Role of Speaker

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. ~ H. G. Wells

Now that you understand the importance of informing others, this next section will show you the speakers’ responsibilities for preparing and presenting informative speeches.

informative speakers are objective

Most public speaking texts discuss three general purposes for speeches: to inform, to persuade, and to entertain. Although these general purposes are theoretically distinct, in practice, they tend to overlap. Even in situations when the occasion calls for an informative speech (one which enhances understanding), often persuasive and entertaining elements are present. First, all informative speeches have a persuasive component by virtue of the fact that the speaker tries to convince the audience that the facts presented are accurate (Harlan, 1993). Second, a well-written speech can make even the most dry, technical information entertaining through engaging illustrations, colorful language, unusual facts, and powerful visuals.

In spite of this caveat, when planning your informative speech your primary intent will be to increase listeners’ knowledge in an impartial way. For instance, in a speech about urban legends (Craughwell, 2000), your specific purpose statement may be: “At the end of my speech, my audience will understand what an urban legend is, how urban legends are spread, and common variations of urban legends.” The topic you choose is not as important as your approach to the material in determining whether your speech is informative or persuasive (Peterson, Stephan, & White, 1992). Can you imagine how speeches on witchcraft, stem cell research, the federal deficit, or hybrid cars could be written either to inform or persuade? Informative speeches need to be as objective, fair, and unbiased as possible. You are not asking your audience to take action or convincing them to change their mind. You are teaching them something and allowing them to decide for themselves what to do with the information. When writing your speech, present all sides of the story and try to remove all unrelated facts, personal opinions, and emotions (Westerfield, 2002).

informative speakers are credible

A man speaks into a microphoneAn objective approach also enhances a speaker’s credibility. Credibility, or ethos, refers to an audience’s perception that the speaker is well prepared and qualified to speak on a topic (Fraleigh & Tuman, 2011). Peterson, Stephan, and White (1992) explain that there are two kinds of credibility; the reputation that precedes you before you give your speech (antecedent credibility) and the credibility you develop during the course of your speech (consequent credibility). In many cases, the audience has no prior knowledge of the speaker, so they make judgments about the quality of the evidence and arguments in the speech. In addition, they look at and listen to the speaker to determine if s/he is a reliable source of information.

Audience members have no motivation to listen to a speaker they perceive as lacking authority or credibility—except maybe to mock the speaker. To avoid this pitfall, there are at least three ways to boost your credibility as a speaker; by establishing your expertise, helping your audience identify with you, and showing you are telling the truth (see examples in Table 15.1). It seems to be common sense that we do not listen to speakers who do not know what they are talking about, who cannot relate to us, or who give the impression of being dishonest. However, in planning informative speeches, we can get so wrapped up in the topic that is easy to forget about the elements of credibility. Just remember that in order to teach, we first have to show that we are worthy of our audience’s attention.

Table 15.1 Boost Your Credibility
Establish Expertise By:
  • Citing reputable sources
  • Making sure your facts are accurate
  • Covering your points in enough detail to demonstrate your knowledge
  • Revealing your personal expertise with the topic
Help the Audience Identify with You By:
  • Wearing appropriate and attractive clothing
  • Mentioning what you have in common
  • Being friendly and enthusiastic
  • Relating to listeners’ situations, feelings, and motives
Show You are Telling the Truth By:
  • Presenting both sides of an issue
  • Sharing what motivated you to select your topic
  • Having open, natural nonverbals that correspond to what you say
  • Approaching the speech with ethics and positive intentions for your audience
In the end, you make your reputation and you have your success based upon credibility and being able to provide people who are really hungry for information what they want. ~ Brit Hume

informative speakers are knowledgeable

Good informative speeches contain a number of different source citations throughout the speech. To show that the information you present is accurate and complete, these sources should be up-to-date, reliable, unbiased, and directly relevant to your topic. Even if you plan to give a speech about an activity you have done all of your life, you will still need to seek out additional sources for your speech. By all means, you should cite and use your own experiences with the topic, but if you want to appear objective, you will need to show that your ideas and experiences correspond with others’. Using a variety of sound reference materials helps you appear well-informed and more trustworthy.

In our information age, people are fortunate to have unlimited and free access to information on virtually any topic they can imagine via the internet. Unfortunately, in addition to the credible information, the internet contains an abundance of garbage. Good speech writers know that it is important to avoid weak or questionable sources (e.g. Wikipedia, Britannica.com or Ask.com) when constructing their speeches. Start by asking what you know, find out what the experts know, and then move to find out what information other sources can provide (Gladis, 1999). You can search your library catalogue or Amazon.com to locate books (which provide details and depth), and then check out or order these books via interlibrary loan (often free) if they are not available in your library. Explain not only how something is done, but also why it is done for a great speech (MacInnis, 2006). This variety gives a speech depth and a level of interest that cannot be achieved merely by doing a Google search and using the first five websites that pop up. For additional ideas on locating sources, “Sources of interesting information” is provided at the end of this chapter.

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. ~ Dorothy Parker

informative speakers make the topic relevant

When you are selecting your topic and thinking about what you want to accomplish in your informative speech, two factors should drive your decision. Foremost, you want to select a topic that holds a high degree of interest for you (i.e. the topic is meaningful to you). Students who feel at a loss for topic ideas should turn their attention to their own lives and activities. If you like to play video games, you might give a speech about how they are made. If you have a passion for ska reggae music, you might bring in MP3 cuts to help define the boundaries of this music genre. If you have to work three jobs to help pay for school, you could give a speech on effective time management. Genuine curiosity will make the research and preparation process easier. Further, when you have enthusiasm for a topic, it shows when you speak. On the other hand, if you do not really care about your topic, your audience is not likely to care either.

A jar labeled retirement and filled with dollar billsIn addition to having relevance for you, it is crucial that you tie your topic directly to your listeners. Early in the speech, give listeners at least one reason why they should care about your topic and the ways in which the information will be beneficial or entertaining (Morreale & Bovee, 1998). Establishing a motive for your audience to listen to you is commonly referred to by the acronym WIIFM—“What’s in it for me?” This is what the audience consciously or unconsciously asks when you start speaking (Urech, 1998). To establish WIIFM, you clearly link the topic to the listeners’ values, attitudes, beliefs and lifestyle. Consider not only what the audience wants to hear, but also what they need to hear (Gladis, 1999; Maxey & O’Connor, 2006). Take the topic of retirement planning as an example. Younger listeners may not perceive this as relevant to their lives when they are not yet making a steady salary. But, if you can demonstrate how investing even a small amount every month can grow to a considerable nest egg by retirement age, and that getting into the habit of saving early can lower the number of years they have to work, the topic becomes more interesting for them.

Making the topic relevant for your audience can also mean that you show them how to apply the information immediately. In a speech on relaxation techniques, a speaker can lead the audience through a simple stress reduction exercise they can use at home. For a speech on handwriting analysis, listeners can be given paper, asked to write a sample sentence and shown how to interpret some points on the sample. If the audience members have laptops, a speaker can show them how to improve one of their digital photos. If listeners can use the information they learn quickly, they tend to remember it longer, and they are more likely to try the action again later (Nelson, et al., 2010).