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5 killer tips for picking the perfect public speaking topic

As the web industry continues to evolve, the subjects it seeks to cover multiply and scope widens. What was once a craft primarily concerned with creating fairly simple layouts online now deals in all manner of design, coding, communications and user experiences. Therefore, when asked to speak in front of an audience of expectant contemporaries, what should you talk about? Seasoned experts provide their take on how and why to pick a topic.

01. Ensure it drives you

If you're not passionate about something in some way, don't use it as the subject of your talk. "My topics usually come from things that keep me up at night," says A List Apart editor-in-chief and content strategist Sara Wachter-Boettcher. "If I'm fired up about it, then I should probably speak or write about it!"

Clearleft technical director Jeremy Keith thinks similarly: "When I give a talk on a subject, it's because I feel driven to do so. That drive might come from excitement, or might come from frustration, but it's always something I feel I must talk about."

02. Consider the human factor

The web industry sometimes maintains a reputation of being less human than other areas of design, perhaps in part due to close ties with coding. But Clearleft managing director Andy Budd says industry talks don't need to remain rooted to the technical side of things: "I used to talk a lot about technology, but these days I'm more interested in the human and cultural impact of what we do on the web. So my subjects are usually about issues that are interesting me or bugging me, like the lack of consideration many start-ups pay to design."

03. Trust in your own evolution

As Budd notes, people change, and so trust in that when invited to talk. If you've been known as the 'CSS speaker', that only works if you're still passionate about the subject. But if something else becomes far more important to you, cover that instead. "When I first started out, I wanted to share what I was learning with others, and that was the technical details of a specific technology - Flash," reveals UX expert Aral Balkan. "But I came to realise the 'why' and the 'what' are as important as the 'how', and my talks shifted to the primary role experience design plays in empowering people, and then to the topic of indie technology."

Although Balkan says his talks followed his own evolution from enthusiast tinkerer sharing knowledge to designer concerned about the direction the world is heading in regarding privacy and civil liberties, he notes one thing hasn't changed: "I only talk about topics I care deeply about, so I can influence others to think similarly, which will hopefully help me bring about positive changes that I want to see take place in the world."

04. Explore what you and others might want to learn

People giving talks sometimes fret that they must be faultless teachers, but creating a talk can be a learning experience for everyone. "I talk about what I want to understand better, what I want to grow in, and fundamentally what interests me," says digital product design and strategy guy Luke Wroblewski, adding that he's settled on a simple structure: why a topic matters; some practical things that will help you with the topic/issue/challenge today; what the future holds for the topic.

Managing director of Perch creators Rachel Andrew says she quite often finds topics from "something I have written about that generates a lot of interest," removing the guesswork regarding whether others might want to learn more about it. And Keith adds working on teaching others can be a great way of solidifying a concept or idea in your own mind: "Getting my thoughts into some kind of coherent linear narrative takes a lot of work, but that's the real benefit of presenting: it forces you to get ideas out of your head and into the world in an understandable format."

05. Incorporate your own work

We've already shown that a good talk must in some way be about what fires you up, and that's often your work; therefore, utilise that when relevant. Designer and illustrator Geri Coady says: "Two topics I've been speaking about over the past couple of years are colour theory and colour accessibility, which I have a huge interest in."

Web designer and speaker Brad Frost too finds plenty of subject matter in what he works on himself, but adds you needn't share quite everything, if you're not comfortable in doing so: "I tend to do a lot of work, and so there's typically no shortage of material to talk about. I'll cover design principles, responsive design, design methodologies, and a few esoteric subjects. But I've never gravitated towards giving technical talks because for me they aren't as fun, and I've always been self-conscious about showing my code to anyone else!"

Twitter designer Samantha Warren also finds a lot of talks evolve from ideas present in her own working life: "There are patterns that emerge, and the same challenges keep coming up, or I find people talking about the same issues online. If I have a solution or angle that is different, it can spark something." She explains this spark can come from all kinds of areas, such as a blog post, a client project, or an internal initiative at your workplace. The first of those can be particularly useful: "Blogging is a good way to start speaking because you test your thinking in the wild and find out if it resonates with other people."

Words: Craig Grannell

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