54 Problems to Avoid with Specific Purpose and Central Idea Statements

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.

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. (organizational 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 and our 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 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
    1. getting the audience’s attention,
    2. revealing the topic,
    3. revealing the main points (i.e. your central idea),
    4. establishing your credibility, and
    5. 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: Asbury, C. (2006-2018). How to write good speech titles. Retrieved from 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 brainstorm 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 questions of the value of her topic to the audience and why would the audience think she is credible?

Possible Answer to Case Study One

Since Mitch’s purpose is informative, he should not do #5. Since his audience knows little about the sport, #1, #6, and #8 probably do not apply since the audience does not have a base of knowledge to build on. He will have to do research for the speech, so #7, #9, and #10 might work. Since he has so much experience compared to his audience, #2, #3, and #4 might also be good topics, and they are not entirely separated: you have to have equipment to play, and you have to know the rules to start playing.

Mitch decides to base his speech on this specific purpose statement: To explain to my classmates how they can begin to play tennis. Central Idea: Although it may look like a sport for accomplished athletes, you can begin to play tennis this weekend with some basic knowledge and equipment. (Preview) In this speech I will explain the equipment, the court, the play, and the scoring of a tennis game.

Possible Answer to Case Study Two

The stakes for this scenario are even higher than for Mitch. Bonita wants this position and wants to do a fantastic job on her interview and presentation. She decides to be informative in her general purpose. She knows she should mention some of her past projects in her speech as examples of her use of and knowledge about social media, and she knows the big question in her audience’s mind is “Will this candidate bring value and improvement to our communication processes?” At the same time, she does not want to come on too strong, so she decides to focus on how the three largest social media platforms of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram could be used to enhance the organization. Also at the same time, she decides that 5 minutes is not long enough to use all three, so she decides to just discuss Twitter. Specific Purpose: To describe for the hiring panel how the nonprofit organization could use Twitter to fulfill its mission, especially since the organization already uses Facebook (although not well) but not Twitter. Central Idea: Twitter’s unique characteristics as a social media platform can contribute to the organization’s mission by reaching a wider audience, engaging younger audiences, and using visuals.


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 cause 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?


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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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