How to select topic ideas for a TED or TEDx talk

How to choose a topic for a TED Talk or book

Whether a book, speech, or TEDx talk, “what is it about?” is the first question to answer. Before you write an outline, choose a title, or plan your marketing strategy, you need to choose a topic.

If you’re doing talks every week for your Toastmasters club, there’s really no reason to put a ton of effort into selecting a great topic. The point is to practice how you speak, not what you speak about. Talk about your sock drawer if you like.

If you’re composing Tweets, Facebook updates, or blog posts, opportunities are plentiful. If something doesn’t work, try a different Tweet five minutes later.

But, for competitive opportunities, opportunities where the potential to reach millions of people is high, or time-consuming endeavors (speaking at a conference like TEDx, getting a book deal, writing a book), it makes sense to craft the best topic possible.

Here’s why it matters.

Great writing/speaking can’t save a boring topic

As much as communication matters, it a great topic matters more. If you’re not sure, consider the difference between speaking about the way you organize your sock drawer vs the way you finally quit smoking.

Both may be expertly communicated, you may be equally passionate about both, but one will be far more interesting to your audience. Great communication only matters if your audience cares about the topic. The internet is a crowded place. Most topics don’t get read/watched at all, your audience ignores them entirely.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Great writing/speaking can’t save a boring topic” quote=”Great writing/speaking can’t save a boring topic”]

It’s how people talk about (and discover) your book/talk

When you recommend a book or TEDx talk to your friends, you’ll share what it’s about, not the body language of the speaker, the use of grammar in the third chapter, or the color of your shoes as you spoke, even though these things are also decisions you’ll have to make.

The topic also defines how it’s discovered and how it spreads through the world — the title of the book, who it’s recommended to and why, what section of the bookstore your book is in, and so on.

A fascinating topic gets you opportunities

TED gets about 25,000 speaker applicants per year. TEDx events routinely get 50-300. No team in the world would be able to evaluate an entire talk, let alone a sample of one. How you describe/pitch your topic is one of the key filtering mechanisms (not your entire talk).

The same is true for books – publishers are bombarded with book ideas, and one filtering mechanism is the topic for the book.

As a TEDx event founder, the topic was central to whether or not our team selected a speaker. Credentials and speaking ability mattered too, just not as much as whether or not we wanted to accept their topic. Only once we loved the idea did we see if the credentials and speaking ability of the applicant were ok.

The world is a crowded place, and if you invest in making your topic just 1% better than it was, you’ll be bypassing hundreds of others vying for the same speaking, writing, and podcast opportunities.

The question is not “what should my topic be?”, but rather, “how can I improve my topic to maximize the impact it has?” Your topic may be the difference between a talk that gets you invited to speak at TEDx, a book deal, or a rejection. It may be the key to thousands more per year in book sales (or a book deal at all). Give it the time it deserves.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Your topic may be the difference between a talk that gets you invited to speak at TEDx, a book deal, or a rejection.” quote=”Your topic may be the difference between a talk that gets you invited to speak at TEDx, a book deal, or a rejection.”]

So, how do you choose a topic? If you’ve got a topic in mind already, how do you know if it’s good from your audience’s perspective (or from the perspective of an event organizer or book publisher)?

I like to think of this in 3 stages — generating topic ideas, prioritizing them, and refining/improving/evaluating the topic you choose.

1) Brainstorm Topic Ideas

The first step is to get ideas out of your head — it’s hard to evaluate and improve something if you don’t know what it is yet. So, start by brainstorming ideas.

Here are some questions to prompt your thinking:

  • What pisses you off about your field?
  • What’s the biggest differentiating factor between you and others in your field?
  • What are the most common misconceptions about your field?
  • What have you written about in the past? (eg: Facebook, LinkedIn, your blog, Medium etc.)
  • What do your friends and colleagues as you about most?

Take a moment to write down your topic ideas based on these questions.

[social_warfare]

2) Prioritize your Topics

Once you’ve got some ideas written down it’s time to choose one or more that you’d like to pursue. Write down some reasons why your topics are “good” in each of these three areas:

  • Why is this a topic I’m interested in sharing?
  • How does this topic bring value to my audience?
  • Compared to my audience, what additional expertise (or credibility) do I have regarding this topic?
How to select topic ideas for a TED or TEDx talk
The best topics are right in the middle – Interest + Expertise + Value

Let’s look at each in turn.

[social_warfare]

How valuable will your audience find this topic?

Everyone has that one weird uncle that talks about things you don’t really care about, you already knew, or that you’ve heard 1000 times. Or, that co-worker that insists on explaining things even though you already know how to do it.

Writing or public speaking is not for you, it’s for your audience. So, thinking purely about topics you “want” to share and know about aren’t the only things that matter. What’s the value for others?

Sharing your story is great, but people largely don’t care about your story…they care about the lesson they can get from it. Your topic is not “my story of climbing Kilimanjaro”, it’s “you can do anything you want to do”. Using a personal story to illustrate your topic is a great idea, but don’t forget that the point is the lesson or idea, not the story.

Also, ignore “good ideas” that people “need to hear” (“you should eat more vegetables” is a very good idea that people certainly need to hear). Consider this – has the audience heard a topic/message like this before? Yet, your topic is not yet common knowledge (eg: people still don’t eat enough vegetables). Why not? What insight, evidence, example, or story has your audience been missing? That’s the real value you provide.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Sharing your story is great, but people largely don’t care about your story…they care about the lesson they can get from it. ” quote=”Sharing your story is great, but people largely don’t care about your story…they care about the lesson they can get from it. “]

Is this a topic that you’re interested in sharing?

It’s not selfish to share topics you’re interested in (as long as there is value for others). You’ll put in more work to develop a great talk/book, and more effort into telling more people. Your audience will get more value out of it (and more people will hear) as a result.

The theme of the event you’re speaking at or a topic someone has asked you to share are two considerations but don’t select a topic that you’re not excited about.

Are you passionate about solving this problem in the world? Would sharing this message further your career or business ambitions? If only a few people loved your message, would you still want to share it?

Five years from now, will you still be excited about sharing this idea? Are you willing to put in a ton of effort (in the case of TED or TEDx, for free?) in order to write a talk or book, then spread it?

[clickToTweet tweet=”It’s not selfish to share topics you’re interested in (as long as there is value for others)” quote=”It’s not selfish to share topics you’re interested in (as long as there is value for others)”]

What is your Relative Credibility?

Most people think of their own expertise, but miss the existing expertise of the audience. Your expertise in sharing a message at a TEDx event is very different than at an industry conference.

Consider not just your credibility, but rather, your relative credibility. How much do you know about your topic compared to your audience?

For example, if you’re a successful lawyer, speaking about how to be successful at a TEDx event will be a tough sell. In the audience are successful bankers, successful artists, successful students, and so on.

But, even if you’re just beginning as a lawyer, you may be able to share a neat concept about the legal field at a TEDx event. At a legal conference, your beginning legal knowledge isn’t likely sufficient. The “general” topic that didn’t fit for TEDx may, in fact, be a great fit here.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Consider not just your credibility, but rather, your relative credibility. How much do you know about your topic compared to your audience?” quote=”Consider not just your credibility, but rather, your relative credibility. How much do you know about your topic compared to your audience?”]

[clickToTweet tweet=”To select the best possible speaking or writing topic, consider value (for the audience), your relative credibility, and something you want to share” quote=”To select the best possible speaking or writing topic, consider value (for the audience), your relative credibility, and something you want to share”]

3) Evaluate and Develop your Topic

When you apply for a TEDx talk or TEDxWomen will you get accepted (or close to it), or will an event or audience think your topic is common knowledge?

Will people buy your book and recommend it for years to come, or will it get a few sympathy reviews from your high school friends and sell 10 total copies? After putting in tons of work on a book proposal, will a publisher be eager to publish it?

Will podcasts be eager to have you on to discuss this topic, or think it’s the same as guests they’ve already had?

At this point, you’ve guessed that an idea or topic will be valuable to your audience (which is what every writer and speaker does). The next question is, are you right? Your audience sees your message differently than you do. If there was a slight tweak you could make that would make it more valuable to your audience, have more relative credibility, or perhaps even enjoy sharing it even more, would you make it?

These are things you could guess on, but why would you? If you’re about to invest months or years in sharing this message, start off on the right foot.

It’s far easier to make small tweaks in the beginning (and faster to test different topics) than it is once your talk is on YouTube or your book is on shelves. Here are a few things I’ve learned through helping students and coaching clients.

Every step you take beyond this point will put you ahead of other speakers and authors.

Don’t ask if it’s good

Any time you ask for a value judgment (eg: “is this topic good?”), you’re putting someone in the position of either saying it’s good, or telling you it’s not. They’re being socially pressured into not insulting you. Most people you ask will try to be at the very least neutral towards your topic (think: “do these pants make me look fat?”).

[clickToTweet tweet=”Most people you ask will try to be at the very least neutral towards your topic (think: “do these pants make me look fat?”). ” quote=”Most people you ask will try to be at the very least neutral towards your topic (think: “do these pants make me look fat?”). “]

Instead of asking people whether they think it’s good, see what they do. If they read your blog post, do they share it? Do they email you spontaneously 3 weeks later to say they’ve re-read your book 5 times and recommended it to everyone they know?

Use real-life tests, not theoretical value judgments.

Consider the “Curse of Knowledge”

Your family, friends, speaker coach, and colleagues know what you do, and therefore, have a very different way of thinking about your topic than someone that is looking at it with fresh eyes.

You may think your topic is common knowledge, but others may think it’s amazing. The inverse may be true as well. To evaluate as well as possible, find people that don’t suffer from the curse of knowledge.

The most accurate feedback is from people that don’t know your message (because a TEDx organizer, someone watching a video of yours, or someone choosing to buy your book doesn’t know it either).

[clickToTweet tweet=”The most accurate feedback is from people that don’t know your message.” quote=”The most accurate feedback is from people that don’t know your message.”]

How to Test your Topic (…accurately)

It’s easy to get misleading feedback — just ask people if they would buy something, then ask them to actually give you money for it on the spot. You’ll quickly learn about misleading feedback.

The same is true for your message — asking someone if it’s good, if they like it, or celebrating “likes”, are all positive, but they don’t tell you if your topic is as good as it can be.

The best topic tests are those that emulate what happens when you actually share it with the world. Here are some ways to test your topic in a low-risk way:

  • Summarize it into a Facebook or LinkedIn post — Does it get strong engagement (eg: people you don’t know share it) or just encouragement (likes, “good job!”, “love this!”) from some school friends?
  • Pitch it as a guest post for a blog (where you don’t know the editor) – do they accept it as an article?
  • Post it as a blog post – do people you don’t know share it? Do people tell you they printed it off, read it weekly, and have recommended it to friends?

If you can get a strong positive response when your topic is in its infancy, it’ll do even better once you put more effort into it and give it a bigger platform through a book or TEDx talk.

If you can’t get this positive response, it’s time to tweak and test your message to find how to improve it.

Not sure whether your topic is as good as it can be? Want to make irresistible to TEDx events, podcasts, and your target audience?

Sign up below to get a free sample video from my course Your Irresistible Message – this sample strategy (normally only available to my coaching clients and course students) will help you 10x the effectiveness of your message for a TEDx talk or book.

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Ryan Hildebrandt
Articles: 33
  • Please send me the free sample video from your course. Also, in another one of your blogs, you mention joining Find a Winning TED Talk video series. Is this something you created? Is it still available? I cannot find it anywhere, except mentioned in your blog.
    Thank you.

    • hey Kim, that’s strange..there must be a problem with my email subscribe form 🙁

      Anyway, I’ve just added you to get both the topic video series as well as the free sample video from my course. Please send me an email if nothing shows up (ryan@viral-message-lab.local)

      Thanks for your patience 🙂

  • Hey Ryan

    I’ve subscribed a few times now – but am not getting access to any of the resources mentioned in your blog posts. Could these be sent to me?

  • The request does not get through. However it is impossible to disagree which what you have said!

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