How to Choose a Topic & Develop Ideas for Maximum Impact

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Public Speaking for Success" by Dale Carnegie. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you been asked to give a speech or write an article? How should select the subject matter and flesh out what you’re going to say?

In Public Speaking for Success, Dale Carnegie shares advice on how to choose a topic and develop ideas. While his tips are provided in the context of public speaking, they’re applicable to essays, books, and more.

Continue reading to learn how to figure out what topic and ideas you should present.

Choose a Topic & Develop an Idea

According to Carnegie, a powerful speech blends reason and emotion to truly reach an audience. To that end, Carnegie advises that you:

  • Know your topic, ideas, and argument like the back of your hand.
  • Become emotionally invested in the case you want to make.
  • Develop ideas thoroughly over time.

When you thoroughly understand and deeply feel your topic, you’ll deliver a speech that just works. Your emotions will fuel and animate your speech-giving, while your rock-solid information will persuade even the most intelligent and discerning audiences.

(Shortform note: Carnegie’s advice lines up with two techniques from the classical Greek rhetorical tradition—pathos, or appealing to emotion, and logos, or appealing through logic and reasoning. In Amplify Your Influence, René Rodriguez offers two more techniques from that tradition: ethos, or an appeal from authority and credibility, and kairos, or tailoring your ideas to an audience’s specific needs. Mix and match these four appeals to fit your situation, and you’ll develop a stronger speech.)

Carnegie says that, to achieve this combination of knowledge and emotional investment, you need to pick a topic that you already feel strongly about. This guarantees you’ll speak with enough passion. In addition, choose your topic as far in advance as you can—weeks or even months prior—so that you have plenty of time to prepare.

(Shortform note: In Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo expands on the importance of feeling passionate about your topic. He contends that speaking from a place of passion will reduce your nerves, better engage your audience, and spread your enthusiasm like a contagion. However, sometimes you won’t have the luxury of picking your topic, like if you need to present dry material for a work meeting. In this case, Gallo suggests reframing the topic to ignite your passion—for instance, you might reframe a monthly progress report to be about how the team has grown and improved as people, rather than just on the numbers and metrics.) 

From there, give your ideas time to develop. The key to developing ideas, Carnegie says, is to constantly keep them top of mind. Mull them over as you have breakfast or on the way to work. Discuss them with family and friends. Think about them as you go to sleep or take walks. All along the way, keep a notebook in which you record and reflect on your ideas. Doing so will help you find and develop connections as well as new directions to explore within your topic. As your ideas unfold, be sure not to limit what you write down. When it comes time to write your speech, you’ll have an abundance of material from which to distill a clear, focused point of view. 

(Shortform note: Carnegie’s advice on developing your ideas is reminiscent of Robert Greene’s perspective on creativity in Mastery. Namely, Greene argues that creativity involves iteratively developing your ideas by persistently thinking them over and testing them out, as well as seeking connections between your ideas, thinking associatively, and giving ideas time to mature. Unlike Carnegie, who stresses constant focus, Greene also suggests taking time away from your ideas—this creates space and looseness that will bring fresh clarity when you return.)

Carnegie additionally recommends these tactics for developing your ideas:

  • Ask questions about your topic. Question your own standpoint, question other perspectives, question the received wisdom. 
  • Research your topic. First, develop your thinking. Then, find books that give you details as well as a bird’s-eye view of the topic. Get all the facts and positions straight so you’re completely prepared.

(Shortform note: Tim Ferriss recommends in Tools of Titans that you ask seemingly dumb or simplistic questions—for instance, about the 2008 recession, ”Why did banks loan money to people who couldn’t pay it back?” Then to help develop your own thoughts while researching, question the conventional wisdom and try to think of perspectives that would seem unconventional to most people. This will help you avoid coming off as trite and can lead you to fascinating insights.)

Exercise: Start Planning a Speech

Use Carnegie’s tips to jump-start your public speaking skills.

  1. Before making any speech, Carnegie recommends that you identify and develop ideas that you feel passionately about. What contemporary topics, issues, or interests most appeal to you?
  2. Of these interests, pick one that most ignites your enthusiasm. Below, list a few ways you could begin developing your thinking on that topic (for instance, by asking yourself questions about why it interests you).
  3. Next, think through whether your speech would work best as an informative, persuasive, action-inspiring, or entertaining speech. Explain why you chose that speech objective.
  4. Finally, determine where you might speak on this topic—for example, is there a local public speaking program you could join, or does your community hold open political meetings you could speak at?
How to Choose a Topic & Develop Ideas for Maximum Impact

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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