Foundations of Public Speaking

Every speech has to start somewhere, and one of the most common questions we hear from students in a public speaking course is, “Where do I start?” Well, your public speaking teacher will definitely give you some specific guidelines for all the speeches in your class, but all speeches start with the same basic foundation: speech purpose, topic selection, and audience analysis.

Speech Purpose

The very first question you’ll want to ask yourself is this: what is the basic purpose of the speech you’re about to give? As far back as the ancient Greeks, scholars of public speaking have realized that there are three basic or general purposes people can have for giving public speeches: to inform, to persuade, and to entertain.

To Inform

The first general purpose people can have for public speaking is to inform. When we use the word “inform” in this context, we are specifically talking about giving other people information that they do not currently possess. Maybe you’ve been asked to tell the class about yourself or an important event in your life. For example, one of our coauthors had a student who had been smuggled out of a totalitarian country as a small child with her family and fled to the United States, seeking asylum. When she told the class about how this event changed her life, she wasn’t trying to make the class do or believe anything, she was just informing the class about how this event changed her life.

Another common type of informative speech is the “how-to” or demonstration speech. Maybe you’ll be asked to demonstrate something to the class. In this case, you’ll want to think about an interesting skill that you have that others don’t generally possess. Some demonstration speeches we’ve seen in the past have included how to decorate a cake, how to swing a golf club, how to manipulate a puppet, and many other interesting and creative speeches.

To Persuade

The second general purpose that public speakers can have is to persuade. When you persuade another person, you are attempting to get that person to change her or his thought process or behavior. In the first case, you’re trying to get someone to change her or his opinion or belief to what you, as the speaker, want that person to think or believe after the speech. For example, maybe you belong to a specific religious group that doesn’t always get the greatest press. In your speech, you could try to tell your classmates where that negative press is coming from and all the good that your religious sect does in the world. The goal of this speech isn’t to convert people, it’s just to get people to think about your group in a more positive fashion or change their thought process.

The second type of persuasive speech, the more common of the two, is to get someone to change her or his behavior. In this case, your goal at the end of the speech is to see your audience members actually do something. When we want an audience to do something at the end of the speech, we call this a “call to action” because we are actually asking our audience members to act on what we’ve said during the speech. For example, maybe you’re an advocate for open-source (or free) software packages. So you give a speech persuading your classmates to switch from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice. In your speech, you could show how the cost of Microsoft Office is constantly rising and that OpenOffice offers the exact same functionality for free. In this case, the goal of your speech is to have your classmates stop using Microsoft Office and start using OpenOffice—you want them to act.

To Entertain

The third general purpose people can have for public speaking is to entertain. Some speeches are specifically designed to be more lighthearted and entertaining for audience members. Quite often these speeches fall into the category of “after-dinner speeches,” or speeches that contain a serious message but are delivered in a lively, amusing manner that will keep people alert after they’ve finished eating a big meal. For this reason, most speeches that fall into the “to entertain” category are either informative or persuasive, but we categorize them separately because of reliance on humor. Effective speeches in this category are often seen as the intersection of public speaking and stand-up comedy. The speeches themselves must follow all the guidelines of effective public speaking, but the speeches must be able to captivate an audience through interesting and funny anecdotes and stories. Some common entertaining speech topics include everything from crazy e-mails people have written to trying to understand our funny family members.

Not all entertaining speeches include large doses of humor. Some of the most memorable speakers in the professional speaking world fall into the entertaining category because of their amazing and heart-wrenching stories. The more serious speakers in this category are individuals who have experienced great loss or overcome enormous hurdles to succeed in life and who share their stories in a compelling style of speaking. Audience members find these speakers “entertaining” because the speakers’ stories captivate and inspire. In the professional world of speaking, the most commonly sought after form of speaker is the one who entertains an audience while having a serious message but delivering that message in a humorous or entertaining manner.

Topic Selection

Once you have a general purpose for speaking (to inform, to persuade, or to entertain), you can start to develop the overarching topic for your speech. Clearly, some possible speech topics will not be appropriate for a given general purpose. For example, if you’ve been asked to give an informative speech, decrying the ills of social policy in the United States would not be an appropriate topic because it’s innately persuasive.

In a public speaking class, your teacher will generally give you some parameters for your speech. Some common parameters or constraints seen in public speaking classes are general purpose and time limit. You may be asked to give a two- to three-minute informative speech. In this case, you know that whatever you choose to talk about should give your listeners information they do not already possess, but it also needs to be a topic that can be covered in just two to three minutes. While two to three minutes may seem like a long time to fill with information, those minutes will quickly disappear when you are in front of your audience. There are many informative topics that would not be appropriate because you couldn’t possibly cover them adequately in a short speech. For example, you couldn’t tell us how to properly maintain a car engine in two to three minutes (even if you spoke really, really fast). You could, on the other hand, explain the purpose of a carburetor.

In addition to thinking about the constraints of the speaking situation, you should also make sure that your topic is appropriate—both for you as the speaker and for your audience. One of the biggest mistakes novice public speakers make is picking their favorite hobby as a speech topic. You may love your collection of beat-up golf balls scavenged from the nearby public golf course, but your audience is probably not going to find your golf ball collection interesting. For this reason, when selecting possible topics, we always recommend finding a topic that has crossover appeal for both yourself and your audience. To do this, when you are considering a given topic, think about who is in your audience and ask yourself if your audience would find this topic useful and interesting.

Audience Analysis

To find out whether an audience will find a speech useful and interesting, we go through a process called audience analysis. Just as the title implies, the goal of audience analysis is to literally analyze who is in your audience. The following are some common questions to ask yourself:

  • Who are my audience members?
  • What characteristics do my audience members have?
  • What opinions and beliefs do they have?
  • What do they already know?
  • What would they be interested in knowing more about?
  • What do they need?

These are some basic questions to ask yourself. Let’s look at each of them quickly.

Who Are My Audience Members?

The first question asks you to think generally about the people who will be in your audience. For example, are the people sitting in your audience forced to be there or do they have a choice? Are the people in your audience there to specifically learn about your topic, or could your topic be one of a few that are being spoken about on that day?

What Characteristics Do My Audience Members Have?

The second question you want to ask yourself relates to the demographic makeup of your audience members. What is the general age of your audience? Do they possess any specific cultural attributes (e.g., ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation)? Is the group made up of older or younger people? Is the group made up of females, males, or a fairly equal balance of both? The basic goal of this question is to make sure that we are sensitive to all the different people within our audience. As ethical speakers, we want to make sure that we do not offend people by insensitive topic selection. For example, don’t assume that a group of college students are all politically liberal, that a group of women are all interested in cooking, or that a group of elderly people all have grandchildren. At the same time, don’t assume that all topic choices will be equally effective for all audiences.

What Opinions and Beliefs Do They Have?

In addition to knowing the basic makeup of your audience, you’ll also want to have a general idea of what opinions they hold and beliefs they have. While speakers are often placed in the situation where their audience disagrees with the speaker’s message, it is in your best interest to avoid this if possible. For example, if you’re going to be speaking in front of a predominantly Jewish audience, speaking about the virtues of family Christmas celebrations is not the best topic.

What Do They Already Know?

The fourth question to ask yourself involves the current state of knowledge for your audience members. A common mistake that even some professional speakers make is to either underestimate or overestimate their audience’s knowledge. When we underestimate an audience’s knowledge, we bore them by providing basic information that they already know. When we overestimate an audience’s knowledge, the audience members don’t know what we’re talking about because they don’t possess the fundamental information needed to understand the advanced information.

What Would They Be Interested in Knowing More About?

As previously mentioned, speakers need to think about their audiences and what their audiences may find interesting. An easy way of determining this is to ask potential audience members, “Hey, what do you think about collecting golf balls?” If you receive blank stares and skeptical looks, then you’ll realize that this topic may not be appropriate for your intended audience. If by chance people respond to your question by asking you to tell them more about your golf ball collection, then you’ll know that your topic is potentially interesting for them.

What Do They Need?

The final question to ask yourself about your audience involves asking yourself about your audience’s needs. When you determine specific needs your audience may have, you conduct a needs assessment. A needs assessment helps you to determine what information will benefit your audience in a real way. Maybe your audience needs to hear an informative speech on effective e-mail writing in the workplace, or they need to be persuaded to use hand sanitizing gel to prevent the spread of the flu virus during the winter. In both cases, you are seeing that there is a real need that your speech can help fill.