Supporting Materials

Learning Objectives

Explain the different types of supporting materials to use in a speech and when to use them.

Have you ever heard the term Exhibit A?

Here are some examples: In a movie review we read, “Nothing to Lose is Exhibit A in what’s right and what’s wrong with current Hollywood comedy.”[1] A news article quotes a senator as saying, “The massive data breach at Equifax Inc. is ‘Exhibit A‘ on the need for strong U.S. regulation, including higher fines against companies that mishandle consumers’ personal information.”[2] An article about football claims that “Green Bay is Exhibit A in an NFL trend that emphasizes mesmerizing passing games above all else.”[3]

Drawing of a lawyer talking to a jury

It can sometimes be helpful to think about public speaking as an argument before a jury.

The term Exhibit A comes from courtroom trials. Wikipedia tells us that “an exhibit, in a criminal prosecution or a civil trial, is physical or documentary evidence brought before the jury. The artifact or document itself is presented for the jury’s inspection. [. . .] The exhibits in any one law case are often labelled Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, etc. to distinguish between them.”[1] In a trial, lawyers use exhibits, or evidence, to try to make their case to the jury. Evidence is extremely important in a jury trial: jurors are instructed that they should “base their conclusions [only] on the evidence as presented in the trial.” [2]

In this (imperfect) comparison, your audience is the jury and you’re the lawyer making your case. No matter how eloquently and passionately you speak, you can’t make a convincing case without evidence (presented in court as exhibits).

Types of Support

In a speech, you’ll be providing evidence to support your main points with supporting materials. The best speeches are composed of a variety of relevant, insightful, and interesting supporting materials. A good rule of thumb is that each main point in your speech should include at least three types of supporting material: examples, data, and testimony. This section will review three categories of supporting materials and when to use them.


Including a variety of examples throughout your speech will add depth and specificity to your main points. Examples provide concrete illustrations to what might otherwise be an abstract or vague ideas. They are also more memorable and personalized for your audience. Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner maintained that learners are 22% more likely to retain information when it is presented as a story rather than facts alone.[3] Because examples typically involve elements of storytelling and narrative, they engage different parts of the audience’s brains and senses to create an emotional engagement with the story and the speaker.

Examples can take different forms, and you will determine what types will best enhance your speech.

  1. Short Examples provide specific instances to clarify or add specificity to a point. You might use only one short example, or combine several to make your points clear. For example, for the speech topic “Writing a Winning College Resume,” you might have a main point about the importance of using powerful action verbs that show off your accomplishments. Once you’ve presented this point, you can then add clarity by sharing not one, but several examples of action verbs.
    • Strong action verbs will stand out and catch the eye of hiring managers. For instance, instead of writing that you “led” a project, try verbs like “coordinated, spearheaded, or supervised” the project. Instead of writing that you were “responsible for daily totals,” try verbs like “finalized, headed, or produced” daily totals.
  2. Long Examples include narratives and stories that add imagery and vividness to a speech. A long example might be integrated throughout a main point or throughout an entire speech. For instance, you might begin your speech on the long-term impact of concussions on cognitive, physical, and emotional functioning with the story of when you got a concussion playing basketball in high school. As you move through your speech, you will return often with specific details or moments from your own concussion and recovery. Long examples not only add structure to a main point or entire speech, but they do so with the emotion and drama of real-life, personalized illustrations.
  3. Hypothetical Examples are imaginary but realistic examples that allow speakers to paint a picture of a plausible scenario that the audience can put themselves into. They might begin with the phrase “imagine that” or “what if.” If you wanted your audience to understand how health crises can lead to homelessness, you might use the following hypothetical example to put your audience in the shoes of the person in this situation:

You’re in your early 30s and have a decent job and apartment. You’re a college graduate and are almost done paying your college loans, but have no savings. Out of the blue, you get a devastating diagnosis: cancer. The symptoms and treatments are awful, but you are grateful for your employee-based health insurance. Except that, in the first year of treatment, you start getting bills for thousands of dollars. As it turns out, your out-of-pocket co-pays, deductibles, and premiums add up fast. You’ve maxed out your credit cards and your family has helped as much as they can. Within a few years, you’re $52,000 in debt. Not only are you dealing with a health crisis, but you’re about to lose your apartment and your car.

Hypothetical examples are effective when combined with other evidence to show that they are typical of a particular situation. The hypothetical example above should be tied to statistics about causes of homelessness and the impact of healthcare-related debt on housing instability.

In her powerful TEDTalk about a reporting system for sexual assault, Jessica Ladd effectively uses an extended hypothetical example of young college students and an assailant to both clarify and personalize her speech. Ladd consistently shows how the hypothetical situation is realistic and plausible.

To Watch: Jessica Ladd, The Reporting System That Sexual Assault Survivors Want

Jessica Ladd is the founder of Callisto, a platform for survivors of sexual assault to electronically document and report what happened to them. Please note that this video contains a discussion of sexual assault.

You can view the transcript for “The reporting system that sexual assault survivors want | Jessica Ladd” here (opens in new window).

What to watch:

Since the topic of sexual assault is so painful and upsetting, Ladd carefully controls her affect (the outward appearance of her emotions) throughout the speech. She only smiles briefly at the beginning, when describing “Hannah’s” excitement about going to college. After that, Ladd conveys the concern and seriousness appropriate for her subject through her facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. She doesn’t try to add to the intensity of the story by using grand gestures or vocal volume, instead letting the audience feel the emotions created by the facts of the story.

Short, long, and hypothetical examples work well in conjunction with research and statistics (see next section) to provide personalization and depth to each main point. Short and hypothetical examples can also be highly effective “hooks” to begin your speech in a personalized and engaging way.


Data—that is, facts and statistics—provide credibility and clarity in a speech, giving concrete, specific numbers or results about the extent or impact of a particular situation. Compare the effect of the following two statements:

  1. A lot of children in America are hungry.
  2. A 2018 report from Food Research & Action Center states that more than 18% of American households—that’s nearly one in five!—have food hardship where they haven’t had enough money to buy food.

Example A is vague and easily forgettable. Example B adds credibility and specificity to the extent of childhood hunger. Combining that statistic “more than 18%” with “nearly one in five” re-emphasizes the extent of the problem and makes it more relatable to an audience.

In addition to numerical statistics, findings from research can add depth and meaning to your speech. The speaker in this five-minute speech on “The Benefits of Doodling” includes a brief description of a study to support her first main point about the impact of doodling on memory retention:

To Watch: The Benefits of Doodling

You can view the transcript for “Doodling” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

This speaker does a nice job of incorporating data into the presentation. One of the main pieces of supporting material comes from a 2009 study claiming that doodlers in the study remembered 29% more information. This data is made memorable by two things. First, the speaker frames the data in terms of a story, rather than just dropping it in out of context. This way, the listener remembers the point of the story, even if the number is forgotten. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the speaker translates the number (29%) into a piece of information that is directly relevant to the listener: the difference between getting an A and a C on a quiz.

Jackie Andrade is a professor at Plymouth University in England and in 2009 did a study to test the correlation between memory retention and doodling. She had participants in another study stay behind and had them listen to a really, really mundane voicemail of a guest list to a party. She told both groups not to pay any mind to what they were listening to, but half the participants got shapes . . . to shade in while they listened. After listening to the voicemail, they asked all the participants, ‘who’s planning on attending the party?’ Unsurprisingly, the doodlers retained 29% more information. For you or [me], that’s the difference between an A and a C on a 50-point quiz.”

While statistics and research findings add credibility, specificity, and depth to a speech, they need to be integrated thoughtfully. First, too many statistics and numbers can be overwhelming and boring to audiences, so use them only as needed, and be sure to translate complex or overly-technical ideas into clear language. Likewise, rounding large or complex numbers and using relatable comparisons can help (e.g., the speaker in the doodling video compared the memory retention from doodling to the grade on a test). For instance, rather than stating, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is 1.6 million square kilometers”—a number that most audiences can’t easily understand—try something like, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of the state of Texas or three times the size of France.” Likewise, showing statistics with visual aids, including simple charts or graphs or objects might help your audience understand and retain the information (Jessica Ladd in the TED Talk in the previous section uses charts effectively to make statistics understandable). Statistics and research typically are included as initial supporting evidence for each main point. A particularly shocking or surprising statistic might be used as a hook in the introduction.


The final type of supporting material is testimony. A testimony is an endorsement or point of view from a person who is credible and connected to your topic. Most speeches will include expert testimony from someone who is authoritative on the topic to add weight to your points. Peer testimony comes from a non-expert who has direct experience on your topics and is relatable to your audience. A speech about the treatment of type 1 diabetes might include expert testimony from medical professionals and other experts in the field of diabetes treatment. The experience of a family member who has type 1 diabetes but is not a medical expert is an example of a peer testimonial, where an ordinary person has firsthand experiences or points of view on the topic. Your roommate’s experience and opinions would provide a more personalized view about diabetes treatment. Personal testimony is when you use your own firsthand experience as support for a particular viewpoint. Like peer testimony, personal testimony is not very generalizable; it speaks to a particular case, but does not represent the experience of others.

Expert testimonials will add credibility and weight to your main points. Peer or personal testimonials add specificity and personalization. In your speech, the testimonial might be presented as a short quote if the source’s wording is especially meaningful or powerful. However, in most cases, you will paraphrase the testimony in your own words to keep the tone and style consistent with your speech. In either case, make it clear that the information came from someone else, and indicate verbally if you are quoting them.

Great speeches benefit from a balance and variety of supporting material. Too many numerical statistics can be overwhelming to an audience, but simply supporting a speech with an example is not adequate. Aim to weave a variety of types of supporting evidence throughout your speech to create an interesting and tightly researched presentation.

Try It


  1. Wikipedia contributors. "Exhibit (legal)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 May. 2019. Web. 8 Oct. 2020.
  2. American Bar Association. “How Courts Work.”
  3. Atkinson, R.C. and Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). “Human Memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes.” In Spence, K.W. and Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation, (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.