Chapter 4: Developing Topics for Your Speech
After reading this chapter, the student will be able to:
- Distinguish between the specific purpose, central idea, and main points of a speech;
- Differentiate between a speech to inform, persuade, and inspire or entertain;
- Write a specific purpose statement;
- Write a thesis or central idea statement;
- Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable specific purpose and central idea statements;
- Compose appropriate specific purpose and central idea statements for informative, persuasive, and inspirational/entertaining speeches.
4.1 – Getting Started with Your Topic
4.2 – Formulating a Specific Purpose Statement
4.3 – Formulating a Central Idea Statement
4.4 – Problems to Avoid with Specific Purpose and Central Idea Statements
4.1 – Getting Started with Your Topic and Purpose
So far in this book we have examined many practical and theoretical aspects of public speaking as a method of communicating and as an art form. In this chapter we are going to get into the real meat of putting your speech together.
Often when we get to the point of sitting down to prepare a speech, we think about topics. That is understandable, but before we go any further, let’s recalibrate our minds to think also, or even more, about “purpose.” There are some benefits to considering purpose and topic simultaneously. Doing so will help you focus your speech to a manageable amount of content and become more audience-centered. Also you will be able to make strategic decisions about other aspects of the speech, such as organization, supporting evidence, and visual aids.
Speeches have traditionally been seen to have one of three broad purposes: to inform, to persuade, and— Well, to be honest, different words are used for the third kind of speech purpose: to inspire, to amuse, to please, to delight, or to entertain. We will just use “to inspire” as the overall term here. These broad goals are commonly known as a speech’s general purpose, since, in general, you are trying to inform, persuade, or entertain/inspire your audience without regard to specifically what the topic will be. Perhaps you could think of them as appealing to the understanding of the audience (informative), the will or action (persuasive), and the emotion or pleasure.
Your instructor will most likely assign you an informative and a persuasive speech, and then perhaps one more. The third one might be a special occasion speech, such as a tribute (commemorative), an after-dinner speech, a toast, or a eulogy. These four types of speeches fit into the category of “to inspire” or “to entertain.” This book has chapters on and examples of all three types (Chapters 12, 13, and 15).
It should be understood that these three purposes are not necessarily exclusive of the others. A speech designed to be persuasive can also be informative and entertaining, even if neither of those is the main purpose.
As we saw in Chapter 1, the canons of rhetoric is the traditional way to explain the process of preparing a speech. That process is still a practical guide for today. The first canon, invention, or inventio, is discussed, at least in part, in this chapter. (Actually chapters 5, 7, 12, and 13 also deal with invention.) Although in modern times we tend to think of invention as the creation of a new technology, invention basically means “discovery” of what to say.
The scholars of rhetoric from the ancient times encouraged the use of questions to “discover” the arguments and content of the speech. These were called “topoi” and there were a couple of dozen of them; modern scholars have reframed them as questions that can be used to develop reasons and material. These can be helpful in many ways, but here we will present just two basic questions you should consider for beginning your speech:
- What value, connection, or interest does my purpose/topic have for the audience? What needs do they meet? and
- Why would the audience consider me, the speaker, a credible source on this purpose/topic?
We suggest that these two questions be in your mind as you develop your speech. You should answer them, directly or indirectly, for your audience in your speech. If your audience is unfamiliar with your topic, for instance, you would want to address the first one early in the speech. If your audience does not know anything about you, you should mention (in an appropriate way) your background in the subject area.
One of the authors has a core concept in her basic public speaking classes: The most effective speeches are the ones that answer the questions in the minds of the audience. She uses that to change the students’ focus from speaking just to express themselves to being audience-centered. She also uses the acronym “WIIFM.” This is not a new radio station, but the abbreviation for “What’s In It For Me?” The audience is asking this question, directly or indirectly, during a speech. Keep the WIIFM acronym in mind as you start to think about your speeches more and more from your audience’s perspective.
4.2 – Formulating a Specific Purpose Statement
Now that you know your general purpose (to inform, to persuade, or to entertain), you can start to move in the direction of the specific purpose. A specific purpose statement builds on your general purpose (such as to inform) and makes it more specific (as the name suggests). So if your first speech is an informative speech, your general purpose will be to inform your audience about a very specific realm of knowledge, for example, the history of NASA’s Shuttle program.
In writing your specific purpose statement, you will take three contributing elements that will come together to help you determine your specific purpose. The diagram in Figure 4.1 shows those three elements. These three elements are you (your interests, your background, past jobs, experience, education, major), your audience (which you learned to analyze in Chapter 2), and the context or setting (also discussed in Chapter 2).
An old adage states, “Write about what you know.” In many ways, that is a great place to start with creating a speech, although you will need to consult other sources as well. If you start with ideas that reflect your interests, goals, and passions, that passion and commitment will come across in your speech, give you more credibility in the eyes of your audience, and make your speech more interesting.
This would be a good place for you to do an inventory. Retail stores do regular inventories to know what is “really there” in the stores. You have much more going on in your brain and background than you can be conscious of at any one time. Being asked the right kinds of prompts can help you find ideas. Figure 4.2 is a list of prompts for this inventory. To help generate some ideas for your speeches, complete the phrases and/or answer the questions in Figure 4.2 to see if any ideas can be generated from experiences or interests you may not have realized you had.
This inventory may seem long and intrusive, but digging a little deeper may help you find ideas and directions that are unique to you. You want to find this kind of subject matter and not the same topics others will gravitate towards just because they saw a list on Google on informative speech topics. Also, generating your list based on these questions and prompts will get you excited about your topic and talking about it to your classmates. For example, a very common persuasive speech topic is organ donation. There is nothing wrong with that topic per se and it is an important issue. However, if you ask yourself the right questions, you may come up with something far more central to who you are and that might interest and/or apply to the audience more.
Another approach that you might find helpful is to determine what you are passionate about through two binary routes. First, you will obviously be passionate about the things you love, so talk about those. Is The Simpsons your favorite TV show? Then you can inform us on the people and vision of the team behind this highly popular and long-running TV show. Do you feel that Big Brothers Big Sisters is a vital organization in the way it helps kids? Then persuade us to volunteer there. Conversely, you can also be passionate about things you don’t love (i.e., hate). Does it really annoy you when people don’t use their turn signals? Then persuade us to always use them. Do you want to scream when you hear a cell phone go off at the movies? Then persuade us that cell phones should be banned in theaters.
Of course, what you love or hate may be in stark contrast to how your audience feels, so it is important to keep them in mind as well, which brings us to the next contributing factor. After you examine what you know and are passionate about, you have to determine if and how the topic has practical value or interest for others. It may be that it is a topic the audience is not immediately interested in but needs to know about for their own benefit. Then it becomes necessary for you to find that angle and approach that will help them see the benefit of the topic and listen to you. The more you know about your audience, the better you can achieve this goal. Good speakers are very knowledgeable about their audiences.
Many aspects come into the context of a speech, but as mentioned in Chapter 2, the main ones are the time, place, and reason(s) for the event and the audience being there. Your classroom speeches have a fairly set context: time limits, the classroom, assignment specifications. Other speeches you will give in college (or in your career and personal life) will require you to think more deeply about the context just as you would the audience.
Putting It Together
Keeping these three inputs in mind, you can begin to write a specific purpose statement, which will be the foundation for everything you say in the speech and a guide for what you do not say. This formula will help you in putting together your specific purpose statement:
Specific Communication Word (in infinitive phrase) (to inform, to explain, to demonstrate, to describe, to define, to persuade, to convince, to prove, to argue)
Target Audience (my classmates, the members of the Social Work Club, my coworkers)
The Content (how to bake brownies, that Macs are better than PCs)
Each of these parts of the specific purpose is important. The first two parts make sure you are clear on your purpose and know specifically who will be hearing your message. However, we will focus on the last part here.
The content part of the specific purposes statement must first be singular and focused, and the content must match the purpose. The word “and” really should not appear in the specific purpose statement since that would make it seem that you have two purposes and two topics. Obviously, the specific purpose statement’s content must be very narrowly defined and, well, specific. One mistake beginning speakers often make is to try to “cover” too much material. They tend to speak about the whole alphabet, A-Z on a subject, instead of just “T” or “L.” This comes from an emphasis on the topic more than the purpose, and from not keeping audience and context in mind. In other words, go deep (specific), not broad. Examples in this chapter will show what that means.
Second, the content must match the focus of the purpose word. A common error is to match an informative purpose with a persuasive content clause or phrase. For example,
To explain to my classmates why term life insurance is a better option than whole life insurance policies.
To inform my classmates about how the recent Supreme Court decision on police procedures during arrests is unconstitutional.
Sometimes it takes an unbiased second party to see where your content and purpose may not match.
Third, the specific purpose statement should be relevant to the audience. How does the purpose and its topic touch upon their lives, wallets, relationships, careers, etc.? It is also a good idea to keep in mind what you want the audience to walk away with or what you want them to know, to be able to do, to think, to act upon, or to respond to your topic—your ultimate outcome or result.
To revisit an earlier example, “to explain to my classmates the history of NASA” would be far too much material and the audience may be unsure of its relevance. A more specific one such as “to inform my classmates about the decline of the Shuttle program” would be more manageable and closer to their experience. It would also reference two well-known historical tragedies involving the Shuttle program, the Challenger Disaster in 1986 and the Columbia Explosion in 2003. Here are several examples of specific purposes statements. Notice how they meet the standards of being singular, focused, relevant, and consistent.
To inform my classmates of the origin of the hospice movement.
To describe to my coworkers the steps to apply for retirement.
To define for a group of new graduate students the term “academic freedom.”
To explain to the Lions Club members the problems faced by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To persuade the members of the Greek society to take the spring break trip to Daytona Beach.
To motivate my classmates to engage in the College’s study abroad program.
To convince my classroom audience that they need at least seven hours of sleep per night to do well in their studies.
Now that you understand the basic form and function of a specific purpose statement, let’s revisit the original diagram in Figure 4.1. The same topic for a different audience will create a somewhat different specific purpose statement. Public speaking is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. Let’s take the subject of participating in the study abroad program. How would you change your approach if you were addressing first-semester freshmen instead of first-semester juniors? Or if you were speaking to high school students in one of the college’s feeder high schools? Or if you were asked to share your experiences with a local civic group that gave you a partial scholarship to participate in the program? You would have slightly different specific purpose statements although your experience and basic information are all the same.
For another example, let’s say that one of your family members has benefitted from being in the Special Olympics and you have volunteered two years at the local event. You could give a tribute (commemorative speech) about the work of Special Olympics (with the purpose to inspire), an informative speech on the scope or history of the Special Olympics, or a persuasive speech on why audience members should volunteer at next year’s event. “Special Olympics” is a key word in every specific purpose, but the statements would otherwise be different.
Despite all the information given about specific purpose statements so far, the next thing you read will seem strange: Never start your speech by saying your specific purpose to the audience. In a sense, it is just for you and the instructor. For you, it’s like a note you might tack on the mirror or refrigerator to keep you on track. For the instructor, it’s a way for him or her to know you are accomplishing both the assignment and what you set out to do. Avoid the temptation to default to saying it at the beginning of your speech. It will seem awkward and repetitive.
4.3 – Formulating a Central Idea Statement
While you will not actually say your specific purpose statement during your speech, you will need to clearly state what your focus and main points are going to be (preferably after using an introductory method such as those described in Chapter 8). The statement that reveals your main points is commonly known as the central idea statement (or just the central idea).
Now, at this point we need to make a point about terminology. Your instructor may call the central idea statement “the thesis” or “the thesis statement.” Your English composition instructor probably uses that term in your essay writing. Another instructor may call it the “main idea statement.” All of these are basically synonymous and you should not let the terms confuse you, but you should use the term your instructor uses.
That said, is the central idea statement the very same thing as the thesis sentence in an essay? Yes, in that both are letting the audience know without a doubt your topic, purpose, direction, angle and/or point of view. No, in that the rules for writing a “thesis” or central idea statement in a speech are not as strict as in an essay. For example, it is acceptable in a speech to announce the topic and purpose, although it is usually not the most artful or effective way to do it. You may say,
“In this speech I will try to motivate you to join me next month as a volunteer at the regional Special Olympics.”
That would be followed by a preview statement of what the speech’s arguments or reasons for participating will be, such as,
“You will see that it will benefit the community, the participants, and you individually.”
However, another approach is to “capsulize” the purpose, topic, approach, and preview in one succinct statement.
“Your involvement as a volunteer in next month’s regional Special Olympics will be a rewarding experience that will benefit the community, the participants, and you personally.”
This last version is really the better approach and most likely the one your instructor will prefer.
So, you don’t want to just repeat your specific purpose in the central idea statement, but you do want to provide complete information. Also, unlike the formal thesis of your English essays, the central idea statement in a speech can and should use personal language (I, me, we, us, you, your, etc.) and should attempt to be attention-getting and audience-focused. And importantly, just like a formal thesis sentence, it must be a complete, grammatical sentence.
The point of your central idea statement in terms of your audience is to reveal and clarify the ideas or assertions you will be addressing in your speech, more commonly known as your main points, to fulfill your specific purpose. However, as you are processing your ideas and approach, you may still be working on them. Sometimes those main points will not be clear to you immediately. As much as we would like these writing processes to be straightforward, sometimes we find that we have to revise our original approach. This is why preparing a speech the night before you are giving it is a really, really bad idea. You need lots of time for the preparation and then the practice.
Sometimes you will hear the writing process referred to as “iterative.” This word means, among other things, that a speech or document is not always written in the same order as the audience finally experiences it. You may have noticed that we have not said anything about the introduction of your speech yet. Even though that is the first thing the audience hears, it may be one of the last parts you actually compose. It is best to consider your speech flexible as you work on it, and to be willing to edit and revise. If your instructor asks you to turn the outline in before the speech, you should be clear on how much you can revise after that. Otherwise, it helps to know that you can keep editing your speech until you deliver it, especially while you practice.
Here are some examples of pairs of specific purpose statements and central idea statements.
Specific Purpose: To explain to my classmates the effects of losing a pet on the elderly.
Central Idea: When elderly persons lose their animal companions, they can experience serious psychological, emotional, and physical effects.
Specific Purpose: To demonstrate to my audience the correct method for cleaning a computer keyboard.
Central Idea: Your computer keyboard needs regular cleaning to function well, and you can achieve that in four easy steps.
Specific Purpose: To persuade my political science class that labor unions are no longer a vital political force in the U.S.
Central Idea: Although for decades in the twentieth century labor unions influenced local and national elections, in this speech I will point to how their influence has declined in the last thirty years.
Specific Purpose: To motivate my audience to oppose the policy of drug testing welfare recipients.
Central Idea: Many voices are calling for welfare recipients to go through mandatory, regular drug testing, but this policy is unjust, impractical, and costly, and fair-minded Americans should actively oppose it.
Specific Purpose: To explain to my fellow civic club members why I admire Representative John Lewis.
Central Idea: John Lewis has my admiration for his sacrifices during the Civil Rights movement and his service to Georgia as a leader and U.S. Representative.
Specific Purpose: To describe how makeup is done for the TV show The Walking Dead.
Central Idea: The wildly popular zombie show The Walking Dead achieves incredibly scary and believable makeup effects, and in the next few minutes I will tell you who does it, what they use, and how they do it.
Notice that in all of the above examples that neither the specific purpose nor the central idea ever exceeds one sentence. You may divide your central idea and the preview of main points into two sentences or three sentences, depending on what your instructor directs. If your central idea consists of more than three sentences, then you probably are including too much information and taking up time that is needed for the body of the speech. Additionally, you will have a speech trying to do too much and that goes overtime.
4.4 – Problems to Avoid with Specific Purpose and Central Idea Statements
The first problem many students have in writing their specific purpose statement has already been mentioned: specific purpose statements sometimes try to cover far too much and are too broad. For example:
To explain to my classmates the history of ballet.
Aside from the fact that this subject may be difficult for everyone in your audience to relate to, it is enough for a three-hour lecture, maybe even a whole course. You will probably find that your first attempt at a specific purpose statement will need refining. These examples are much more specific and much more manageable given the limited amount of time you will have.
To explain to my classmates how ballet came to be performed and studied in the U.S.
To explain to my classmates the difference between Russian and French ballet.
To explain to my classmates how ballet originated as an art form in the Renaissance.
To explain to my classmates the origin of the ballet dancers’ clothing.
The second problem with specific purpose statements is the opposite of being too broad, in that some specific purposes statements are so focused that they might only be appropriate for people who are already extremely interested in the topic or experts in a field:
To inform my classmates of the life cycle of a new species of lima bean (botanists, agriculturalists).
To inform my classmates about the Yellow 5 ingredient in Mountain Dew (chemists, nutritionists).
To persuade my classmates that JIF Peanut Butter is better than Peter Pan. (professional chefs in large institutions)
The third problem happens when the “communication verb” in the specific purpose does not match the content; for example, persuasive content is paired with “to inform” or “to explain.” If you resort to the word “why” in the thesis, it is probably persuasive.
To inform my audience why capital punishment is unconstitutional. (This cannot be informative since it is taking a side)
To persuade my audience about the three types of individual retirement accounts. (This is not persuading the audience of anything, just informing)
To inform my classmates that Universal Studios is a better theme park than Six Flags over Georgia. (This is clearly an opinion, hence persuasive)
The fourth problem exists when the content part of the specific purpose statement has two parts and thus uses “and.” A good speech follows the KISS rule—Keep It Simple, Speaker. One specific purpose is enough. These examples cover two different topics.
To explain to my audience how to swing a golf club and choose the best golf shoes.
To persuade my classmates to be involved in the Special Olympics and vote to fund better classes for the intellectually disabled.
To fix this problem, you will need to select one of the topics in these examples and speak on just that:
To explain to my audience how to swing a golf club.
To explain to my audience how to choose the best golf shoes.
Of course, the value of this topic depends on your audience’s interest in golf and your own experience as a golfer.
The fifth problem with both specific purpose and central idea statements is related to formatting. There are some general guidelines that need to be followed in terms of how you write out these elements of your speech:
- Do not write either statement as a question.
- Always use complete sentences for central idea statements and infinitive phrases (that is, “to …..”) for the specific purpose statement.
- Only use concrete language (“I admire Beyoncé for being a talented performer and businesswoman”), and avoid subjective or slang terms (“My speech is about why I think Beyoncé is the bomb”) or jargon and acronyms (“PLA is better than CBE for adult learners.”)
Finally, the sixth problem occurs when the speech just gets off track of the specific purpose statement, in that it starts well but veers in another direction. This problem relates to the challenge of developing coherent main points, what might be called “the Roman numeral points” of the speech. The specific purpose usually determines the main points and the relevant structure. For example, if the specific purpose is:
To inform my classmates of the five stages of grief as described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.
There is no place in this speech for a biography of Dr. Kubler-Ross, arguments against this model of grief, therapies for those undergoing grief, or steps for the audience to take to get counseling. All of those are different specific purposes. The main points would have to be the five stages, in order, as Dr. Kubler-Ross defined them.
There are also problems to avoid in writing the central idea statement. As mentioned above, remember that:
- The specific purpose and central idea statements are not the same thing, although they are related.
- The central idea statement should be clear and not complicated or wordy; it should “stand out” to the audience. As you practice delivery, you should emphasize it with your voice.
- The central idea statement should not be the first thing you say, but should follow the steps of a good introduction as outlined in Chapter 8. Those steps include
- getting the audience’s attention,
- revealing the topic,
- revealing the central idea and main points,
- establishing your credibility, and
- establishing rapport with your audience.
One last word. You will notice that we have said nothing about titles of your speeches so far. A title is a good thing and serves purposes. Your instructor may or may not emphasize the title of your speech. This textbook chooses to focus on the purpose and central idea as the basis, even the spine of the speech. A good source on titles can be found here: [How to write good speech titles] (https://www.best-speech-topics.com/speech-titles.html).
Case Studies in Specific Purposes and Central Idea Statements
Case Study One: Mitchell is taking a Fundamentals of Speech course in his second year of college. As a member of the college’s tennis team, he wants to speak on his favorite subject, tennis. He is assigned an informative speech that should be seven minutes long and use four external sources (other than his own experience). He realizes off the bat that he knows a great deal about the subject as far as how to play and be good at it, but not much about the history or origins or the international impact of the sport. He brainstorms a list of topics, as his instructor tells him to: 1. Famous tennis players 2. Rules of tennis 3. How to start playing tennis 4. How to buy or choose equipment for tennis 5. Why tennis is a great sport 6. Tennis organizations 7. Where tennis came from 8. Dealing with tennis injuries 9. Tennis and the Olympics 10. Famous tennis tournaments—grand slam events
However, he also wants to be sure that his audience is not bored or confused. His instructor gives him a chance to get in a small group and have four of his classmates give him some ideas about the topics. He finds out no one in his group has ever played tennis but they do have questions. He knows that everyone in his class is 18-24 years old, single, no children, enrolled in college, and all have part-time jobs.
Critique Mitch’s brainstormed topics based on what you know. What should he do? Can you come up with a good starting specific purpose?
Case Study Two: Bonita is required to give a 5- to 6-minute presentation as part of a job interview. The interview is for a position as public relations and social media director of a nonprofit organization that focuses on nutrition in a five-county region near her home. There will be five people in her audience: the president of the organization, two board members, the office manager (who is also the Human Resources director), and a volunteer. She has never met these people. Bonita has a college degree in public relations, so she knows her subject. She does as much research on the organization as she can and finds out about their use of social media and the Internet for publicity, marketing, and public relations. If does have a Facebook page but is not utilizing it well. It does not have any other social media accounts.
What would you suggest for Bonita? Here are some questions to consider. Should she be persuasive, informative, or inspiring? (General purpose). What should be her specific content area? How can she answer the two important questions of the value of her topic to the audience and why would the audience think she is credible?
You should be aware that all aspects of your speech are constantly going to change as you move toward actually giving your speech. The exact wording of your central idea may change and you can experiment with different versions for effectiveness. However, your specific purpose statement should not change unless there is a really good reason, and in some cases, your instructor will either discourage that, forbid it, or expect to be notified. There are many aspects to consider in the seemingly simple task of writing a specific purpose statement and its companion, the central idea statement. Writing good ones at the beginning will save you some trouble later in the speech preparation process.
Something to Think About
What if your informative speech has the specific purpose statement: To explain the biological and lifestyle causes of Type II diabetes. The assignment is a seven-minute speech, and when you practice it the first time, it is thirteen minutes long. Should you adjust the specific purpose statement? How?