53 Formulating a Central Idea 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 Central Idea Statement – developing the thesis 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 have 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.


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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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