend. These questions are helpful:

  • Who will be at the event, and who do I want to get into my session? This gives me an idea of the audience.
  • What do they care about that I also care about? If I can’t find something that I’m passionate about and the audience is probably interested in, then it’s not worth presenting. I’d like to avoid presenting on things I don’t particularly care about, and no one’s going to listen if I’m passionate about something and I can’t show people what’s in it for them. If I can find something we all care about, though, then it’s easy to go forward.
  • How can I help them? What can I do to save them time or help them work more effectively? If I spent a lot of time learning about something, I can save lots of people time by summarizing what I’ve learned, pointing out good ways to do things, and helping people avoid the pitfalls.
  • What do I want to learn more about? Teaching helps me learn something new or deepen my knowledge of something I’ve learned. Every presentation should stretch me at least a little, even if it covers similar ground as a previous presentation. Each presentation is a good excuse to learn. I’ll often submit stretch presentations where I know maybe half of the material, and this helps me learn even more in the process of preparing the presentation.

The next time an opportunity to share comes up–a call for participation, an educational community meeting–ask yourself:

  • Who will be at the event?
  • What do they care about that you also care about?
  • How can you help them?
  • What do you want to learn more about?

Chances are that you’ll find something you want to share. Good luck and have fun!

  • Sacha – nice list. Very helpful and I think I’ll use it for my next presentation!

    I encounter the same thing all the time. “what would I talk about?” Often, people don’t realize that they are more expert in topics than they think they are. Plus, almost everyone is expert in some topic… sometimes it just isn’t the topics that get the most notice. But those voices are just as important to ensure everyone out here isn’t talking about the same thing!

  • Question:

    Have you ever done anything to work on base creativity? I ask this as I have my OWN methods for it, but having been somewhat creative since my youth, it’s difficult for me to teach others my methodology (if if would even be in any way useful).

    My fiancee is a journalist at Reuters in Toronto, and while she’s always wanted to write a lot more stories of her own choosing, she often runs into issues with basic creativity (English is not her native language, so it’s somewhat doubly difficult when writing in English). I’ve tried to encourage her to practice writing by just picking a random idea and writing about it to see where it leads, but she tends to approach every writing exercise from the perspective that it has to be applicable to journalism (i.e. must be newsworthy, must follow the Reuters style, etc.) and it ends up being an exercise in futility. She creates so many limitations for her writing that she saps herself of any possibility of creativity.

    SO… as you write perhaps umpteen things a day, and speak in what’s rumoured to be an eloquent way at various locations, I was wondering if you ever had a time in your life when you worked on basic creativity skills — and how you went about it.

    • Oh, absolutely. I love playing and being creative. I’ve written microfiction based on prompts from a mailing list, sketched stick figures from imagination, and posted the occasional morning-pages rambling streams of consciousness. I have notebooks full of ideas, whether they’re businesses I’d like to start or ways to make life more interesting. I enjoy helping out at brainstorming sessions and asking lots of “why?” and “why not?” questions. =)

      Blogging certainly helps me get over the writing hump. I write about whatever comes to mind. Even if it’s pretty rough the first time around, if it’s something I’m really interested in, I’m sure I’ll write about it again and again–and eventually I’ll figure out how I want to say it. Fortunately, people have been quite patient with me! =D

      But yes, one must always be able to give oneself permission to play. =D As kids grow up, they often forget this, and it’s a lot of work to recreate an environment and attitude that lets people let themselves play. You can’t do it with criticism, either! <laugh> You might be able to do it by example, trying things out yourself, laughing at what you come up with, and having fun. You may not be able to teach other people your methodology (and it’s true that different things work for different people), but you can inspire them to want to get into it.

      If your fiancee’s into journalism, she may be interested in storytelling and creative nonfiction. It may seem that only a few things are “newsworthy”, but one of the magical things about journalists is that they can dig deeper to find out what _is_ newsworthy about something, just as photographers are talented at bringing out what’s fascinating and beautiful about even the most ordinary things. A journalist’s challenge is to discover the story, not just to write about stories that are presented to him or her.

      Oh, and she might like a few books I came across: Writing to Learn (William K. Zinsser), How to Write Fast (While Writing Well) (David Fryxell), and On Writing Well (also by William K. Zinsser). They’re terrific, inspiring books about writing nonfiction and learning a lot in the process. =)

      Are you in Toronto as well? I wouldn’t mind meeting up with you and your fiancee!

      • Interestingly, I have gotten her those VERY books as random gifts to help inspire. I’m not sure she’s gotten well into them yet, though. I should prod her and ask if she’s even opened them yet.

        I am NOT actually in Toronto (at least, not usually). I live in Atlanta, GA. She moved up there three years ago for the Reuters job and we’ve been living apart ever since. This was actually the impetus behind my current side company that does Voice and Video over IP. I did a long-distance relationship back when I was younger, and the phone bills were murder — and that wasn’t even international. I didn’t want to end up feeling limited in our conversations by finances. I knew a little about VoIP (what it meant, essentially), so I tried out a few VoIP services. Every one of them lacked in some fundamental way, and being the stubborn fellow I am, I decided I could do it properly if I did it myself.

        Unfortunately, this has come with somewhat of its own price. Until the business is stable enough that I can feel relocating won’t kill it off (JUST about there), I’m still stuck apart from her. Ah well. I ramble.

        I AM in Toronto on and off again, and I will be in September. In the unlikely event that we actually stay in Toronto instead of using my trip there as an excuse to explore the Canadian countryside, I would be honoured to meet up with you and introduce my fiancee.