Elements in a Speech

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the fundamental elements in a speech.
  • Identify the main differences between writing a paper and delivering a speech.

Most college students are familiar with writing research papers or perhaps engaging in class discussions. Preparing and delivering a speech, however, differs from these activities in fundamental ways. All these elements will be covered in more detail elsewhere in the course.

  • Audience
    • A teacher in her officeUsually, the audience of an essay for class is your professor. You will probably get feedback in the form of a grade, written comments, or a discussion with the instructor during office hours.
    • an enthusiastic audienceThe audience of a speech is an active participant in your speech. They provide live feedback to which you will adjust.  Even more than when writing for class, effective public speaking demands that you adapt your message by always first considering your audience. Audience analysis can help you identify the size of your audience, who your audience is, what they already know, what they need to know, and how they may feel about your topic. Knowing and considering the audience shapes the goals of a speech, the information to provide, and how to present it.
  • Context
    • You can’t really adapt an essay to the context in which it is received. Is the reader (your professor) at home or in their office? Are they reading at night or in the morning?
    • Because a speech is delivered at a particular moment in time, you need to adapt its content to the speaking context. Great speeches fit the moment. Reflect on the purpose of your speech, the amount of time you’ll have, and the speaking environment. These elements will influence what you can realistically hope to accomplish with your audience. Consider the differences you might make to a presentation if you are delivering it first thing in the morning, just after lunch, or late Friday afternoon. The context of your speech can also help you determine which delivery type to use: impromptu, speaking notes, memorized, or a manuscript. If you are speaking for an hour, it may not be realistic to memorize a speech, but speaking notes or a manuscript can be very helpful. If your context will be highly emotional or require careful wording, then using a manuscript may be the best delivery type.
  • Content
    • In writing, your audience has the benefit of reading at their own pace, visually grasping your organization through paragraphs or headings, looking up definitions for unfamiliar terms, and looping over detailed information.
    • In a speech, your audience doesn’t have any visual guideposts about the organization of the material. To adjust, you must provide clear, audible, organizational indicators or signposts. It helps to use language that is relatable, simple, and familiar, and to include vivid imagery and anecdotes.
  • Source Citations
    • In a research paper, your credibility is established through research, which is cited in the text as well and with a bibliography or footnote.
    • In a speech, citations are a bit more tricky. If your speech uses researched support, you must properly attribute your sources.  Although they may be included in your written outline, stating a full-source citation when delivering your speech can quickly lose your audience. Therefore, you will instead use abbreviated source citations, often with just the publication and date, or the author and title when citing a book.
  • Visual Aids
    • Especially when they rely on complex data or visual information, essays can include graphs, charts, and illustrations.
    • In a speech, visual aids are often used to illustrate an idea, evoke emotion, summarize data, or draw attention to an important concept. A visual aid adds interest, can refocus your audience, and can help them remember an important aspect of your speech. If you use a visual aid, consider when to use it in your speech and what type of visual aid would best illustrate what you’ve chosen to highlight. The most common visual aid is PowerPoint, but visual aids can also be objects or any sort of pictorial representation. For example, a speech about a guitar could use a PowerPoint with pictures of various parts of a guitar—or an actual guitar.
  • Speaker
    • In the case of an essay, we only perceive the writer through the style of their writing. Unless we have seen them in person, or look them up on the internet, we probably know very little about how they look, what they sound like, or how they carry themselves.
    • Unlike the invisible author of an essay, the speaker is physically or virtually present to deliver the speech. Their appearance, dress, posture, confidence, delivery style, and energy level will have profound effects on the audience’s experience of the event.
  • A person sleeping on his computer

    Ready to present? Maybe not so much…


    • When turning in a paper, it doesn’t matter if you finished well in advance or the night before. Whether you wore yourself out finishing it or cruised to completion, the paper will be judged on its quality rather than your emotional and physical state at its completion.
    • In a speech, the quality of delivery will impact how well it is received, regardless of how carefully it was written and prepared. Verbal and nonverbal cues set the tone and engage your audience. Even when using speaking notes or a manuscript, you must be familiar enough with your speech that you avoid simply reading it. Therefore, you must build in plenty of time to practice.

To Watch: John McWhorter

In this TED talk, linguist John McWhorter discusses some of the differences between speaking and writing. For our purposes, the first five minutes will be the most informative, but the latter half is very interesting as well, particularly if you’re curious about the linguistic changes brought about by texting.

You can view the transcript for “John McWhorter: Txtng is killing language. JK!!!” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Notice how McWhorter starts his speech: “We always hear that texting is a scourge.” This statement sets up his thesis, which is that texting isn’t the downfall of language, but rather a “miraculous thing.” This style of opening, sometimes called “stabilization-destabilization,” can be a great way to get a speech off the ground. First you state the stable condition, the thing that everyone thinks is true. Then you destabilize this idea by showing how it’s not true, or at least more complicated than the listener might think. The destabilizing move says “yet . . .” or “however. . . .” (McWhorter says “The fact of the matter is that it just isn’t true.”)

Note as well how McWhorter uses visual aids in this presentation. Even though he puts a lot of words on the screen, he is not expecting the audience to read and engage with the meaning of these passages. Instead, the words are there to say something about language style. When you really want your audience to engage with the meaning of words on a slide, you should keep the text as minimal and concise as possible. We’ll cover this concept in more detail when we learn about visual aids.

Try It