51 Getting Started with Your Topic and Purpose

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, the student will be able to:

  1. Distinguish between the specific purpose, central idea, and main points of a speech;
  2. Differentiate between a speech to inform, persuade, and inspire or entertain;
  3. Write a specific purpose statement;
  4. Write a thesis or central idea statement;
  5. Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable specific purpose and central idea statements;
  6. Compose appropriate specific purpose and central idea statements for informative, persuasive, and inspirational/entertaining speeches.

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, 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, such as a tribute (commemorative), after-dinner, or special occasion speech. These last three types of speeches fit into the category of “to entertain.” This book has chapters on and examples of all three types (Chapters 12, 13, and 15).

These three purposes are not necessarily exclusive of the others. A speech designed to be persuasive can also be informative and entertaining, even if either of those are not 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: 1. What value, connection, or interest does my purpose/topic have for the audience? What needs do they meet? and 2. 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, 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 motto in mind as you start to think about your speeches more and more from your audience’s perspective.


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