Three steps to writing a better speech title

Last month I was the Contest Chairman for my Toastmasters club’s speech contest. This was the first round of an international competition run by Toastmasters. Toastmasters competitions are worth watching as participants bring their best material and their delivery is deeply considered and rehearsed. Our competition was no exception. Congratulations to Michael Grew who went on to represent our club in the Area finals.

As contest chair my main responsibility was to emcee the meeting. I had to warm up the audience, explain the rules and introduce each speaker. Before the meeting I had to rush around collecting the speech titles from the participants. I was surprised that only one of the six contestants had prepared a speech title in advance. The rest had been so caught up in the body of their speech and hadn’t given it any thought. Each of these people were put on the spot and had to think of something there and then.

The title of your speech deserves more thought.

The title is your audience’s first exposure to your speech. It may appear in an event program or agenda. It will be used when you are introduced. It is the headline for your speech and provides a big oportunity to influence your audience.

A compelling title may attract a larger audience. If you’re competing for an audience at a conference where lots of talks run simultaneously, or if you’re trying to persuade someone spend their evening listening to you, then your title is your first (and perhaps only) chance to market your speech.

The title can hint at the content or the structure to make it easier to follow i.e. Three reasons why you should vote for me. A title could be used to plant an assumption or misdirect the audience to add emphasis to your opening joke or message. Either way, your title should compliment your speech and be just as considered as the body.

Finding a good speech title is hard. It requires the same creative effort as any other element of your speech. However there are some basic guidelines that you should be aware of:

1. Write in Plain English

You should make sure that the person who introduces you will have no trouble pronouncing your speech title. The easiest way to do this is to make sure it is in plain English. If you have a special reason for including a foreign/uncommon name/word then you should include a note with a phonetic representation of the word AND speak with the your host before you are introduced. The same goes if you have an unusual name (like Gary Vaynerchk), title (like Monsieur le Président) or position (like Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science).

The title of my second Toastmasters Speech was Esse Quam Videri. I was lucky that the Toastmaster of the evening had no trouble pronouncing it, but it could have been different if he hadn’t been forced to learn Latin in school.

2. Hook your audience

Your title should be of interest to your audience. They shouldn’t forget it immediately. The best way to do this is by offering value, or posing an unanswered question.

If you’re making an informative speech don’t be cryptic in the title. Be up front and clear about what your speech will contain. An effective way to do this is to include (or allude to) a number. For example The seven rules of highly effective people or The only thing you need to know about beer. This article on how to write titles for blog posts describes how this strategy makes a strong impact:

“Any headline that lists a number of reasons, secrets, types, or ways will work because … it makes a very specific promise of what’s in store”

If you’re telling a story, or want the content to be a surprise, then you need to grab attention in some other way. Planting a question in the audience’s mind is an effective way of doing this. Last year I watched a speech by twice UK and Ireland Public Speaking Champion Simon Bucknall. His speech title was Two words, although we didn’t learn what those two words were until half way through the speech. If you force the audience to ask a question, they will be more eager to discover the answer.

But be aware, mysterious titles will not make sense when read on their own. They may not be as effective for marketing your speech, and could make the contents harder to recall afterwards.

3. Be relevant

Obviously your title should have some relationship to the contents of your speech. You want to avoid disappointing an audience by promising information that never comes and any questions that are raised in the title should be answered by the end of the speech. If your title is misleading the audience may be annoyed.

Do you have a key phrase that you repeat in your speech? Can you distill your message into a few words? Both would be good candidates for a speech title as they are highly relevant to the content.

In her book Teach Yourself Creative Writing, Diane Doubtfire describes how she chooses a title for a novel.

It is important to find [a title] that is arresting, unusual and perfectly in tune with the book.

She suggests writing key words that relate to your content and trying them in different combinations until inspiration strikes. If you use the same exercise to create a speech title the result will be tightly coupled to your speech contents.

If you follow these steps you’ll have a title that’s pronounceable, includes a memorable hook, and is relevant to the content. Now you just have to work on the speech itself.

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  1. Martin
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Great post!

    Most of what you say suggests that preparing the title is the last step of the process… but at the end you hint that it could also be the first. Have you ever written a speech that way round?

  2. Andrew
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Hi Martin, thanks for commenting.

    Check out the snowflake method, a way of writing that begins with a concept which is gradually expanded in to a complete text.

    I think that starting with the title would help you create a focused speech. It would probably be best to use some kind of “working title” that encapsulates your theme and objectives, and then change it to something more catchy when your speech is completed.


  3. Posted May 28, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink


    Excellent post. I’ve also discussed titles and think that great beats out good, better or best:


  4. marlene ong
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    I agree that thinking of a title keeps us focused on the crafting-out of our speeches; I also write the main message I want to achieve in my speech straight after my title so that I don’t go off-focus and will then be able to also stick to relevant points.

  5. Posted November 5, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this very helpful post. My Original Oratory speech is on banning dissection below the university level and you have helped me on my way to selecting a great title. Keep up the amazing work!!

  6. Saptarshi Roy
    Posted June 15, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Excellent explanation. I am sure it will help me making my future projects in toastmaster.

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