Finding the Talk Inside

September 30, 2019

Getting started speaking can be hard! First, you have to convince yourself that you have something to talk about… and a lot of folks get stuck right there! If you find yourself in this position, this post is for you!

Getting the ideas out

Public speaking is one of the most common fears (I was surprised to learn it ranked right behind the fear of death!) and the only way to nudge yourself towards comfort is to start. In this post, I share my method for topic brainstorming. Only you can can make it yours so, please, do whatever helps you turn off your self-doubt filter and put your ideas onto paper.

Gather a few folks who are interested in speaking but are stuck at “but I have nothing to say!” for an exercise. Tell them they will be writing as many possible answers for each of several questions, spending 90 seconds on each question and pausing to wait for the group to continue together. Being timed tends to cause us to filter our ideas less so each person will end with topics they might not have come up with if they were trying to “weed out” as they go along.

Here's my list of questions:

In case you’d like to prepare a printed handout for each participant, here is a pdf you are welcome to print.

Get group feedback

When you reach the end of the list, group members swap papers and mark all the ideas they would like to learn more about. Swap as many times as you’d like and if the group is interested, ask folks to elaborate on their selections, either to the group or the partner they reviewed for (in quieter groups, sharing feedback between partners is helpful but sharing with the group allows all to benefit). You’ll quickly see how interesting your ideas are and will likely hear some helpful suggestions to the tune of “I’d especially like to hear about this aspect of this topic.”

A few pieces of group feedback are especially helpful to participants:

I’ve found that this is usually best given in a wrap-up discussion to the group.

a worksheet divided into eight segments has the result of a topic brainstorm session

The best part: Everyone goes home with a sheet of ideas, annotated by a supportive crew. This example gives a snapshot of what interested & vexed me in my first year of coding.

Admire your work

This exercise helps build some very important muscles! You’ll become a successful speaker much faster if you embrace the vulnerability and don’t give into the temptation to undersell your ideas, either to yourself or others! It is common, when asking for help, for folks to share their (often fantastic) idea and then immediately hedge with “oh but I’m not sure it will work”, “sorry to bother you”, etc. One reason this exercise is helpful is that the group offers a good dose of affirmation before you can talk yourself out of your best ideas!

Folks interested in another version of this exercise can find one here.

Hope you enjoy and if you have any thoughts feel free to comment at the bottom or reach out via twitter or email.


Two years ago, I was staring at an empty page labeled “Talk ideas” at the top. Like many, I wanted to speak but was pretty sure I would never be able to pick a topic that would give me the chance to be selected. This year, I’ve shared three talks at 18 conferences. There was a lot to learn along the way but the first, most difficult, and most important step was to realize that I had experiences and knowledge worth sharing and that, yes, this knowledge could be moulded into a 30 minute brainshare that people would want to actually hear.