How to Find Your Subject

If you want to be a more effective communicator, you’ll remember from last week’s post that no matter what your subject, you must incorporate your “passion.”

But how do you find your passion?

What subject will inspire? When you’re not assigned a topic, what do you talk about? When you are assigned a speaking topic, what “passion,” if shared, will make a difference?

You might want to read last week’s post: “Ignore Your Assignments” before reading this post.

What is “Passion?”

In public speaking, “passion” is not necessarily your love, or your hobbies, so much as it is your core beliefs and values. What is that personal “so what” factor for you?

Great presentation skills require that you tap into that inner passion.

If you have parents, you can probably tell me what stories they tell over and over. If you have kids, they can probably tell you what advice you tend to give over and over. It’s easy to see in others the values they hold dear. But it’s much harder to know this about yourself.

If you want to sound authentic, authoritative, and interesting, you must include those core elements of yourself, but first you have to know what they are.

Maybe you’re motivated by family. Maybe you’re motivated to altruism. Maybe you’re a perfectionist, or maybe you’re a persistent devil’s advocate.

What is your core “passion?”

Start with Memories

Brain_powerIt’s a pretty safe bet to say that you remember things that you care about. If you remember something, then something about that experience was important to you. So let’s start with memories.

Make a list of memories. Your list will include include childhood memories, lessons learned, mistakes, triumphs, and dreams. Generally speaking, this exercise will work better if you return to childhood or young adult memories rather than more recent events.

You might find that it’s easy to list a hundred different powerful memories. On the other hand, if you’re like me, your list (your memory) might be lacking.

If you’re struggling to find powerful memories, stop. They don’t have to be “powerful!” You’re not looking for exceptional, out of the ordinary experiences. No matter how seemingly mundane, the very fact that you remember something from so long ago proves that is had a “powerful” effect on you–even if the memory itself doesn’t seem so noteworthy.

I recommend a technique I read about many years ago in a book called “Did I ever tell you about the time…” by Grady Jim Robinson.

Simply make a physical or mental map of your childhood home, and in your mind walk in the front door and tour the house. As you walk around this virtual map, make a note of significant memories from different locations in that home. You can do the same exercise with outdoor locations, recreational destinations, or workplaces.

If you need more ideas, go through a list of important people in your life, and see what memories come to mind for each.

By the time you are done, you should have many dozens of memories on the list.

Pick the top 10-20 memories that feel important to you even if they are mundane or may not appear significant to someone else.

For example, my list looks like this:

  • Vacation with Mom
  • First public speaking anxiety attack
  • Eating cow brains
  • Business failure in high school
  • Helping my dad with the computer

My real list is much longer, I just want to give you an example of the general idea.

Find Meaning

so-what-1462746_640Once you have a list of 10-20 memories, go through the list one by one and write a sentence to explain why you think you’ve retained the memory, or what you learned from the experience.

You remember these experiences for a reason. Write down that reason. My list looks something like this:

  • My trip Mom taught me to take advantage of opportunity
  • My public speaking anxiety attack taught me not to give up
  • My eating weird food made me feel proud to have accomplished something
  • My business in high school helped me appreciate failure
  • I remember Helping Dad with the computer because it frustrated me when he didn’t figure it out himself.

Find Common Themes

As you start writing these “WHY” sentences you will start to see some common themes. When I did this exercise myself I ended up with about 4 or 5 common themes that applied to almost every single one of my memories.

For example, as I thought about the above list, every one of those five sentences on my list can be summarized in one word: TRY!


Those experiences taught me to TRY. It frustrated me in life when others did not TRY, and I learned valuable life lessons when I did TRY, and I regret those times when I did not TRY.

This is one of my core life values: TRY!

There is no right or wrong answer. There is no set number of themes that you could or should find. Your values don’t have to match mine. Just write down the core values you find in your memories.

Like in my example, “try,” your core values may be easier to phrase in terms of a lesson learned or advice you would give to someone else.

Speak Your Passion

Next time you have to give a presentation, or next time you are asked to do public speaking, take one of those core values and relate it to your subject. It’s a lot easier than it may sound.

  • When I’m teaching a public speaking class, I might be tempted to talk about “public speaking.”
  • When I take my kids out to diner I might be tempted to talk about how much I love the crab salad.
  • When I’m writing a eulogy, I might be tempted to talk about the dead guy.
  • When I’m running a team meeting at work, I might be tempted to talk about the to-do list at work.

All of those approaches would be less effective because they focus on a SUBJECT isolated from feeling. The more effective approach is to always begin with my PASSION FIRST.

Never talk about an assigned subject. Talk about how your passion relates to the assigned subject.

Here’s a better way:

  • When I’m teaching a public speaking class, I should talk about how my public speaking skills changed when I was willing to TRY new techniques. Then, encourage my audience to TRY as well.
  • When I take my kids out to dinner I should talk about how I love to TRY new food, and how I would be proud of them for trying the crab salad.
  • When I’m writing a eulogy, I should remember that time that the deceased gave me a good example of TRYING — because that affected me.
  • When I’m running a team meeting at work, I should talk about how we’ll never succeed with our to-do list unless we TRY.

What’s your subject?
What should you talk about?
What do you say?

In case you didn’t catch on yet, besides “trying,” one of my core values is the need to share your core values. Authentic, powerful communication requires you to share your true passions. This blog post wasn’t about public speaking, it was about one of my core values–“share the real you.”

That single epiphany, “share the real you,” began my personal transformation from anxiety ridden awkwardness into presentation skills mastery.

Remember your feelings. Identify your core values. Share your passion. The rest will be easy.

"Core Memories" images from Disney's "Inside Out"

Quick Tip: Ignore Your Assignments

If you want to be a better communicator then … whatever “they” ask you to speak about … whatever “they” expect … whatever they assign you … ignore it!

But how … but what if … but, but, but … I have to …

Let me explain.

Speaking Without Passion

Have you ever been asked to comment on a subject you found incredible uninteresting? Have you ever been assigned to report, speak, or present a mundane topic? Have you ever been nervous because you were assigned a sensitive topic or potentially embarrassing task?

For example, if you have kids, you’ve probably been invited to to your child’s classroom around about fifth grade to sit with your child through a “sexual maturation” lesson. If your experience has been anything like mine, the adults teaching those lessons are usually so afraid of how the kids (or the parents) might react that they literally waste an hour of your life by talking for an hour without actually saying anything. It’s painful!

checklist-310092_640It doesn’t have to be that way. The problem is that those “teachers” don’t really want to give that lecture. I promise every one of those “teachers” have a “passion” or strong emotional feelings of some sort related to the subject of “sexual maturation,” but they’re not talking about THEIR passion, they’re ticking off a list of assigned topics just to get their assignment over with.

I spent years creating a presentation skills system, with dozens of step-by-step communication techniques. But to be honest, the single most important part of public speaking is something I can’t boil down into a step-by-step formula. But I’m going to try anyway … Here it goes …

Step 1: Ignore the Assignment

The most important ingredient in public speaking (or communication in general) is true passion and genuine enthusiasm about your message. Unfortunately, you can almost never have true passion and genuine enthusiasm about somebody else’s checklist. That’s the problem!

Authentic excitement and energy doesn’t come from completing an assignment that “they” give you. True passion, only comes from within, not from without. Therefore:

Never speak about an assigned subject!

At least at the beginning, you have to ignore the assignment. Whether you’ve been asked to give a quarterly report, asked to give a sales presentation, asked to give a eulogy, asked to call an irate client, asked to present a proposal to management, asked to teach a Sunday school class on “Jesus,” or asked to teach a “sexual maturation” seminar … step number is the same:

Step 1: Never speak about an assigned subject!

Did I just tell you to ignore “Jesus” when teaching  a Sunday School class?

Yes! Yes I did! … at least for a little while.

Step 2: Talk about YOUR passion

I love trees … and you probably couldn’t care less that I love trees! But, on the other hand, you don’t really care what I think about “sexual maturation” either!


You’re essentially neutral when it comes to my musings on sexuality versus my discourses on trees. Talking about sexual maturation can be uncomfortable, but I LOVE trees!

So let me ask you this–if you had to be locked in a room and you were forced to listen to me ramble on about one subject or the other, would you prefer that I talk about trees, or sex?

I suspect the voting will be nearly unanimous. And just in case you were the exception, let me assure you–you want to hear me talk about trees!

I love trees!

All else being equal, you want to hear me talk about the subject I care most about, the subject I know must about, and the subject for which I have the most enthusiasm!

There is a reason nobody buys tickets to go to “Adele lectures on the allegory of trees.” We buy tickets to hear her do what she does best–her passion–her singing!

It doesn’t matter what topic you were assigned, step number two is the same:

Step 2: Talk about your passion

As long as you are talking about one of your passions you will be more energetic, more genuine, more authoritative, and more interesting!

In other words, you DO want to hear ME talk about the “allegory of trees!”

Step 3: Make the Connection

The last step is easy:

Step 3: Show me what your passion has to do with the assigned topic

I once had the opportunity to teach a Sunday School class at my church, and I practically begged to teach the lesson on sex. To be honest, it wasn’t a tough sell, because nobody else felt comfortable teaching the subject.

Why was I so excited to teach an awkward subject?

Because I had no intention of talking about sex — I wanted to talk about trees!

And it just so happens that trees make a wonderful metaphor for intimacy … and business … and relationships … and public speaking skills … and so on.

When you talk about something you love, I promise, it will be really easy for you to relate that passion back to the subject at hand.

I promise you can relate your passions to the quarterly report, or the sales presentation, or the eulogy, or the irate client, or the management proposal, or to “Jesus.”

The audience will notice that you gave one of the best presentations they’ve ever heard on < Insert assigned subject here >, they just won’t have any idea how you did it.

If you’ve ever been to one of my classes, you’ve probably heard me talk about trees, but you probably didn’t notice. You probably thought I was talking about public speaking techniques.

That’s the beauty of it.

You get to talk about what you love, but the audience gets to hear what they need.
You have more enthusiasm, even if the assigned subject is dull.
You convey authority on your passion, even if you’re not an authority on the assignment.
You need less preparation, yet you sound more prepared.
You sound completely genuine, because … you are!

All you have to do, is ignore the assignment.

Image source:

Quick Tip: Avoid “Absent-minded” Presentations

Let me give you one simple rule that will make your presentations more engaging and more persuasive at the same time.

Most public speakers are very “absent-minded.” I don’t mean that typical presenters are “absentminded,” in the sense that they forget things.  I mean that most speakers talk about people who are “absent.” They use words that put people’s minds on groups and individuals that aren’t in the room. Continue reading Quick Tip: Avoid “Absent-minded” Presentations