October 27, 2010

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"But what can I talk about?" Toastmaster tactics for tackling topics

This is a talk I’m giving to the IBM Toronto Lab Toastmasters today. I should trim a few hundred words from it to get it to more comfortably fit in 5-7 minutes, but it’s got the key points.

Today, we’re going to transform the way you benefit from Toastmasters. Right now, ten people in this club have a speech scheduled. After this talk, I want each of you to sign up to give three speeches, all committed to in advance. Not only that, I want you to get into the habit of always working on a talk – and it’s going to take you less time and give you more results than before.

"You’re crazy, Sacha. What can I talk about? When am I going to find the time to work on it? It’s not like I do interesting things, anyway."

I know. I’d be thinking that, too. But you’re in Toastmasters, and it’s not just so that you can spend lunch time listening to other people talk. I’m going to share three lessons I learned the hard way. If these three lessons help you get over the hump and get on with speaking, fantastic! Mission accomplished. If they don’t, get in touch with me and we’ll figure out what will.

So here’s what I’ve learned about coming up with topics to talk about.

1. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE BRILLIANT.

We have really high standards for ourselves. We want to be as insightful as New York Times columnists, as funny as standup comedians, and as persuasive as managers during performance reviews.

Me, I have days when I don’t want to give a presentation because I’m sure that I’m going to suck.

Newsflash: It doesn’t have to be brilliant. You don’t have to be brilliant. In fact, if you’re giving a Toastmasters presentation like this, even if you bore people, they’re only bored for seven minutes. You’re not going to ruin anyone’s lunch, much less their life.

What about longer talks? As long as you’re telling the truth in your title and abstract, then the organizer of the talk can decide if it’s a great fit, and people can choose whether to show up or not – or whether to check their e-mail.

There are plenty of things you can share: everything from the structural determination of organic compounds to how to buy a car from the US. Pick one thing you’ve learned or experienced and put together a talk about it.

But there’s a harder reality to this. The truth is that you don’t get to be interesting until you go through the boring parts. Being interesting is hard work. You have to figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it, and you can only do that by trying.

So after this talk, you’re going to SIGN UP FOR YOUR NEXT TALK. When you finish that, you’re going to sign up for your next talk, and the next, and the next. Always be working on your next talk.

Which brings us to secret #2.

2. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE NEW.

You’re not going to figure everything out on the first try. Have you ever heard stand-up comedians during their off hours? One of my friends was doing stand-up comedy. You could tell because whenever we met someone new, he’d tell the same joke. He’d change the timing. He’d change the words. He kept practising until he nailed each joke.

I looked up all the talks people gave in this Toastmasters club this year. There’s one repeat. Everything else is all new, all the time.

Remember: It doesn’t have to be new. REDUCE your effort by REUSING your talks and RECYCLING your ideas.

Don’t be a one-trick pony, though. Make things better. How can you do that?

Do you have copies of your past speeches? What about your notes? Your conversations? Your ideas? If you don’t keep at least some of that, you’re throwing so much away.

Everything I work on goes into one big text file. I write as much as I can. Everyday, I take notes so that I can remember, because forgetting is such a waste of time.

I might write or present about a topic four or five times so that I can understand it better. It’s part of the learning process.

I learn something about a topic every time I present it. It’s part of the process.

Your topic doesn’t have to be new. Go back and look at your old stuff. Start saving your work from now on: your talks, your notes, your ideas. Writing down notes is incredibly powerful. Over time, you’ll build this amazing library that you can refer to any time you need. In fact, if you share it with people – and it’s incredible when you do – you can get crazy return on investment. I have presentations from three years ago that people are still looking at, still learning from, because they can find those presentations through search engines.

Last secret. This is a big one.

3. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW.

I have a confession to make. I propose topics I don’t know about, so that I can force myself to learn.

It’s an amazing excuse to get going. When you’ve committed yourself to teaching people, you learn more deeply. And you’ve got a deadline, too.

Don’t limit yourself to things you know. Pick something you want to learn, and promise a talk on it. Then learn it, share what you’ve learned, and save people time.

You might be thinking: "But what can I share if I’m just a beginner?" This is actually the perfect time to share. By the time you’re an expert, you’ve forgotten all the things people need to learn. Share as you go. You don’t have to be brilliant, and you might need to try it a few times before you figure things out, but there’s no better way to learn.

If you can convince people to try something out, or help them avoid your mistakes, or save people an hour or two of figuring things out on their own, then that’s already worth it.

So, how does this line up with what you are going to do after lunch? Well, you’re going to sign up to give three speeches.

Your first speech doesn’t have to be brilliant. Look up your next goal from your workbook, pick something you’ve learned at work or at home, and commit to sharing it.

Your second speech doesn’t have to be new. Pick something you’ve already shared, and make it better.

Your third speech doesn’t have to be what you already know. Pick something you want to learn, and commit to sharing it. If you’re doing one speech a month – that’s plenty of time to prepare – you have at least two full months to try an experiment. It can be a technical overview, or something as practical as a speech about "How to wake up at 6 AM everyday for one month." Just do it.

Then make life easier for yourself! REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE. Make your own library of past speeches and ideas for future ones. Keep an eye out for interesting things to share. You’ll find yourself with plenty of material in no time.

Who’s ready to sign up? Who needs some more coaching? We’ll figure out something that works. Take that card, use it as a reminder, and get in touch with me if there’s any way I can help. There’s so much you can talk about, but you’ve got to take that step.