Finding the Purpose and Central Idea of Your Speech

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the specific purpose of a speech.
  • Explain how to formulate a central idea statement for a speech.

General Purpose

The general purpose of most speeches will fall into one of four categories: to inform, to persuade, to entertain, and to commemorate or celebrate. The first step of defining the purpose of your speech is to think about which category best describes your overall goal with the speech. What do you want your audience to think, feel, or do as a consequence of hearing you speak? Often, the general purpose of your speech will be defined by the speaking situation. If you’re asked to run a training session at work, your purpose isn’t to entertain but rather to inform. Likewise, if you are invited to introduce the winner of an award, you’re not trying to change the audience’s mind about something; you’re honoring the recipient of the award. In a public speaking class, your general purpose may be included in the assignment: for instance, “Give a persuasive speech about . . . .”  When you’re assigned a speech project, you should always make sure you know whether the general purpose is included in the assignment or whether you need to decide on the general purpose yourself.

Specific Purpose

Now that you know your general purpose (to inform, to persuade, or to entertain), you can start to move in the direction of the specific purpose. A specific purpose statement builds on your general purpose and makes it more specific (as the name suggests). So if your first speech is an informative speech, your general purpose will be to inform your audience about a very specific realm of knowledge.

In writing your specific purpose statement, you will take three contributing elements and bring them together to help you determine your specific purpose:

  • You (your interests, your background, experience, education, etc.)
  • Your audience
  • The context or setting
A diagram with three words at the top: YOU, YOUR AUDIENCE, and YOUR CONTEXT, each with an arrow pointing to the next level, which is a box containing the words Specific Purpose Statement. This box points to the next box: Central Idea Statement

There are three elements that combine to create a specific purpose statements: your own interests and knowledge, the interests and needs of your audience, and the context or setting in which you will be speaking.

Keeping these three inputs in mind, you can begin to write a specific purpose statement, which will be the foundation for everything you say in the speech and a guide for what you do not say. This formula will help you in putting together your specific purpose statement:

To _______________ [Specific Communication Word (inform, explain, demonstrate, describe, define, persuade, convince, prove, argue)] _______________ [Target Audience (my classmates, the members of the Social Work Club, my coworkers] __________________. [The Content (how to bake brownies, that Macs are better than PCs].

Example: The purpose of my presentation is to demonstrate to my coworkers the value of informed intercultural communication.

Formulating a Central Idea 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. The statement that reveals your main points is commonly known as the central idea statement (or just the central idea). Just as you would create a thesis statement for an essay or research paper, the central idea statement helps focus your presentation by defining your topic, purpose, direction, angle, and/or point of view. Here are two examples:

  • 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.

Please note that your central idea will emerge and evolve as you research and write your speech, so be open to where your research takes you and anticipate that formulating your central idea will be an ongoing process.

Below are four guidelines for writing a strong central idea.

  1. Your central idea should be one, full sentence.
  2. Your central idea should be a statement, not a question.
  3. Your central idea should be specific and use concrete language.
  4. Each element of your central idea should be related to the others.

Using the topic “Benefits of Yoga for College Students’ Stress,” here are some correct and incorrect ways to write a central idea.

Strong formulation of the central idea Weak formulation of the central idea
Yoga practice can help college students improve the quality of their sleep, improve posture, and manage anxiety. Yoga is great for many things. It can help you sleep better and not be so stiff. Yoga also helps you feel better. (This central idea is not one sentence and uses vague words.)
Yoga practice can help college students focus while studying, manage stress, and increase mindfulness. What are the benefits of yoga for college students? (This central idea should be a statement, not a question.)
Yoga is an inclusive, low-impact practice that offers mental and physical benefits for a beginning athlete, a highly competitive athlete, and everyone in between. Yoga is great and everyone should try it! (This central idea uses vague language.)
Yoga practice can help college students develop mindfulness so they can manage anxiety, increase their sense of self-worth, and improve decision-making. Yoga practice increases mindfulness, but can lead to some injuries and it takes at least 200 hours of training to become an instructor. (The elements of this central idea are not related to one another.)

A strong central idea shows that your speech is focused around a clear and concise topic and that you have a strong sense of what you want your audience to know and understand as a result of your speech. Again, it is unlikely that you will have a final central idea before you begin your research. Instead, it will come together as you research your topic and develop your main points.

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