What to do if you feel pigeonholed

This has come up recently for a couple of my speakers who have become known for talking about one aspect of their lives. In both their cases, while formative, those experiences were from a different time.

It can be uncomfortable to unpick, because on the one hand they are grateful for the opportunities that they have and are being paid for, and they can see the value that audiences still seem to be getting from hearing those stories.

Internally, however, if allowed to be honest they will also admit that they are boring themselves and feel limited – that talking about those past events doesn’t fully reflect their interests, identity and career now. That ultimately, they want to talk about something else…

To fully unpack this and make a strategic plan will be a different process for each speaker, but these are three things that you can think about immediately if you are in a similar position.


Break your talk down in as many different ways as you can think of. You are trying to get some objectivity about: the parts that are going into it; why you’re including them; and how you could refocus them.

This is particularly relevant for speakers who have developed a talk that is a narrative, biographical journey. You are not locked into one way of telling ‘your story’, but sometimes it can feel like it.

One quick way to do this is to make lists, or draw visual maps, that help you view the building blocks of your talk, and from different angles. This allows you to then experiment with them and rebuild, including new bricks.

Let’s say, for example, that I am a retired athlete who is going into an environment where I will be expected to give a motivational speech.

I could make lists of the following – both from the material in my current talk, and from new thoughts that come to mind: 

  • Key events
  • Key images
  • Key stories
  • Key themes
  • Key lessons
  • Key influences
  • Key quotes
  • Key mistakes
  • Key successes
  • Key surprises

I could take any one of my responses and explore out from there, to see what new directions it might take me in. I could ask myself questions to stimulate new responses…

Why am I including this? What’s REALLY interesting about it? What am I missing out? Why?

What would happen if I started my talk with this?

What would happen if I ended my talk with this?

How does it fit with something that I am REALLY interested in now, however unlikely?

Don’t underestimate the power of juxtaposition – so if there is actually a link between the fact that you keep tropical fish now, and something specific to your athletic career, then explore that and see where it goes.

In breaking things apart we can create new space to include current parts of ourselves and our careers.


Find opportunities to talk about what you would REALLY like to be talking about right now. Even if this means seeking out new settings to test your talk in. Do it as part of a process. Get feedback. Video it. You are then in a great position to proactively offer a new and different talk, and to build credibility around it. Actively target events that have enjoyed your contribution as a speaker in the past, and could well be glad to hear a new proposal.


Make sure that you are not limiting yourself because you have a talk that works really well, and you know it would take work and risk to make something new. Time is never wasted trying to create something that really fits us, and that we can feel proud of.

You can also do this in small and manageable ways, without any pressure.

For example, make a list of questions that audience members or colleagues have asked you after hearing your talk. Circle one. Take 5 minutes and brainstorm ideas for what this could look like if it was the new starting point for your talk. Amuse yourself, with no pressure. Follow a path of enquiry and see where it leads you.

Or try taking 5 minutes and write down a list of 20 titles for talks – without censoring. Which ones would you enjoy investigating?

Have fun making a talk that flies.