52 Formulating a Specific Purpose Statement

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.

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 and passions, that passion and commitment will come across in your speech and 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 would 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.

The Audience

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 it 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.

The Context

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:

The purpose of this speech is to _________________ Specific Communication Word (inform, explain, demonstrate, describe, define, persuade, convince, prove, argue); __________________ Target Audience (my classmates, the members of the Student Life Club, my coworkers); The Content ___________________ (how to properly wash your hands; that coffee is better than tea

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. 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.


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Exploring Communication in the Real World Copyright © 2020 by Chris Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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