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53 Formulating a Central Idea Statement

Learning objectives.

After reading this chapter, the student will be able to:

  • Distinguish between the specific purpose, central idea, and main points of a speech;
  • Differentiate between a speech to inform, persuade, and inspire or entertain;
  • Write a specific purpose statement;
  • Write a thesis or central idea statement;
  • Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable specific purpose and central idea statements;
  • Compose appropriate specific purpose and central idea statements for informative, persuasive, and inspirational/entertaining speeches.

Formulating a Central Idea Statement – developing the thesis 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 (preferably after using an introductory method such as those described in Chapter 8). The statement that reveals your main points is commonly known as the central idea statement (or just the central idea).

Central Idea Statement

a statement that contains or summarizes a speech’s main points

Now, at this point we need to make a point about terminology. Your instructor may call the central idea statement “the thesis” or “the thesis statement.” Your English composition instructor probably uses that term in your essay writing. Another instructor may call it the “main idea statement.” All of these are basically synonymous and you should not let the terms confuse you, but you should use the term your instructor uses.

That said, is the central idea statement the very same thing as the thesis sentence in an essay? Yes, in that both are letting the audience know without a doubt your topic, purpose, direction, angle and/or point of view. No, in that the rules for writing a “thesis” or central idea statement in a speech are not as strict as in an essay. For example, it is acceptable in a speech to announce the topic and purpose, although it is usually not the most artful or effective way to do it. You may say,

“In this speech I will try to motivate you to join me next month as a volunteer at the regional Special Olympics.”

That would be followed by a preview statement of what the speech’s arguments or reasons for participating will be, such as,

“You will see that it will benefit the community, the participants, and you individually.”

However, another approach is to “capsulize” the purpose, topic, approach, and preview in one succinct statement.

“Your involvement as a volunteer in next month’s regional Special Olympics will be a rewarding experience that will benefit the community, the participants, and you personally.”

This last version is really the better approach and most likely the one your instructor will prefer.

So, you don’t want to just repeat your specific purpose in the central idea statement, but you do want to provide complete information. Also, unlike the formal thesis of your English essays, the central idea statement in a speech can and should use personal language (I, me, we, us, you, your, etc.) and should attempt to be attention-getting and audience-focused. And importantly, just like a formal thesis sentence, it must be a complete, grammatical sentence.

The point of your central idea statement in terms of your audience is to reveal and clarify the ideas or assertions you will be addressing in your speech, more commonly known as your main points, to fulfill your specific purpose. However, as you are processing your ideas and approach, you may still be working on them. Sometimes those main points will not be clear to you immediately. As much as we would like these writing processes to be straightforward, sometimes we find that we have to revise our original approach. This is why preparing a speech the night before you are giving it is a really, really bad idea. You need lots of time for the preparation and then the practice.

Sometimes you will hear the writing process referred to as “iterative.” This word means, among other things, that a speech or document is not always written in the same order as the audience finally experiences it. You may have noticed that we have not said anything about the introduction of your speech yet. Even though that is the first thing the audience hears, it may be one of the last parts you actually compose. It is best to consider your speech flexible as you work on it, and to be willing to edit and revise. If your instructor asks you to turn the outline in before the speech, you should be clear on how much you can revise after that. Otherwise, it helps to know that you can keep editing your speech until you deliver it, especially while you practice.

Here are some examples of pairs of specific purpose statements and central idea statements.

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.
Specific Purpose: To persuade my political science class that labor unions are no longer a vital political force in the U.S.
Central Idea: Although for decades in the twentieth century labor unions influenced local and national elections, in this speech I will point to how their influence has declined in the last thirty years.
Specific Purpose: To motivate my audience to oppose the policy of drug testing welfare recipients.
Central Idea: Many voices are calling for welfare recipients to have to go through mandatory, regular drug testing, but this policy is unjust, impractical, and costly, and fair-minded Americans should actively oppose it.
Specific Purpose: To explain to my fellow civic club members why I admire Representative John Lewis.
Central Idea: John Lewis has my admiration for his sacrifices during the Civil Rights movement and his service to Georgia as a leader and U.S. Representative.
Specific Purpose: To describe how makeup is done for the TV show The Walking Dead.
Central Idea: The wildly popular zombie show The Walking Dead achieves incredibly scary and believable makeup effects, and in the next few minutes I will tell you who does it, what they use, and how they do it.

Notice that in all of the above examples that neither the specific purpose nor the central idea ever exceeds one sentence. You may divide your central idea and the preview of main points into two sentences or three sentences, depending on what your instructor directs. If your central idea consists of more than three sentences, then you probably are including too much information and taking up time that is needed for the body of the speech.

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8.2  The Topic, General Purpose, Specific Purpose, and Thesis

Before any work can be done on crafting the body of your speech or presentation, you must first do some prep work—selecting a topic, formulating a general purpose, a specific purpose statement, and crafting a central idea, or thesis statement. In doing so, you lay the foundation for your speech by making important decisions about what you will speak about and for what purpose you will speak. These decisions will influence and guide the entire speechwriting process, so it is wise to think carefully and critically during these beginning stages.

Understanding the General Purpose

Before any work on a speech can be done, the speaker needs to understand the general purpose of the speech.  The general purpose is what the speaker hopes to accomplish and will help guide in the selection of a topic. The instructor generally provides the general purpose for a speech, which fall into one of three categories.  A general purpose to inform would mean that the speaker is teaching the audience about a topic, increasing their understanding and awareness, or providing new information about a topic the audience might already know.  Informative speeches are designed to present the facts, but not give the speakers opinion or any call to action. A general purpose to persuade would mean that the speaker is choosing the side of a topic and advocating for their side or belief.  The speaker is asking the audience to believe in their stance, or to take an action in support of their topic.  A general purpose to entertain often entails short speeches of ceremony, where the speaker is connecting the audience to the celebration.  You can see how these general purposes are very different.  An informative speech is just facts, the speaker would not be able to provide an opinion or direction on what to do with the information, whereas a persuasive speech includes the speaker’s opinions and direction on what to do with the information. Before a speaker chooses a topic, they must first understand the general purpose.

Selecting a Topic

Generally, speakers focus on one or more interrelated topics—relatively broad concepts, ideas, or problems that are relevant for particular audiences. The most common way that speakers discover topics is by simply observing what is happening around them—at their school, in their local government, or around the world. Opportunities abound for those interested in engaging speech as a tool for change. Perhaps the simplest way to find a topic is to ask yourself a few questions, including:

  • What important events are occurring locally, nationally and internationally?
  • What do I care about most?
  • Is there someone or something I can advocate for?
  • What makes me angry/happy?
  • What beliefs/attitudes do I want to share?
  • Is there some information the audience needs to know?

Students speak about what is interesting to them and their audiences. What topics do you think are relevant today? There are other questions you might ask yourself, too, but these should lead you to at least a few topical choices. The most important work that these questions do is to locate topics within your pre-existing sphere of knowledge and interest. Topics should be ideas that interest the speaker or are part of their daily lives.  In order for a topic to be effective, the speaker needs to have some credibility or connection to the topic, it would be unfair to ask the audience to donate to a cause that the speaker has never donated too.  There must be a connection to the topic for the speaker to be seen as credible. David Zarefsky (2010) also identifies brainstorming as a way to develop speech topics, a strategy that can be helpful if the questions listed above did not yield an appropriate or interesting topic. Brainstorming involves looking at your daily activities to determine what you could share with an audience.  Perhaps you work out regularly or eat healthy, you could explain that to an audience, or demonstrate how to dribble a basketball.  If you regularly play video games you may advocate for us to take up video games or explain the history of video games.  Anything that you find interesting or important might turn into a topic. Starting with a topic you are already interested in will make writing and presenting your speech a more enjoyable and meaningful experience. It means that your entire speechwriting process will focus on something you find important and that you can present this information to people who stand to benefit from your speech. At this point, it is also important to consider the audience before choosing a topic.  While we might really enjoy a lot of different things that could be topics, if the audience has no connection to that topic, then it wouldn’t be meaningful for the speaker or audience.  Since we always have a diverse audience, we want to make sure that everyone in the audience can gain some new information from the speech.  Sometimes, a topic might be too complicated to cover in the amount of time we have to present, or involve too much information then that topic might not work for the assignment, and finally if the audience can not gain anything from a topic then it won’t work.  Ultimately, when we choose a topic we want to pick something that we are familiar with and enjoy, we have credibility and that the audience could gain something from. Once you have answered these questions and narrowed your responses, you are still not done selecting your topic. For instance, you might have decided that you really care about breeds of dogs. This is a very broad topic and could easily lead to a dozen different speeches. To resolve this problem, speakers must also consider the audience to whom they will speak, the scope of their presentation, and the outcome they wish to achieve.

Formulating the Purpose Statements

By honing in on a very specific topic, you begin the work of formulating your purpose statement. In short, a purpose statement clearly states what it is you would like to achieve. Purpose statements are especially helpful for guiding you as you prepare your speech. When deciding which main points, facts, and examples to include, you should simply ask yourself whether they are relevant not only to the topic you have selected, but also whether they support the goal you outlined in your purpose statement. The general purpose statement of a speech may be to inform, to persuade, to celebrate, or to entertain. Thus, it is common to frame a specific purpose statement around one of these goals. According to O’Hair, Stewart, and Rubenstein, a specific purpose statement “expresses both the topic and the general speech purpose in action form and in terms of the specific objectives you hope to achieve” (2004). The specific purpose is a single sentence that states what the audience will gain from this speech, or what will happen at the end of the speech. The specific purpose is a combination of the general purpose and the topic and helps the speaker to focus in on what can be achieved in a short speech.

To go back to the topic of a dog breed, the general purpose might be to inform, a specific purpose might be: To inform the audience about how corgis became household pets. If the general purpose is to persuade the specific purpose might be: to persuade the audience that dog breed deemed “dangerous” should not be excluded from living in the cities. In short, the general purpose statement lays out the broader goal of the speech while the specific purpose statement describes precisely what the speech is intended to do.  The specific purpose should focus on the audience and be measurable, if I were to ask the audience before I began the speech how many people know how corgis became household pets, they could raise their hand, and if I ask at the end of my speech how many people know how corgis became household pets, I should see a lot more hands.  The specific purpose is the “so what” of the speech, it helps the speaker focus on the audience and take a bigger idea of a topic and narrow it down to what can be accomplished in a short amount of time.

Writing the Thesis Statement

The specific purpose statement is a tool that you will use as you write your speech, but it is unlikely that it will appear verbatim in your speech. Instead, you will want to convert the specific purpose statement into a central idea, or thesis statement that you will share with your audience.  Just like in a written paper, the thesis comes in the first part of the paper, in a speech, the thesis comes within the first few sentences of the speech.  The thesis must be stated and tells the audience what to expect in this speech. A thesis statement may encapsulate the main idea of a speech in just a sentence or two and be designed to give audiences a quick preview of what the entire speech will be about. The thesis statement should be a single, declarative statement followed by a separate preview statement. If you are a Harry Potter enthusiast, you may write a thesis statement (central idea) the following way using the above approach: J.K. Rowling is a renowned author of the Harry Potter series with a Cinderella like story of a rise to fame.

Writing the Preview Statement

A preview statement (or series of statements) is a guide to your speech. This is the part of the speech that literally tells the audience exactly what main points you will cover. If you were to get on any freeway there would be a green sign on the side of the road that tells you what cities are coming up, this is what your preview statement does, it tells the audience what points will be covered in the speech. Best of all, you would know what to look for! So, if we take our J.K Rowling example, the thesis and preview would look like this:  J.K. Rowling is a renowned author of the Harry Potter series with a Cinderella like rags to riches story. First, I will tell you about J.K. Rowling’s humble beginnings. Then, I will describe her personal struggles as a single mom. Finally, I will explain how she overcame adversity and became one of the richest women in the United Kingdom.

Writing the Body of Your Speech

Once you have finished the important work of deciding what your speech will be about, as well as formulating the purpose statement and crafting the thesis, you should turn your attention to writing the body of your speech. The body of your speech consists of 3 -4 main points that support your thesis and help the audience to achieve the specific purpose.  Creating main points helps to chunk the information you are sharing with your audience into easy to understand organization. Choosing your main points will help you focus in on what information you want to share with the audience in order to prove your thesis. Since we can’t tell the audience everything about our topic, we need to choose our main points to make sure we can share the most important information with our audience. All of your main points are contained in the body, and normally this section is prepared well before you ever write the introduction or conclusion. The body of your speech will consume the largest amount of time to present; and it is the opportunity for you to elaborate on your supporting evidence, such as facts, statistics, examples, and opinions that support your thesis statement and do the work you have outlined in the specific purpose statement. Combining these various elements into a cohesive and compelling speech, however, is not without its difficulties, the first of which is deciding which elements to include and how they ought to be organized to best suit your purpose.

clearly states what it is you would like to achieve

“expresses both the topic and the general speech purpose in action form and in terms of the specific objectives you hope to achieve" (O'Hair, Stewart, & Rubenstein, 2004)

single, declarative sentence that captures the essence or main point of your entire presentation

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16 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 (preferably after using an introductory method such as those described in Chapter 8). The statement that reveals your main points is commonly known as the central idea statement (or just the central idea).

Now, at this point we need to make a point about terminology. Your instructor may call the central idea statement “the thesis” or “the thesis statement.” Your English composition instructor probably uses that term in your essay writing. Another instructor may call it the “main idea statement.” All of these are basically synonymous and you should not let the terms confuse you, but you should use the term your instructor uses.

That said, is the central idea statement the very same thing as the thesis sentence in an essay? Yes, in that both are letting the audience know with- out a doubt your topic, purpose, direction, angle and/or point of view. No, in that the rules for writing a “thesis” or central idea statement in a speech are not as strict as in an essay. For example, it is acceptable in a speech to announce the topic and purpose, although it is usually not the most artful or effective way to do it. You may say,

“In this speech I will try to motivate you to join me next month as a volunteer at the regional Special Olympics.”

That would be followed by a preview statement of what the speech’s arguments or reasons for participating will be, such as,

“You will see that it will benefit the community, the participants, and you individually.”

However, another approach is to “capsulize” the purpose, topic, approach, and preview in one succinct statement.

“Your involvement as a volunteer in next month’s regional Special Olympics will be a rewarding experience that will benefit the community, the participants, and you personally.”

This last version is really the better approach and most likely the one your instructor will prefer.

So, you don’t want to just repeat your specific purpose in the central idea statement, but you do want to provide complete information. Also, unlike the formal thesis of your English essays, the central idea statement in a speech can and should use personal language (I, me, we, us, you, your, etc.) and should attempt to be attention-getting and audience-focused.

And importantly, just like a formal thesis sentence, it must be a complete, grammatical sentence.

The point of your central idea statement in terms of your audience is to reveal and clarify the ideas or assertions you will be addressing in your speech, more commonly known as your main points, to fulfill your specific purpose. However, as you are processing your ideas and approach, you may still be working on them. Sometimes those main points will not be clear to you immediately. As much as we would like these writing processes to be straightforward, sometimes we find that we have to revise our original approach. This is why preparing a speech the night before you are giving it is a really, really bad idea. You need lots of time for the preparation and then the practice.

Sometimes you will hear the writing process referred to as “iterative.” This word means, among other things, that a speech or document is not always written in the same order as the audience finally experiences it. You may have noticed that we have not said anything about the introduction of your speech yet. Even though that is the first thing the audience hears, it may be one of the last parts you actually compose. It is best to consider your speech flexible as you work on it, and to be willing to edit and revise. If your instructor asks you to turn the outline in before the speech, you should be clear on how much you can revise after that. Otherwise, it helps to know that you can keep editing your speech until you deliver it, especially while you practice.

Here are some examples of pairs of specific purpose statements and central idea statements.

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.

Specific Purpose: To persuade my political science class that labor unions are no longer a vital political force in the U.S.

Central Idea: Although for decades in the twentieth century labor unions influenced local and national elections, in this speech I will point to how their influence has declined in the last thirty years.

Specific Purpose: To motivate my audience to oppose the policy of drug testing welfare recipients.

Central Idea: Many voices are calling for welfare recipients to go through mandatory, regular drug testing, but this policy is unjust, impractical, and costly, and fair-minded Americans should actively oppose it.

Specific Purpose: To explain to my fellow civic club members why I admire Representative John Lewis.

Central Idea: John Lewis has my admiration for his sacrifices during the Civil Rights movement and his service to Georgia as a leader and U.S. Representative.

Specific Purpose: To describe how makeup is done for the TV show The Walking Dead.

Central Idea: The wildly popular zombie show The Walking Dead achieves incredibly scary and believable makeup effects, and in the next few minutes I will tell you who does it, what they use, and how they do it.

Notice that in all of the above examples that neither the specific purpose nor the central idea ever exceeds one sentence. You may divide your central idea and the preview of main points into two sentences or three sentences, depending on what your instructor directs. If your central idea consists of more than three sentences, then you probably are including too much information and taking up time that is needed for the body of the speech. Additionally, you will have a speech trying to do too much and that goes overtime.

a statement that contains or summarizes a speech’s main points

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Speechwriting

8 Purpose and Thesis

Speechwriting Essentials

In this chapter . . .

As discussed in the chapter on Speaking Occasion , speechwriting begins with careful analysis of the speech occasion and its given circumstances, leading to the choice of an appropriate topic. As with essay writing, the early work of speechwriting follows familiar steps: brainstorming, research, pre-writing, thesis, and so on.

This chapter focuses on techniques that are unique to speechwriting. As a spoken form, speeches must be clear  about the purpose and main idea or “takeaway.” Planned redundancy means that you will be repeating these elements several times over during the speech.

Furthermore, finding purpose and thesis are essential whether you’re preparing an outline for extemporaneous delivery or a completely written manuscript for presentation. When you know your topic, your general and specific purpose, and your thesis or central idea, you have all the elements you need to write a speech that is focused, clear, and audience friendly.

Recognizing the General Purpose

Speeches have traditionally been grouped into one of three categories according to their primary purpose: 1) to inform, 2) to persuade, or 3) to inspire, honor, or entertain. These broad goals are commonly known as the  general purpose of a speech . Earlier, you learned about the actor’s tool of intention or objectives. The general purpose is like a super-objective; it defines the broadest goal of a speech. These three purposes are not necessarily exclusive to the others. A speech designed to be persuasive can also be informative and entertaining. However, a speech should have one primary goal. That is its general purpose.

Why is it helpful to talk about speeches in such broad terms? Being perfectly clear about what you want your speech to do or make happen for your audience will keep you focused. You can make a clearer distinction between whether you want your audience to leave your speech knowing more (to inform), or  ready to take action (to persuade), or feeling something (to inspire)

It’s okay to use synonyms for these broad categories. Here are some of them:

  • To inform could be to explain, to demonstrate, to describe, to teach.
  • To persuade could be to convince, to argue, to motivate, to prove.
  • To inspire might be to honor, or entertain, to celebrate, to mourn.

In summary, the first question you must ask yourself when starting to prepare a speech is, “Is the primary purpose of my speech to inform, to persuade, or to inspire?”

Articulating Specific Purpose

A specific purpose statement builds upon your general purpose and makes it specific (as the name suggests). For example, if you have been invited to give a speech about how to do something, your general purpose is “to inform.”  Choosing a topic appropriate to that general purpose, you decide to speak about how to protect a personal from cyberattacks. Now you are on your way to identifying a specific purpose.

A good specific purpose statement has three elements: goal, target audience, and content.

If you think about the above as a kind of recipe, then the first two “ingredients” — your goal and your audience — should be simple. Words describing the target audience should be as specific as possible. Instead of “my peers,” you could say, for example, “students in their senior year at my university.”

The third ingredient in this recipe is content, or what we call the topic of your speech. This is where things get a bit difficult. You want your content to be specific and something that you can express succinctly in a sentence. Here are some common problems that speakers make in defining the content, and the fix:

Now you know the “recipe” for a specific purpose statement. It’s made up of  T o, plus an active W ord, a specific  A udience, and clearly stated  C ontent. Remember this formula: T + W + A + C.

A: for a group of new students

C: the term “plagiarism”

Here are some further examples a good specific purpose statement:

  • To explain to a group of first-year students how to join a school organization.
  • To persuade the members of the Greek society to take a spring break trip in Daytona Beach.
  • To motivate my classmates in English 101 to participate in a study abroad program.
  • To convince first-year students that they need at least seven hours of sleep per night to do well in their studies.
  • To inspire my Church community about the accomplishments of our pastor.

The General and Specific Purpose Statements are writing tools in the sense that they help you, as a speechwriter, clarify your ideas.

Creating a Thesis Statement

Once you are clear about your general purpose and specific purpose, you can turn your attention to crafting a thesis statement. A thesis is the central idea in an essay or a speech. In speechwriting, the thesis or central idea explains the message of the content. It’s the speech’s “takeaway.” A good thesis statement will also reveal and clarify the ideas or assertions you’ll be addressing in your speech (your main points). Consider this example:

General Purpose: To persuade. Specific Purpose: To motivate my classmates in English 101 to participate in a study abroad program. Thesis: A semester-long study abroad experience produces lifelong benefits by teaching you about another culture, developing your language skills, and enhancing your future career prospects.

The difference between a specific purpose statement and a thesis statement is clear in this example. The thesis provides the takeaway (the lifelong benefits of study abroad). It also points to the assertions that will be addressed in the speech. Like the specific purpose statement, the thesis statement is a writing tool. You’ll incorporate it into your speech, usually as part of the introduction and conclusion.

All good expository, rhetorical, and even narrative writing contains a thesis. Many students and even experienced writers struggle with formulating a thesis. We struggle when we attempt to “come up with something” before doing the necessary research and reflection. A thesis only becomes clear through the thinking and writing process. As you develop your speech content, keep asking yourself: What is important here? If the audience can remember only one thing about this topic, what do I want them to remember?

Example #2: General Purpose: To inform 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.
Example # 3 General Purpose: To Inform Specific Purpose: To describe how makeup is done for the TV show The Walking Dead . Central Idea: The wildly popular zombie show The Walking Dead achieves incredibly scary and believable makeup effects, and in the next few minutes I will tell you who does it, what they use, and how they do it.

Notice in the examples above that neither the specific purpose nor the central idea ever exceeds one sentence. If your central idea consists of more than one sentence, then you are probably including too much information.

Problems to Avoid

The first problem many students have in writing their specific purpose statement has already been mentioned: specific purpose statements sometimes try to cover far too much and are too broad. For example:

“To explain to my classmates the history of ballet.”

Aside from the fact that this subject may be difficult for everyone in your audience to relate to, it’s enough for a three-hour lecture, maybe even a whole course. You’ll probably find that your first attempt at a specific purpose statement will need refining. These examples are much more specific and much more manageable given the limited amount of time you’ll have.

  • To explain to my classmates how ballet came to be performed and studied in the U.S.
  • To explain to my classmates the difference between Russian and French ballet.
  • To explain to my classmates how ballet originated as an art form in the Renaissance.
  • To explain to my classmates the origin of the ballet dancers’ clothing.

The second problem happens when the “communication verb” in the specific purpose does not match the content; for example, persuasive content is paired with “to inform” or “to explain.” Can you find the errors in the following purpose statements?

  • To inform my audience why capital punishment is unconstitutional. (This is persuasive. It can’t be informative since it’s taking a side)
  • To persuade my audience about the three types of individual retirement accounts. (Even though the purpose statement says “persuade,” it isn’t persuading the audience of anything. It is informative.)
  • To inform my classmates that Universal Studios is a better theme park than Six Flags over Georgia. (This is clearly an opinion; hence it is a persuasive speech and not merely informative)

The third problem exists when the content part of the specific purpose statement has two parts. One specific purpose is enough. These examples cover two different topics.

  • To explain to my audience how to swing a golf club and choose the best golf shoes.
  • To persuade my classmates to be involved in the Special Olympics and vote to fund better classes for the intellectually disabled.

To fix this problem of combined or hybrid purposes, you’ll need to select one of the topics in these examples and speak on that one alone.

The fourth problem with both specific purpose and central idea statements is related to formatting. There are some general guidelines that need to be followed in terms of how you write out these elements of your speech:

  • Don’t write either statement as a question.
  • Always use complete sentences for central idea statements and infinitive phrases (beginning with “to”) for the specific purpose statement.
  • Use concrete language (“I admire Beyoncé for being a talented performer and businesswoman”) and avoid subjective or slang terms (“My speech is about why I think Beyoncé is the bomb”) or jargon and acronyms (“PLA is better than CBE for adult learners.”)

There are also problems to avoid in writing the central idea statement. As mentioned above, remember that:

  • The specific purpose and central idea statements are not the same thing, although they are related.
  • The central idea statement should be clear and not complicated or wordy; it should “stand out” to the audience. As you practice delivery, you should emphasize it with your voice.
  • The central idea statement should not be the first thing you say but should follow the steps of a good introduction as outlined in the next chapters.

You should be aware that all aspects of your speech are constantly going to change as you move toward the moment of giving your speech. The exact wording of your central idea may change, and you can experiment with different versions for effectiveness. However, your specific purpose statement should not change unless there is a good reason to do so. There are many aspects to consider in the seemingly simple task of writing a specific purpose statement and its companion, the central idea statement. Writing good ones at the beginning will save you some trouble later in the speech preparation process.

Public Speaking as Performance Copyright © 2023 by Mechele Leon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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9.1 Selecting and Narrowing a Topic

Learning objectives.

  • Employ audience analysis.
  • Determine the general purpose of a speech.
  • List strategies for narrowing a speech topic.
  • Compose an audience-centered, specific purpose statement for a speech.
  • Compose a thesis statement that summarizes the central idea of a speech.

There are many steps that go into the speech-making process. Many people do not approach speech preparation in an informed and systematic way, which results in many poorly planned or executed speeches that are not pleasant to sit through as an audience member and don’t reflect well on the speaker. Good speaking skills can help you stand out from the crowd in increasingly competitive environments. While a polished delivery is important and will be discussed more in Chapter 10 “Delivering a Speech” , good speaking skills must be practiced much earlier in the speech-making process.

Analyze Your Audience

Audience analysis is key for a speaker to achieve his or her speech goal. One of the first questions you should ask yourself is “Who is my audience?” While there are some generalizations you can make about an audience, a competent speaker always assumes there is a diversity of opinion and background among his or her listeners. You can’t assume from looking that everyone in your audience is the same age, race, sexual orientation, religion, or many other factors. Even if you did have a fairly homogenous audience, with only one or two people who don’t match up, you should still consider those one or two people. When I have a class with one or two older students, I still consider the different age demographics even though twenty other students are eighteen to twenty-two years old. In short, a good speaker shouldn’t intentionally alienate even one audience member. Of course, a speaker could still unintentionally alienate certain audience members, especially in persuasive speaking situations. While this may be unavoidable, speakers can still think critically about what content they include in the speech and the effects it may have.

9.1.1N

Good speakers should always assume a diversity of backgrounds and opinions among their audience members.

TEDx UniversityofTulsa – Audience – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Even though you should remain conscious of the differences among audience members, you can also focus on commonalities. When delivering a speech in a college classroom, you can rightfully assume that everyone in your audience is currently living in the general area of the school, is enrolled at the school, and is currently taking the same speech class. In professional speeches, you can often assume that everyone is part of the same professional organization if you present at a conference, employed at the same place or in the same field if you are giving a sales presentation, or experiencing the nervousness of starting a new job if you are leading an orientation or training. You may not be able to assume much more, but that’s enough to add some tailored points to your speech that will make the content more relevant.

Demographic Audience Analysis

Demographics are broad sociocultural categories, such as age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, education level, religion, ethnicity, and nationality that are used to segment a larger population. Since you are always going to have diverse demographics among your audience members, it would be unwise to focus solely on one group over another. As a speaker, being aware of diverse demographics is useful in that you can tailor and vary examples to appeal to different groups of people. As you can read in the “Getting Real” feature in this chapter, engaging in audience segmentation based on demographics is much more targeted in some careers.

Psychological Audience Analysis

Psychological audience analysis considers your audience’s psychological dispositions toward the topic, speaker, and occasion and how their attitudes, beliefs, and values inform those dispositions. When considering your audience’s disposition toward your topic, you want to assess your audience’s knowledge of the subject. You wouldn’t include a lesson on calculus in an introductory math course. You also wouldn’t go into the intricacies of a heart transplant to an audience with no medical training. A speech on how to give a speech would be redundant in a public speaking class, but it could be useful for high school students or older adults who are going through a career transition. Students in my class recently had to theme their informative speeches around the topic of renewable energy. They were able to tie their various topics to a new renewable energy production plant that opened that semester on our campus. They had to be careful not to overrun their speech with scientific jargon. One student compared the concept of biogasification to the natural gas production that comes from living creatures like humans and cows. This comparison got a laugh from the audience and also made the seemingly complex concept more understandable.

The audience may or may not have preconceptions about you as a speaker. One way to positively engage your audience is to make sure you establish your credibility. In terms of credibility , you want the audience to see you as competent, trustworthy, and engaging. If the audience is already familiar with you, they may already see you as a credible speaker because they’ve seen you speak before, have heard other people evaluate you positively, or know that you have credentials and/or experience that make you competent. If you know you have a reputation that isn’t as positive, you will want to work hard to overcome those perceptions. To establish your trustworthiness, you want to incorporate good supporting material into your speech, verbally cite sources, and present information and arguments in a balanced, noncoercive, and nonmanipulative way. To establish yourself as engaging, you want to have a well-delivered speech, which requires you to practice, get feedback, and practice some more. Your verbal and nonverbal delivery should be fluent and appropriate to the audience and occasion. We will discuss speech delivery more in Chapter 10 “Delivering a Speech” .

The circumstances that led your audience to attend your speech will affect their view of the occasion. A captive audience includes people who are required to attend your presentation. Mandatory meetings are common in workplace settings. Whether you are presenting for a group of your employees, coworkers, classmates, or even residents in your dorm if you are a resident advisor, you shouldn’t let the fact that the meeting is required give you license to give a half-hearted speech. In fact, you may want to build common ground with your audience to overcome any potential resentment for the required gathering. In your speech class, your classmates are captive audience members.

9.1.2N

When you speak in a classroom or at a business meeting, you may have a captive audience.

Presbyterian Women – Business Meeting – CC BY-NC 2.0.

View having a captive classroom audience as a challenge, and use this space as a public speaking testing laboratory. You can try new things and push your boundaries more, because this audience is very forgiving and understanding since they have to go through the same things you do. In general, you may have to work harder to maintain the attention of a captive audience. Since coworkers may expect to hear the same content they hear every time this particular meeting comes around, and classmates have to sit through dozens and dozens of speeches, use your speech as an opportunity to stand out from the crowd or from what’s been done before.

A voluntary audience includes people who have decided to come hear your speech. This is perhaps one of the best compliments a speaker can receive, even before they’ve delivered the speech. Speaking for a voluntary audience often makes me have more speaking anxiety than I do when speaking in front of my class or my colleagues, because I know the audience may have preconceived notions or expectations that I must live up to. This is something to be aware of if you are used to speaking in front of captive audiences. To help adapt to a voluntary audience, ask yourself what the audience members expect. Why are they here? If they’ve decided to come and see you, they must be interested in your topic or you as a speaker. Perhaps you have a reputation for being humorous, being able to translate complicated information into more digestible parts, or being interactive with the audience and responding to questions. Whatever the reason or reasons, it’s important to make sure you deliver on those aspects. If people are voluntarily giving up their time to hear you, you want to make sure they get what they expected.

A final aspect of psychological audience analysis involves considering the audience’s attitudes, beliefs, and values, as they will influence all the perceptions mentioned previously. As you can see in Figure 9.1 “Psychological Analysis: Attitudes, Beliefs, and Values” , we can think of our attitudes, beliefs, and values as layers that make up our perception and knowledge.

Figure 9.1 Psychological Analysis: Attitudes, Beliefs, and Values

image

At the outermost level, attitudes are our likes and dislikes, and they are easier to influence than beliefs or values because they are often reactionary. If you’ve ever followed the approval rating of a politician, you know that people’s likes and dislikes change frequently and can change dramatically based on recent developments. This is also true interpersonally. For those of you who have siblings, think about how you can go from liking your sisters or brothers, maybe because they did something nice for you, to disliking them because they upset you. This seesaw of attitudes can go up and down over the course of a day or even a few minutes, but it can still be useful for a speaker to consider. If there is something going on in popular culture or current events that has captured people’s attention and favor or disfavor, then you can tap into that as a speaker to better relate to your audience.

When considering beliefs, we are dealing with what we believe “is or isn’t” or “true or false.” We come to hold our beliefs based on what we are taught, experience for ourselves, or have faith in. Our beliefs change if we encounter new information or experiences that counter previous ones. As people age and experience more, their beliefs are likely to change, which is natural.

Our values deal with what we view as right or wrong, good or bad. Our values do change over time but usually as a result of a life transition or life-changing event such as a birth, death, or trauma. For example, when many people leave their parents’ control for the first time and move away from home, they have a shift in values that occurs as they make this important and challenging life transition. In summary, audiences enter a speaking situation with various psychological dispositions, and considering what those may be can help speakers adapt their messages and better meet their speech goals.

Situational Audience Analysis

Situational audience analysis considers the physical surroundings and setting of a speech. It’s always a good idea to visit the place you will be speaking ahead of time so you will know what to expect. If you expect to have a lectern and arrive to find only a table at the front of the room, that little difference could end up increasing your anxiety and diminishing your speaking effectiveness. I have traveled to many different universities, conference facilities, and organizations to speak, and I always ask my host to show me the room I will be speaking in. I take note of the seating arrangement, the presence of technology and its compatibility with what I plan on using, the layout of the room including windows and doors, and anything else that’s relevant to my speech. Knowing your physical setting ahead of time allows you to alter the physical setting, when possible, or alter your message or speaking strategies if needed. Sometimes I open or close blinds, move seats around, plug my computer in to make sure it works, or even practice some or all of my presentation. I have also revised a speech to be more interactive and informal when I realized I would speak in a lounge rather than a classroom or lecture hall.

“Getting Real”

Marketing Careers and Audience Segmentation

Advertisers and marketers use sophisticated people and programs to ensure that their message is targeted to particular audiences. These people are often called marketing specialists (Career Cruising, 2012). They research products and trends in markets and consumer behaviors and may work for advertising agencies, marketing firms, consulting firms, or other types of agencies or businesses. The pay range is varied, from $35,000 to $166,000 a year for most, and good communication, creativity, and analytic thinking skills are a must. If you stop to think about it, we are all targeted based on our demographics, psychographics, and life situations. Whereas advertisers used to engage in more mass marketing, to undifferentiated receivers, the categories are now much more refined and the target audiences more defined. We only need to look at the recent increase in marketing toward “tweens” or the eight-to-twelve age group. Although this group was once lumped in with younger kids or older teens, they are now targeted because they have “more of their own money to spend and more influence over familial decisions than ever before” (Siegel et al., 2004).

Whether it’s Red Bull aggressively marketing to the college-aged group or gyms marketing to single, working, young adults, much thought and effort goes into crafting a message with a particular receiver in mind. Some companies even create an “ideal customer,” going as far as to name the person, create a psychological and behavioral profile for them, and talk about them as if they were real during message development (Solomon, 2006).

Facebook has also revolutionized targeted marketing, which has led to some controversy and backlash (Greenwell, 2012). The “Like” button on Facebook that was introduced in 2010 is now popping up on news sites, company pages, and other websites. When you click the “Like” button, you are providing important information about your consumer behaviors that can then be fed into complicated algorithms that also incorporate demographic and psychographic data pulled from your Facebook profile and even information from your friends. All this is in an effort to more directly market to you, which became easier in January of 2012 when Facebook started allowing targeted advertisements to go directly into users’ “newsfeeds.”

Markets are obviously segmented based on demographics like gender and age, but here are some other categories and examples of market segments: geography (region, city size, climate), lifestyle (couch potato, economical/frugal, outdoorsy, status seeker), family life cycle (bachelors, newlyweds, full nesters, empty nesters), and perceived benefit of use (convenience, durability, value for the money, social acceptance), just to name a few (Schiffman & Kanuk, 2000).

  • Make a list of the various segments you think marketers might put you in. Have you ever thought about these before? Why or why not?
  • Take note of the advertisements that catch your eye over a couple days. Do they match up with any of the segments you listed in the first question?
  • Are there any groups that you think it would be unethical to segment and target for marketing? Explain your answer.

Determine Your Purpose, Topic, and Thesis

General purpose.

Your speeches will usually fall into one of three categories. In some cases we speak to inform, meaning we attempt to teach our audience using factual objective evidence. In other cases, we speak to persuade, as we try to influence an audience’s beliefs, attitudes, values, or behaviors. Last, we may speak to entertain or amuse our audience. In summary, the general purpose of your speech will be to inform, to persuade, or to entertain.

You can see various topics that may fit into the three general purposes for speaking in Table 9.1 “General Purposes and Speech Topics” . Some of the topics listed could fall into another general purpose category depending on how the speaker approached the topic, or they could contain elements of more than one general purpose. For example, you may have to inform your audience about your topic in one main point before you can persuade them, or you may include some entertaining elements in an informative or persuasive speech to help make the content more engaging for the audience. There should not be elements of persuasion included in an informative speech, however, since persuading is contrary to the objective approach that defines an informative general purpose. In any case, while there may be some overlap between general purposes, most speeches can be placed into one of the categories based on the overall content of the speech.

Table 9.1 General Purposes and Speech Topics

Choosing a Topic

Once you have determined (or been assigned) your general purpose, you can begin the process of choosing a topic. In this class, you may be given the option to choose any topic for your informative or persuasive speech, but in most academic, professional, and personal settings, there will be some parameters set that will help guide your topic selection. Speeches in future classes will likely be organized around the content being covered in the class. Speeches delivered at work will usually be directed toward a specific goal such as welcoming new employees, informing about changes in workplace policies, or presenting quarterly sales figures. We are also usually compelled to speak about specific things in our personal lives, like addressing a problem at our child’s school by speaking out at a school board meeting. In short, it’s not often that you’ll be starting from scratch when you begin to choose a topic.

Whether you’ve received parameters that narrow your topic range or not, the first step in choosing a topic is brainstorming. Brainstorming involves generating many potential topic ideas in a fast-paced and nonjudgmental manner. Brainstorming can take place multiple times as you narrow your topic. For example, you may begin by brainstorming a list of your personal interests that can then be narrowed down to a speech topic. It makes sense that you will enjoy speaking about something that you care about or find interesting. The research and writing will be more interesting, and the delivery will be easier since you won’t have to fake enthusiasm for your topic. Speaking about something you’re familiar with and interested in can also help you manage speaking anxiety. While it’s good to start with your personal interests, some speakers may get stuck here if they don’t feel like they can make their interests relevant to the audience. In that case, you can look around for ideas. If your topic is something that’s being discussed in newspapers, on television, in the lounge of your dorm, or around your family’s dinner table, then it’s likely to be of interest and be relevant since it’s current. Figure 9.1 “Psychological Analysis: Attitudes, Beliefs, and Values” shows how brainstorming works in stages. A list of topics that interest the speaker are on the top row. The speaker can brainstorm subtopics for each idea to see which one may work the best. In this case, the speaker could decide to focus his or her informative speech on three common ways people come to own dogs: through breeders, pet stores, or shelters.

Figure 9.2 Brainstorming and Narrowing a Topic

image

Overall you can follow these tips as you select and narrow your topic:

  • Brainstorm topics that you are familiar with, interest you, and/or are currently topics of discussion.
  • Choose a topic appropriate for the assignment/occasion.
  • Choose a topic that you can make relevant to your audience.
  • Choose a topic that you have the resources to research (access to information, people to interview, etc.).

Specific Purpose

Once you have brainstormed, narrowed, and chosen your topic, you can begin to draft your specific purpose statement. Your specific purpose is a one-sentence statement that includes the objective you want to accomplish in your speech. You do not speak aloud your specific purpose during your speech; you use it to guide your researching, organizing, and writing. A good specific purpose statement is audience centered, agrees with the general purpose, addresses one main idea, and is realistic.

An audience-centered specific purpose statement usually contains an explicit reference to the audience—for example, “my audience” or “the audience.” Since a speaker may want to see if he or she effectively met his or her specific purpose, the objective should be written in such a way that it could be measured or assessed, and since a speaker actually wants to achieve his or her speech goal, the specific purpose should also be realistic. You won’t be able to teach the audience a foreign language or persuade an atheist to Christianity in a six- to nine-minute speech. The following is a good example of a good specific purpose statement for an informative speech: “By the end of my speech, the audience will be better informed about the effects the green movement has had on schools.” The statement is audience centered and matches with the general purpose by stating, “the audience will be better informed.” The speaker could also test this specific purpose by asking the audience to write down, at the end of the speech, three effects the green movement has had on schools.

Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement is a one-sentence summary of the central idea of your speech that you either explain or defend. You would explain the thesis statement for an informative speech, since these speeches are based on factual, objective material. You would defend your thesis statement for a persuasive speech, because these speeches are argumentative and your thesis should clearly indicate a stance on a particular issue. In order to make sure your thesis is argumentative and your stance clear, it is helpful to start your thesis with the words “I believe.” When starting to work on a persuasive speech, it can also be beneficial to write out a counterargument to your thesis to ensure that it is arguable.

The thesis statement is different from the specific purpose in two main ways. First, the thesis statement is content centered, while the specific purpose statement is audience centered. Second, the thesis statement is incorporated into the spoken portion of your speech, while the specific purpose serves as a guide for your research and writing and an objective that you can measure. A good thesis statement is declarative, agrees with the general and specific purposes, and focuses and narrows your topic. Although you will likely end up revising and refining your thesis as you research and write, it is good to draft a thesis statement soon after drafting a specific purpose to help guide your progress. As with the specific purpose statement, your thesis helps ensure that your research, organizing, and writing are focused so you don’t end up wasting time with irrelevant materials. Keep your specific purpose and thesis statement handy (drafting them at the top of your working outline is a good idea) so you can reference them often. The following examples show how a general purpose, specific purpose, and thesis statement match up with a topic area:

Topic: My Craziest Adventure

General purpose: To Entertain

Specific purpose: By the end of my speech, the audience will appreciate the lasting memories that result from an eighteen-year-old visiting New Orleans for the first time.

Thesis statement: New Orleans offers young tourists many opportunities for fun and excitement.

Topic: Renewable Energy

General purpose: To Inform

Specific purpose: By the end of my speech, the audience will be able to explain the basics of using biomass as fuel.

Thesis statement: Biomass is a renewable resource that releases gases that can be used for fuel.

Topic: Privacy Rights

General purpose: To Persuade

Specific purpose : By the end of my speech, my audience will believe that parents should not be able to use tracking devices to monitor their teenage child’s activities.

Thesis statement: I believe that it is a violation of a child’s privacy to be electronically monitored by his or her parents.

Key Takeaways

  • Getting integrated: Public speaking training builds transferrable skills that are useful in your college classes, career, personal relationships, and civic life.
  • Demographic, psychographic, and situational audience analysis help tailor your speech content to your audience.
  • The general and specific purposes of your speech are based on the speaking occasion and include the objective you would like to accomplish by the end of your speech. Determining these early in the speech-making process will help focus your research and writing.
  • Brainstorm to identify topics that fit within your interests, and then narrow your topic based on audience analysis and the guidelines provided.
  • A thesis statement summarizes the central idea of your speech and will be explained or defended using supporting material. Referencing your thesis statement often will help ensure that your speech is coherent.
  • Getting integrated: Why do some people dread public speaking or just want to avoid it? Identify some potential benefits of public speaking in academic, professional, personal, and civic contexts that might make people see public speaking in a different light.
  • Conduct some preliminary audience analysis of your class and your classroom. What are some demographics that might be useful for you to consider? What might be some attitudes, beliefs, and values people have that might be relevant to your speech topics? What situational factors might you want to consider before giving your speech?
  • Pay attention to the news (in the paper, on the Internet, television, or radio). Identify two informative and two persuasive speech topics that are based in current events.

Career Cruising, “Marketing Specialist,” Career Cruising: Explore Careers , accessed January 24, 2012, http://www.careercruising.com .

Greenwell, D., “You Might Not ‘Like’ Facebook So Much after Reading This…” The Times (London) , sec. T2, January 13, 2012, 4–5.

Siegel, D. L., Timothy J. Coffey, and Gregory Livingston, The Great Tween Buying Machine (Chicago, IL: Dearborn Trade, 2004).

Solomon, M. R., Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having, and Being , 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2006), 10–11.

Communication in the Real World Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Develop Your Central Idea

7.3 State a single audience-centered central idea with direct, specific language in a complete declarative sentence.

Having stated the specific purpose of your speech, you are ready to develop your central idea, the first step highlighted in Figure 7.2 . The central idea (sometimes called the thesis ) states in one sentence what the speech is about . You can use your specific-purpose statement to help you write your central idea. However, as Table 7.2 summarizes, a central idea differs from a purpose statement in both focus and application. A purpose statement focuses on audience behavior, whereas the central idea focuses on the content of the speech. A purpose statement guides your decisions as you prepare the speech; the central idea becomes part of your final speech.

State your central idea as a one-sentence summary of your speech, and then generate main ideas by looking for natural divisions, reasons, or steps to support your central idea.

Copyrighted by Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Table 7.2 Purpose Statement versus Central Idea

Copyrighted by Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, NJ

Professional speech coach Judith Humphrey explains the importance of a central idea:

Ask yourself before writing a speech . . . “What’s my point?” Be able to state that message in a single clear sentence. Everything else you say will support that single argument. 9

The guidelines in the following sections can help you to put your central idea into words.

Characteristics of a Good Central Idea or Thesis Statement

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Chapter 5: Developing Topics for Your Speech

5.1 – getting started with your topic and purpose.

When we start preparing for a speech, we often think about topics. That is understandable, but before we go any further, let’s recalibrate our minds to think also, or even more, about “purpose.” There are some benefits to considering purpose and topic simultaneously. Doing so will help you focus your speech to a manageable amount of content and become more audience-centered. Also, you will be able to make strategic decisions about other aspects of the speech, such as organization, supporting evidence, and visual aids.

Speeches have traditionally been seen to have one of three broad purposes: to inform, to persuade, and to inspire/entertain. This author contends that two of those three purposes are disingenuous.

Remember rule number two of communication: all communication is persuasive.

Anytime a person says they are speaking merely to inform, one must wonder what they want the listener to do with the information. If an action is to be taken or an opinion is to be changed, that would mean it was persuasive, not merely informative. If no action was to be taken and no opinions were to be changed, what was the purpose of the speech?

The more important planning need for public speaking is to know who you want to persuade to do what. The speaker must have a clear understanding of this question for every speech.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with communication being persuasive. Some students are nonplussed at the idea of all communication being persuasive, but they’re probably conflating  persuasive with  manipulative ; manipulation is persuasion through dishonesty, which is unethical. This author recommends being honest in communication at all times.

However, when thinking about the traditional notions of speech purposes, one could note that these three purposes are not necessarily exclusive of the others. A speech designed to be persuasive can also be informative and entertaining, even if neither of those is the main purpose.

As you begin crafting your speech, consider these two basic questions:

  • What value, connection, or interest does my purpose/topic have for the audience? What audience needs do they meet?
  • Why would the audience consider me, the speaker, a credible source on this purpose/topic?

As you develop your speech, you should answer these questions, directly or indirectly, for your audience. If your audience is unfamiliar with your topic, for instance, you would want to address the first one early in the speech. If your audience does not know anything about you, you should mention (in an appropriate way) your background in the subject area.

One question that is embedded in the mind of anybody listening to the speech is “WIIFM”: “What’s In It For Me?” Keep the WIIFM acronym in mind as you start to think about your speeches more and more from your audience’s perspective and make sure that your audience can find something in your speech that is, indeed, in it for them.

5.2 – Formulating a Specific Purpose Statement

Now that you know your general purpose, you can start to move in the direction of the specific purpose. A specific purpose statement builds on your general purpose (to persuade) and makes it more specific (as the name suggests).

In writing your specific purpose statement, you will take three contributing elements that will come together. These three elements are you , the audience , and the context .

An old adage states, “Write about what you know.” In many ways, that is a great place to start with creating a speech, although you will need to consult other sources, as well. If you start with ideas that reflect your interests, goals, and passions, that passion and commitment will come across in your speech, give you more credibility in the eyes of your audience, and make your speech more interesting.

This would be a good place for you to do an inventory. Ask yourself about your connection to a wide variety of topics:

  • jobs you’ve had
  • places you’ve volunteered
  • clubs or organizations you’ve joined
  • times you’ve changed your mind about a serious topic
  • an important lesson you learned or an amazing course you took
  • hobbies about which you’re passionate
  • places you’ve traveled
  • sports or musical instruments you play
  • books, music, shows, or movies that helped you grow in some way

Consider if any ideas can be generated from your experiences or interests. You might find that an interesting topic can emerge from connecting or contrasting two of those, such as how travel taught you to enjoy following your own goals, but sports taught you how to achieve goals as a team. You might choose a provocative question to apply to one, such as why a particular book should be required reading in school or why everybody should work for a year before going to college (which isn’t bad advice, by the way).

At the same time, remember your audience wants to know WIIFM. Ultimately, your speech isn’t for you; it’s for the people in the audience.

The Audience

What you love or hate may be in stark contrast to how your audience feels, so keep them in mind at all times. After you examine what you know and are passionate about, you have to determine if and how the topic has practical value or interest for others. It may be that it is a topic the audience is not immediately interested in, but needs to know about for their own benefit. Then you need to find the angle and approach that will help them see the benefit of the topic and listen to you. The more you know about your audience, the better you can achieve this goal. Good speakers are very knowledgeable about their audiences.

The Context

Many aspects come into the context of a speech, but as mentioned in Chapter 2, the main ones are the time, place, and reason(s) for the event and the audience being there. Your classroom speeches have a fairly set context: time limits, the classroom, assignment specifications. Other speeches you will give in college (or in your career and personal life) will require you to think more deeply about the context just as you would the audience.

Putting It Together

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:

Specific Communication Word (in infinitive phrase) (to explain, to demonstrate, to describe, to define, to persuade, to 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)

Each of these parts of the specific purpose is important. The first two parts make sure you are clear on your purpose and know specifically who will be hearing your message.

The content part of the specific purpose statement must first be singular and focused, and the content must match the purpose. The word “and” really should not appear in the specific purpose statement since that would make it seem that you have two purposes and two topics. Obviously, the specific purpose statement’s content must be very narrowly defined and, well, specific. One mistake beginning speakers often make is to try to cover too much material. This comes from an emphasis on the topic more than the purpose and from not keeping audience and context in mind. In other words, go deep (specific), not broad.

Next, the specific purpose statement should be relevant to the audience. Also keep in mind what you want the audience to walk away with or what you want them to know, to be able to do, to think, to act upon, or to respond to your topic—your ultimate outcome or result.

Here are several examples of specific purpose statements. Notice how they meet the standards of being singular, focused, relevant, and consistent.

To argue for a group of new graduate students the best definition of “academic freedom.”
To explain to the Lions Club members the problems faced by veterans of the war in Afghanistan.
To persuade the members of city council to allocate funds for a new recreation centre.
To motivate my classmates to engage in the College’s study abroad program.
To convince my classroom audience that they need at least seven hours of sleep per night to do well in their studies.

Despite all the information given about specific purpose statements so far, the next advice you read will seem strange: n ever start your speech by saying your specific purpose to the audience. In a sense, it is just for you and the instructor. For you, it’s like a note you might tack on the mirror or refrigerator to keep you on track. For the instructor, it’s a way for them to know you are accomplishing both the assignment and what you set out to do. Avoid the temptation to default to saying it at the beginning of your speech. It will seem awkward and repetitive. Even when you’re watching a moving titled Finding Nemo , you don’t want somebody to spoil the ending, right? (They find Nemo. It’s in the title.)

5.3 – Formulating a Central Idea Statement

The central idea statement is the same as the thesis sentence in an essay in that both are letting the audience know, without a doubt, your topic, purpose, direction, angle and/or point of view. On the other hand, the rules for writing a “thesis” or central idea statement in a speech are not as strict as in an essay. For example, you might phrase this central idea as a rhetorical question or a call to action. You certainly don’t want to begin with a boring essay lead , such as this:

“In this speech, I will try to motivate you to join me next month as a volunteer at the regional Special Olympics.”

That’s awful. Public speaking should be engaging and needs to tease the listener’s attention and curiosity, not hit them in the head with blunt, boring, direct messages.

Look at how the version below “hooks” the listener by providing a call to action, coupled with the hint of a surprise ending. They’ll need to listen to the speech to know what the surprise is at the end.

“If you want to experience an exciting new challenge, volunteering in next month’s regional Special Olympics would benefit the community, the participants, and you personally in ways you might not have anticipated.”

So, you don’t want to just repeat your specific purpose in the central idea statement, but you do want to provide complete information. Also, unlike the formal thesis of your English essays, the central idea statement in a speech can and should use personal language (I, me, we, us, you, your) and should attempt to be attention-getting and audience-focused. However, like a formal thesis sentence, it needs to be a complete sentence.

Another difference between the central idea statement and a thesis is there is no one place it must land in a speech. It could be the first line or it could even land somewhere in the middle (though probably not later than that).

You might choose to divide your central idea and the preview of main points into two sentences or three sentences if that works best for your speech. If your central idea consists of more than three sentences, then you are probably including too much information and taking up time that is needed for the body of the speech. Additionally, you will have a speech trying to do too much and that goes overtime.

The point of your central idea statement in terms of your audience is to reveal and clarify the ideas or assertions you will be addressing in your speech to fulfill your specific purpose.

However, as you are processing your ideas and approach, you may still be working on them. Sometimes those main points will not be clear to you immediately. As much as we would like these writing processes to be straightforward, sometimes we find that we have to revise our original approach.

This is why preparing a speech the night before you are giving it is a really, really bad idea. You need lots of time for the preparation and then the practice.

Sometimes you will hear the writing process referred to as “iterative.” This word means, among other definitions, that a speech or document is not always written in the same order as the audience finally experiences it. You may have noticed that we have not said anything about the introduction of your speech yet. Even though that is the first content the audience hears, it may be one of the last parts you actually compose. Consider your speech flexible as you work on it and to be willing to edit and revise. If your instructor asks you to submit the outline before the speech, you should be clear on how much you can revise after that. Otherwise, know that you can keep editing your speech until you deliver it, especially while you practice.

Be aware that all aspects of your speech are going to change as you move toward giving your speech. The exact wording of your central idea may change and you can experiment with different versions. However, your specific purpose statement should not change unless there is a really good reason. There are many aspects to consider in the seemingly simple task of writing a specific purpose statement and its companion, the central idea statement. Writing good ones early will save you time and effort later in your preparations.

Attribution

This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking , 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Public Speaking for Today's Audiences by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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eCore Public Speaking Textbook (COMM 1113)

  • Download PDF Prints
  • The Basics of Public Speaking
  • Listening in Public Speaking Settings
  • Ethics in Public Speaking
  • Unit 1 Glossary

Developing Topics for Your Speech

  • Organizing and Outlining
  • Introductions and Conclusions
  • Special Occasions
  • Unit 2 Glossary
  • Audience Analysis
  • Researching Your Speeches
  • Supporting Your Speech Ideas
  • Informative Speaking
  • Unit 3 Glossary
  • Persuasive Speaking
  • Logical Reasoning
  • Presentation Aids
  • Unit 4 Glossary
  • Attribution and References

After reading this section, the student will be able to:

• Distinguish between the specific purpose, central idea, and main points of a speech

• Differentiate between a speech to inform, persuade, and inspire or entertain

• Write a specific purpose statement

• Write a thesis or central idea statement

• Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable specific purpose and central idea statements

• Compose appropriate specific purpose and central idea statements for informative, persuasive, and inspirational/entertaining speeches

Getting Started with Your Topic and Purpose

So far in this text we have examined many practical and theoretical aspects of public speaking as a method of communicating and as an art form. In this chapter we are going to get into the real meat of putting your speech together.

Often when we get to the point of sitting down to prepare a speech, we think about topics. That is understandable, but before we go any further, let’s recalibrate our minds to think also, or even more, about “purpose.” There are some benefits to considering purpose and topic simultaneously. Doing so will help you focus your speech to a manageable amount of content and become more audience-centered. Also, you will be able to make strategic decisions about other aspects of the speech, such as organization, supporting evidence, and visual aids.

Speeches have traditionally been seen to have one of three broad purposes: to inform, to persuade, and— Well, to be honest, different words are used for the third kind of speech purpose: to inspire, to amuse, to please, to delight, or to entertain. We will just use “to inspire” as the overall term here. These broad goals are commonly known as a speech’s general purpose , since, in general, you are trying to inform, persuade, or entertain/inspire your audience without regard to specifically what the topic will be. Perhaps you could think of them as appealing to the understanding of the audience (informative), the will or action (persuasive), and the emotion or pleasure.

Your instructor will most likely assign you an informative and a persuasive speech, and then perhaps one more. The third one might be a special occasion speech, such as a tribute (commemorative), an after-dinner speech, a toast, or a eulogy. These four types of speeches fit into the category of “to inspire” or “to entertain.” This text has sections on and examples of all three types.

It should be understood that these three purposes are not necessarily exclusive of the others. A speech designed to be persuasive can also be informative and entertaining, even if neither of those is the main purpose.

As we saw in Unit 1, the canons of rhetoric is the traditional way to explain the process of preparing a speech. That process is still a practical guide for today. The first canon, invention, or inventio , is discussed, at least in part, in this unit. Although in modern times we tend to think of invention as the creation of a new technology, invention basically means “discovery” of what to say.

The scholars of rhetoric from the ancient times encouraged the use of questions to “discover” the arguments and content of the speech. These were called “ topoi ” and there were a couple of dozen of them; modern scholars have reframed them as questions that can be used to develop reasons and material. These can be helpful in many ways, but here we will present just two basic questions you should consider for beginning your speech:

1. What value, connection, or interest does my purpose/topic have for the audience? What needs do they meet?

2. Why would the audience consider me, the speaker, a credible source on this purpose/topic?

We suggest that these two questions be in your mind as you develop your speech. You should answer them, directly or indirectly, for your audience in your speech. If your audience is unfamiliar with your topic, for instance, you would want to address the first one early in the speech. If your audience does not know anything about you, you should mention (in an appropriate way) your background in the subject area.

One of the authors has a core concept in her basic public speaking classes: The most effective speeches are the ones that answer the questions in the minds of the audience. She uses that to change the students’ focus from speaking just to express themselves to being audience-centered. She also uses the acronym “WIIFM.” This is not a new radio station, but the abbreviation for “What’s In It For Me?” The audience is asking this question, directly or indirectly, during a speech. Keep the WIIFM acronym in mind as you start to think about your speeches more and more from your audience’s perspective.

Formulating a 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 (such as to inform) 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, for example, the history of NASA’s Shuttle program.

the central idea or thesis statement of a speech should be

In writing your specific purpose statement, you will take three contributing elements that will come together to help you determine your specific purpose. The diagram shows those three elements. These three elements are you (your interests, your background, past jobs, experience, education, major), your audience (which you learned to analyze later), and the context or setting (also discussed later).

An old adage states, “Write about what you know.” In many ways, that is a great place to start with creating a speech, although you will need to consult other sources as well. If you start with ideas that reflect your interests, goals, and passions, that passion and commitment will come across in your speech, give you more credibility in the eyes of your audience, and make your speech more interesting.

This would be a good place for you to do an inventory. Retail stores do regular inventories to know what is “really there” in the stores. You have much more going on in your brain and background than you can be conscious of at any one time. Being asked the right kinds of prompts can help you find ideas. Below is a list of prompts for this inventory. To help generate some ideas for your speeches, complete the phrases and/or answer the questions below to see if any ideas can be generated from experiences or interests you may not have realized you had.

the central idea or thesis statement of a speech should be

This inventory may seem long and intrusive, but digging a little deeper may help you find ideas and directions that are unique to you. You want to find this kind of subject matter and not the same topics others will gravitate towards just because they saw a list on Google on informative speech topics. Also, generating your list based on these questions and prompts will get you excited about your topic and talking about it to your classmates. For example, a very common persuasive speech topic is organ donation. There is nothing wrong with that topic per se and it is an important issue. However, if you ask yourself the right questions, you may come up with something far more central to who you are and that might interest and/or apply to the audience more.

Another approach that you might find helpful is to determine what you are passionate about through two binary routes. First, you will obviously be passionate about the things you love, so talk about those. Is The Simpsons your favorite TV show? Then you can inform us on the people and vision of the team behind this highly popular and long-running TV show. Do you feel that Big Brothers Big Sisters is a vital organization in the way it helps kids? Then persuade us to volunteer there. Conversely, you can also be passionate about things you don’t love (i.e., hate). Does it really annoy you when people don’t use their turn signals? Then persuade us to always use them. Do you want to scream when you hear a cell phone go off at the movies? Then persuade us that cell phones should be banned in theaters.

The Audience

Of course, what you love or hate may be in stark contrast to how your audience feels, so it is important to keep them in mind as well, which brings us to the next contributing factor. After you examine what you know and are passionate about, you have to determine if and how the topic has practical value or interest for others. It may be that it is a topic the audience is not immediately interested in but needs to know about for their own benefit. Then it becomes necessary for you to find that angle and approach that will help them see the benefit of the topic and listen to you. The more you know about your audience, the better you can achieve this goal. Good speakers are very knowledgeable about their audiences.

The Context

Many aspects come into the context of a speech, but the main ones are the time, place, and reason(s) for the event and the audience being there. Your classroom speeches have a fairly set context: time limits, the classroom, assignment specifications. Other speeches you will give in college (or in your career and personal life) will require you to think more deeply about the context just as you would the audience.

Putting It Together

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:

  • Specific Communication (to inform, to explain, to demonstrate, to describe, to define, to persuade, to convince, to prove, to 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)

Each of these parts of the specific purpose is important. The first two parts make sure you are clear on your purpose and know specifically who will be hearing your message. However, we will focus on the last part here.

The content part of the specific purposes statement must first be singular and focused, and the content must match the purpose. The word “and” really should not appear in the specific purpose statement since that would make it seem that you have two purposes and two topics. Obviously, the specific purpose statement’s content must be very narrowly defined and, well, specific. One mistake beginning speakers often make is to try to “cover” too much material. They tend to speak about the whole alphabet, A-Z on a subject, instead of just “T” or “L.” This comes from an emphasis on the topic more than the purpose, and from not keeping audience and context in mind. In other words, go deep (specific), not broad. Examples in this chapter will show what that means.

Second, the content must match the focus of the purpose word. A common error is to match an informative purpose with a persuasive content clause or phrase. For example,

To explain to my classmates why term life insurance is a better option than whole life insurance policies.

To inform my classmates about how the recent Supreme Court decision on police procedures during arrests is unconstitutional.

Sometimes it takes an unbiased second party to see where your content and purpose may not match.

Third, the specific purpose statement should be relevant to the audience. How does the purpose and its topic touch upon their lives, wallets, relationships, careers, etc.? It is also a good idea to keep in mind what you want the audience to walk away with or what you want them to know, to be able to do, to think, to act upon, or to respond to your topic—your ultimate outcome or result.

To revisit an earlier example, “to explain to my classmates the history of NASA” would be far too much material and the audience may be unsure of its relevance. A more specific one such as “to inform my classmates about the decline of the Shuttle program” would be more manageable and closer to their experience. It would also reference two well-known historical tragedies involving the Shuttle program, the Challenger Disaster in 1986 and the Columbia Explosion in 2003. Here are several examples of specific purposes statements. Notice how they meet the standards of being singular, focused, relevant, and consistent.

To inform my classmates of the origin of the hospice movement.

To describe to my coworkers the steps to apply for retirement.

To define for a group of new graduate students the term “academic freedom.”

To explain to the Lions Club members the problems faced by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To persuade the members of the Greek society to take the spring break trip to Daytona Beach.

To motivate my classmates to engage in the College’s study abroad program.

To convince my classroom audience that they need at least seven hours of sleep per night to do well in their studies.

Now that you understand the basic form and function of a specific purpose statement, let’s revisit the original diagram in this section. The same topic for a different audience will create a somewhat different specific purpose statement. Public speaking is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. Let’s take the subject of participating in the study abroad program. How would you change your approach if you were addressing first-semester freshmen instead of first-semester juniors? Or if you were speaking to high school students in one of the college’s feeder high schools? Or if you were asked to share your experiences with a local civic group that gave you a partial scholarship to participate in the program? You would have slightly different specific purpose statements although your experience and basic information are all the same.

For another example, let’s say that one of your family members has benefited from being in the Special Olympics and you have volunteered two years at the local event. You could give a tribute (commemorative speech) about the work of Special Olympics (with the purpose to inspire), an informative speech on the scope or history of the Special Olympics, or a persuasive speech on why audience members should volunteer at next year’s event. “Special Olympics” is a key word in every specific purpose, but the statements would otherwise be different.

Despite all the information given about specific purpose statements so far, the next thing you read will seem strange: Never start your speech by saying your specific purpose to the audience. In a sense, it is just for you and the instructor. For you, it’s like a note you might tack on the mirror or refrigerator to keep you on track. For the instructor, it’s a way for him or her to know you are accomplishing both the assignment and what you set out to do. Avoid the temptation to default to saying it at the beginning of your speech. It will seem awkward and repetitive.

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 (preferably after using an introductory method such as those described in Chapter 8). The statement that reveals your main points is commonly known as the central idea statement (or just the central idea).

Now, at this point we need to make a point about terminology. Your instructor may call the central idea statement “the thesis” or “the thesis statement.” Your English composition instructor probably uses that term in your essay writing. Another instructor may call it the “main idea statement.” All of these are basically synonymous and you should not let the terms confuse you, but you should use the term your instructor uses.

That said, is the central idea statement the very same thing as the thesis sentence in an essay? Yes, in that both are letting the audience know without a doubt your topic, purpose, direction, angle and/or point of view. No, in that the rules for writing a “thesis” or central idea statement in a speech are not as strict as in an essay. For example, it is acceptable in a speech to announce the topic and purpose, although it is usually not the most artful or effective way to do it. You may say,

“In this speech I will try to motivate you to join me next month as a volunteer at the regional Special Olympics.”

That would be followed by a preview statement of what the speech’s arguments or reasons for participating will be, such as,

“You will see that it will benefit the community, the participants, and you individually.”

However, another approach is to “capsulize” the purpose, topic, approach, and preview in one succinct statement.

“Your involvement as a volunteer in next month’s regional Special Olympics will be a rewarding experience that will benefit the community, the participants, and you personally.”

This last version is really the better approach and most likely the one your instructor will prefer.

So, you don’t want to just repeat your specific purpose in the central idea statement, but you do want to provide complete information. Also, unlike the formal thesis of your English essays, the central idea statement in a speech can and should use personal language (I, me, we, us, you, your, etc.) and should attempt to be attention-getting and audience-focused. And importantly, just like a formal thesis sentence, it must be a complete, grammatical sentence.

The point of your central idea statement in terms of your audience is to reveal and clarify the ideas or assertions you will be addressing in your speech, more commonly known as your main points, to fulfill your specific purpose. However, as you are processing your ideas and approach, you may still be working on them. Sometimes those main points will not be clear to you immediately. As much as we would like these writing processes to be straightforward, sometimes we find that we have to revise our original approach. This is why preparing a speech the night before you are giving it is a really, really bad idea. You need lots of time for the preparation and then the practice.

Sometimes you will hear the writing process referred to as “iterative.” This word means, among other things, that a speech or document is not always written in the same order as the audience finally experiences it. You may have noticed that we have not said anything about the introduction of your speech yet. Even though that is the first thing the audience hears, it may be one of the last parts you actually compose. It is best to consider your speech flexible as you work on it, and to be willing to edit and revise. If your instructor asks you to turn the outline in before the speech, you should be clear on how much you can revise after that. Otherwise, it helps to know that you can keep editing your speech until you deliver it, especially while you practice. Here are some examples of pairs of specific purpose statements and central idea statements. 

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.

Specific Purpose: To persuade my political science class that labor unions are no longer a vital political force in the U.S.

Central Idea: Although for decades in the twentieth-century labor unions influenced local and national elections, in this speech I will point to how their influence has declined in the last thirty years.

Specific Purpose: To motivate my audience to oppose the policy of drug testing welfare recipients.

Central Idea: Many voices are calling for welfare recipients to go through mandatory, regular drug testing, but this policy is unjust, impractical, and costly, and fair-minded Americans should actively oppose it.

Specific Purpose: To explain to my fellow civic club members why I admire Representative John Lewis.

Central Idea: John Lewis has my admiration for his sacrifices during the Civil Rights movement and his service to Georgia as a leader and U.S. Representative.

Specific Purpose: To describe how makeup is done for the TV show The Walking Dead.

Central Idea: The wildly popular zombie show The Walking Dead achieves incredibly scary and believable makeup effects, and in the next few minutes I will tell you who does it, what they use, and how they do it.

Notice that in all of the above examples that neither the specific purpose nor the central idea ever exceeds one sentence. You may divide your central idea and the preview of main points into two sentences or three sentences, depending on what your instructor directs. If your central idea consists of more than three sentences, then you probably are including too much information and taking up time that is needed for the body of the speech. Additionally, you will have a speech trying to do too much and that goes overtime.

Problems to Avoid with Specific Purpose and Central Idea Statements

The first problem many students have in writing their specific purpose statement has already been mentioned: specific purpose statements sometimes try to cover far too much and are too broad. For example:

To explain to my classmates the history of ballet.

Aside from the fact that this subject may be difficult for everyone in your audience to relate to, it is enough for a three-hour lecture, maybe even a whole course. You will probably find that your first attempt at a specific purpose statement will need refining. These examples are much more specific and much more manageable given the limited amount of time you will have.

To explain to my classmates how ballet came to be performed and studied in the U.S.

To explain to my classmates the difference between Russian and French ballet.

To explain to my classmates how ballet originated as an art form in the Renaissance.

To explain to my classmates the origin of the ballet dancers’ clothing.

The second problem with specific purpose statements is the opposite of being too broad, in that some specific purposes statements are so focused that they might only be appropriate for people who are already extremely interested in the topic or experts in a field:

To inform my classmates of the life cycle of a new species of lima bean (botanists, agriculturalists) To inform my classmates about the Yellow 5 ingredient in Mountain Dew (chemists, nutritionists) To persuade my classmates that JIF Peanut Butter is better than Peter Pan. (professional chefs in large institutions)

The third problem happens when the “communication verb” in the specific purpose does not match the content; for example, persuasive content is paired with “to inform” or “to explain.” If you resort to the word “why” in the thesis, it is probably persuasive.

To inform my audience why capital punishment is unconstitutional. (This cannot be informative since it is taking a side)

To persuade my audience about the three types of individual retirement accounts. (This is not persuading the audience of anything, just informing)

To inform my classmates that Universal Studios is a better theme park than Six Flags over Georgia. (This is clearly an opinion, hence persuasive)

The fourth problem exists when the content part of the specific purpose statement has two parts and thus uses “and.” A good speech follows the KISS rule—Keep It Simple, Speaker. One specific purpose is enough. These examples cover two different topics.

To explain to my audience how to swing a golf club and choose the best golf shoes.

To persuade my classmates to be involved in the Special Olympics and vote to fund better classes for the intellectually disabled.

To fix this problem, you will need to select one of the topics in these examples and speak on just that:

To explain to my audience how to swing a golf club.

To explain to my audience how to choose the best golf shoes.

Of course, the value of this topic depends on your audience’s interest in golf and your own experience as a golfer. The fifth problem with both specific purpose and central idea statements is related to formatting. There are some general guidelines that need to be followed in terms of how you write out these elements of your speech:

  • Do not write either statement as a question.
  • Always use complete sentences for central idea statements and infinitive phrases (that is, “to …..”) for the specific purpose statement.
  • Only use concrete language (“I admire Beyoncé for being a talented performer and businesswoman”), and avoid subjective or slang terms (“My speech is about why I think Beyoncé is the bomb”) or jargon and acronyms (“PLA is better than CBE for adult learners.”)

Finally, the sixth problem occurs when the speech just gets off track of the specific purpose statement, in that it starts well but veers in another direction. This problem relates to the challenge of developing coherent main points, what might be called “the Roman numeral points” of the speech. The specific purpose usually determines the main points and the relevant structure. For example, if the specific purpose is:

To inform my classmates of the five stages of grief as described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

There is no place in this speech for a biography of Dr. Kubler-Ross, arguments against this model of grief, therapies for those undergoing grief, or steps for the audience to take to get counseling. All of those are different specific purposes. The main points would have to be the five stages, in order, as Dr. Kubler-Ross defined them.

  • There are also problems to avoid in writing the central idea statement. As mentioned above, remember that:
  • The specific purpose and central idea statements are not the same thing, although they are related.
  • The central idea statement should be clear and not complicated or wordy; it should “stand out” to the audience.
  • As you practice delivery, you should emphasize it with your voice.
  • Getting the audience's attention
  • Revealing the topic
  • Revealing the central idea and main points
  • Establishing your credibility
  • Establishing your rapport with the audience

One last word. You will notice that we have said nothing about titles of your speeches so far. A title is a good thing and serves purposes. Your instructor may or may not emphasize the title of your speech. This textbook chooses to focus on the purpose and central idea as the basis, even the spine of the speech. 

  • Creating Speech Title with Impact

You should be aware that all aspects of your speech are constantly going to change as you move toward actually giving your speech. The exact wording of your central idea may change and you can experiment with different versions for effectiveness. However, your specific purpose statement should not change unless there is a really good reason, and in some cases, your instructor will either discourage that, forbid it, or expect to be notified. There are many aspects to consider in the seemingly simple task of writing a specific purpose statement and its companion, the central idea statement. Writing good ones at the beginning will save you some trouble later in the speech preparation process.

Case Studies

Case Study #1 

 Mitchell is taking a Fundamentals of Speech course in his second year of college. As a member of the college’s tennis team, he wants to speak on his favorite subject, tennis. He is assigned an informative speech that should be seven minutes long and use four external sources (other than his own experience). He realizes off the bat that he knows a great deal about the subject as far as how to play and be good at it, but not much about the history or origins or the international impact of the sport. He brainstorms a list of topics, as his instructor tells him to: 1. Famous tennis players 2. Rules of tennis 3. How to start playing tennis 4. How to buy or choose equipment for tennis 5. Why tennis is a great sport 6. Tennis organizations 7. Where tennis came from 8. Dealing with tennis injuries 9. Tennis and the Olympics 10. Famous tennis tournaments—grand slam events. 

However, he also wants to be sure that his audience is not bored or confused. His instructor gives him a chance to get in a small group and have four of his classmates give him some ideas about the topics. He finds out no one in his group has ever played tennis but they do have questions. He knows that everyone in his class is 18-24 years old, single, no children, enrolled in college, and all have part-time jobs.

Critique Mitch’s brainstormed topics based on what you know. What should he do? Can you come up with a good starting specific purpose?

Cast Study #2

Bonita is required to give a 5- to 6-minute presentation as part of a job interview. The interview is for a position as public relations and social media director of a nonprofit organization that focuses on nutrition in a five-county region near her home. There will be five people in her audience: the president of the organization, two board members, the office manager (who is also the Human Resources director), and a volunteer. She has never met these people. Bonita has a college degree in public relations, so she knows her subject. She does as much research on the organization as she can and finds out about their use of social media and the Internet for publicity, marketing, and public relations. It does have a Facebook page but is not utilizing it well. It does not have any other social media accounts.

What would you suggest for Bonita? Here are some questions to consider. Should she be persuasive, informative, or inspiring? (General purpose). What should be her specific content area? How can she answer the two important questions of the value of her topic to the audience and why would the audience think she is credible?

Something to Think About

What if your informative speech has the specific purpose statement: To explain the biological and lifestyle causes of Type II diabetes. The assignment is a seven-minute speech, and when you practice it the first time, it is thirteen minutes long. Should you adjust the specific purpose statement? How?

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Resources: Capstone Project

Capstone: topic, purpose, and central idea.

Your instructor will assign a number of speeches for you to prepare and deliver throughout this course.  The speech preparation process is similar for all types of speeches.  In this activity, you are required to choose a topic for your current speech assignment, following the guidelines given to you by your instructor.

Step 1: Understand the requirements of the assignment from your instructor.  For example, requirements for a speech might look like this:  “This speech is an Informative Speech with a length of no less than three minutes and no more than five minutes.  It should not be a “How To” speech but should be focused on informing the audience about something interesting, new, or different that has the potential to impact the audience.  You must have at least three sources in your speech.  Presentation aids are optional. Your speech must have an introduction, a central idea, a preview, three major body areas, a review, and a conclusion.”

Step 2: Brainstorm topics and decide what you will speak about.  Do you like science? Are you interested in gaming? What are your hobbies? Once you know the requirements for the speech, think about what you like and know and what the audience might be interested in.  If you’re interested in science, for example, and the speech requirements are to inform the audience about something “interesting, new, or different,” you need to think about possible topics and brainstorm what might be a good topic choice.

For this example, we’ll say that climate change is something you are concerned about and want to focus on for your speech.  However, “climate change” itself is very broad as a topic.  How do you narrow it down?  Are there aspects of climate change that might make a compelling informative speech– perhaps one way that might help improve our climate?  You can research possible topic ideas once you have a general category.  Some of the ideas you find, such as reducing food waste, might end up being persuasive, so you have to consider that as you brainstorm.  One possibility, though, is renewable energy.  You realize it is something you have heard mentioned a lot, but you do not know much about it in actuality and think it could make a really good, informative topic.

Once you go through this process on your own for your speech assignment, write up your chosen topic on a document, along with the information in Step 3.

Step 3: Identify the general and specific purpose of your speech. Following the guidelines in your text, identify the specific purpose and general purpose of your speech. Include your topic, general purpose, and specific purpose in a document to submit to your instructor.

Step 4: Develop your central idea. Your specific purpose and general purpose are not specifically stated in your speech, but your central idea is.  Your central idea includes your topic, your objective, and the overall direction of your speech. The central idea is similar to a thesis statement in an essay.  Once you have your specific purpose, you can draft your central idea.  It may be refined as you do more research and write your speech.

Topic : Renewable Energy

General Purpose: To Inform Specific Purpose: To explain to my audience what renewable energy is and its role in improving our climate.

Central Idea: As concerns mount about climate change, renewable energy holds the promise to significantly reduce emissions, save money, and improve our health.

  • Capstone: Topic, Purpose, and Central Idea. Authored by : Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution

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7.2 The Topic, General Purpose, Specific Purpose, and Thesis

Before any work can be done on crafting the body of your speech or presentation, you must first do some prep work—selecting a topic, formulating a general purpose, a specific purpose statement, and crafting a central idea, or thesis statement. In doing so, you lay the foundation for your speech by making important decisions about what you will speak about and for what purpose you will speak. These decisions will influence and guide the entire speechwriting process, so it is wise to think carefully and critically during these beginning stages.

Selecting a Topic

Generally, speakers focus on one or more interrelated topics—relatively broad concepts, ideas, or problems that are relevant for particular audiences. The most common way that speakers discover topics is by simply observing what is happening around them—at their school, in their local government, or around the world. Student government leaders, for example, speak or write to other students when their campus is facing tuition or fee increases, or when students have achieved something spectacular, like lobbying campus administrators for lower student fees and succeeding. In either case, it is the situation that makes their speeches appropriate and useful for their audience of students and university employees. More importantly, they speak when there is an opportunity to change a university policy or to alter the way students think or behave in relation to a particular event on campus.

But you need not run for president or student government in order to give a meaningful speech. On the contrary, opportunities abound for those interested in engaging speech as a tool for change. Perhaps the simplest way to find a topic is to ask yourself a few questions, including:

• What important events are occurring locally, nationally and internationally? • What do I care about most? • Is there someone or something I can advocate for? • What makes me angry/happy? • What beliefs/attitudes do I want to share? • Is there some information the audience needs to know?

Students speak about what is interesting to them and their audiences. What topics do you think are relevant today? There are other questions you might ask yourself, too, but these should lead you to at least a few topical choices. The most important work that these questions do is to locate topics within your pre-existing sphere of knowledge and interest. David Zarefsky (2010) also identifies brainstorming as a way to develop speech topics, a strategy that can be helpful if the questions listed above did not yield an appropriate or interesting topic. Starting with a topic you are already interested in will likely make writing and presenting your speech a more enjoyable and meaningful experience. It means that your entire speechwriting process will focus on something you find important and that you can present this information to people who stand to benefit from your speech.

Once you have answered these questions and narrowed your responses, you are still not done selecting your topic. For instance, you might have decided that you really care about breeds of dogs. This is a very broad topic and could easily lead to a dozen different speeches. To resolve this problem, speakers must also consider the audience to whom they will speak, the scope of their presentation, and the outcome they wish to achieve.

Formulating the Purpose Statements

By honing in on a very specific topic, you begin the work of formulating your purpose statement . In short, a purpose statement clearly states what it is you would like to achieve. Purpose statements are especially helpful for guiding you as you prepare your speech. When deciding which main points, facts, and examples to include, you should simply ask yourself whether they are relevant not only to the topic you have selected, but also whether they support the goal you outlined in your purpose statement. The general purpose statement of a speech may be to inform, to persuade, to celebrate, or to entertain. Thus, it is common to frame a specific purpose statement around one of these goals. According to O’Hair, Stewart, and Rubenstein, a specific purpose statement “expresses both the topic and the general speech purpose in action form and in terms of the specific objectives you hope to achieve” (2004). For instance, the home design enthusiast might write the following specific purpose statement: At the end of my speech, the audience will learn the pro’s and con’s of flipping houses. In short, the general purpose statement lays out the broader goal of the speech while the specific purpose statement describes precisely what the speech is intended to do. Some of your professors may ask that you include the general purpose and add the specific purpose.

Writing the Thesis Statement

The specific purpose statement is a tool that you will use as you write your talk, but it is unlikely that it will appear verbatim in your speech. Instead, you will want to convert the specific purpose statement into a central idea, or thesis statement that you will share with your audience.

Depending on your instructor’s approach, a thesis statement may be written two different ways. A thesis statement may encapsulate the main points of a speech in just a sentence or two, and be designed to give audiences a quick preview of what the entire speech will be about. The thesis statement for a speech, like the thesis of a research-based essay, should be easily identifiable and ought to very succinctly sum up the main points you will present. Some instructors prefer that your thesis, or central idea, be a single, declarative statement providing the audience with an overall statement that provides the essence of the speech, followed by a separate preview statement.

If you are a Harry Potter enthusiast, you may write a thesis statement (central idea) the following way using the above approach: J.K. Rowling is a renowned author of the Harry Potter series with a Cinderella like story having gone from relatively humble beginnings, through personal struggles, and finally success and fame.

Writing the Preview Statement

However, some instructors prefer that you separate your thesis from your preview statement . A preview statement (or series of statements) is a guide to your speech. This is the part of the speech that literally tells the audience exactly what main points you will cover. If you were to open your Waze app, it would tell you exactly how to get there. Best of all, you would know what to look for! So, if we take our J.K Rowling example, let’s rewrite that using this approach separating out the thesis and preview:

J.K. Rowling is a renowned author of the Harry Potter series with a Cinderella like rags to riches story. First, I will tell you about J.K. Rowling’s humble beginnings. Then, I will describe her personal struggles as a single mom. Finally, I will explain how she overcame adversity and became one of the richest women in the United Kingdom.

There is no best way to approach this. This is up to your instructor.

Writing the Body of Your Speech

Once you have finished the important work of deciding what your speech will be about, as well as formulating the purpose statement and crafting the thesis, you should turn your attention to writing the body of your speech. All of your main points are contained in the body, and normally this section is prepared well before you ever write the introduction or conclusion. The body of your speech will consume the largest amount of time to present; and it is the opportunity for you to elaborate on facts, evidence, examples, and opinions that support your thesis statement and do the work you have outlined in the specific purpose statement. Combining these various elements into a cohesive and compelling speech, however, is not without its difficulties, the first of which is deciding which elements to include and how they ought to be organized to best suit your purpose.

clearly states what it is you would like to achieve

“expresses both the topic and the general speech purpose in action form and in terms of the specific objectives you hope to achieve" (O'Hair, Stewart, & Rubenstein, 2004)

single, declarative sentence that captures the essence or main point of your entire presentation

the part of the speech that literally tells the audience exactly what main points you will cover

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  1. Difference Between Central Idea And Thesis Statement

    the central idea or thesis statement of a speech should be

  2. Creating a Thesis Statement & Developing Main Points for a Speech

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  3. Thesis Statement: How to Write it Good?

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  5. Finding the Purpose and Central Idea of Your Speech

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COMMENTS

  1. 4.3: Formulating a Central Idea Statement

    That said, is the central idea statement the very same thing as the thesis sentence in an essay? Yes, in that both are letting the audience know without a doubt your topic, purpose, direction, angle and/or point of view. No, in that the rules for writing a "thesis" or central idea statement in a speech are not as strict as in an essay.

  2. Finding the Purpose and Central Idea of Your Speech

    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:

  3. Formulating a Central Idea Statement

    Also, unlike the formal thesis of your English essays, the central idea statement in a speech can and should use personal language (I, me, we, us, you, your, etc.) and should attempt to be attention-getting and audience-focused. And importantly, just like a formal thesis sentence, it must be a complete, grammatical sentence.

  4. Central Idea of a Speech

    A central idea, also known as the main idea of the speech, represents the specific objective of the speech. The central idea statement is usually just one sentence that sums up the...

  5. 6.1: The Topic, General Purpose, Specific Purpose, and Thesis

    The thesis statement for a speech, like the thesis of a research-based essay, should be easily identifiable and ought to very succinctly sum up the main points you will present. Some instructors prefer that your thesis, or central idea, be a single, declarative statement providing the audience with an overall statement that provides the essence ...

  6. 7.3: Formulating a Central Idea Statement

    Also, unlike the formal thesis of your English essays, the central idea statement in a speech can and should use personal language (I, me, we, us, you, your, etc.) and should attempt to be attention-getting and audience-focused. And importantly, just like a formal thesis sentence, it must be a complete, grammatical sentence.

  7. 8.2 The Topic, General Purpose, Specific Purpose, and Thesis

    The thesis statement should be a single, declarative statement followed by a separate preview statement. If you are a Harry Potter enthusiast, you may write a thesis statement (central idea) the following way using the above approach: J.K. Rowling is a renowned author of the Harry Potter series with a Cinderella like story of a rise to fame.

  8. Formulating a Central Idea Statement

    Also, unlike the formal thesis of your English essays, the central idea statement in a speech can and should use personal language (I, me, we, us, you, your, etc.) and should attempt to be attention-getting and audience-focused. And importantly, just like a formal thesis sentence, it must be a complete, grammatical sentence.

  9. Purpose and Thesis

    A thesis is the central idea in an essay or a speech. In speechwriting, the thesis or central idea explains the message of the content. It's the speech's "takeaway." A good thesis statement will also reveal and clarify the ideas or assertions you'll be addressing in your speech (your main points). Consider this example:

  10. 9.1 Selecting and Narrowing a Topic

    Compose a thesis statement that summarizes the central idea of a speech. There are many steps that go into the speech-making process. Many people do not approach speech preparation in an informed and systematic way, which results in many poorly planned or executed speeches that are not pleasant to sit through as an audience member and don't ...

  11. Chapter 7 Section 3

    The central idea (sometimes called the thesis) states in one sentence what the speech is about. You can use your specific-purpose statement to help you write your central idea. However, as Table 7.2 summarizes, a central idea differs from a purpose statement in both focus and application. A purpose statement focuses on audience behavior ...

  12. 8.1.1: Selecting and Narrowing a Topic

    Compose a thesis statement that summarizes the central idea of a speech. There are many steps that go into the speech-making process. Many people do not approach speech preparation in an informed and systematic way, which results in many poorly planned or executed speeches that are not pleasant to sit through as an audience member and don't ...

  13. Chapter 5: Developing Topics for Your Speech

    5.3 - Formulating a Central Idea Statement. The central idea statement is the same as the thesis sentence in an essay in that both are letting the audience know, without a doubt, your topic, purpose, direction, angle and/or point of view. On the other hand, the rules for writing a "thesis" or central idea statement in a speech are not as ...

  14. Developing Topics for Your Speech

    • Write a thesis or central idea statement • Distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable specific purpose and central idea statements • Compose appropriate specific purpose and central idea statements for informative, persuasive, and inspirational/entertaining speeches Getting Started with Your Topic and Purpose

  15. Capstone: Topic, Purpose, and Central Idea

    General Purpose: To Inform Specific Purpose: To explain to my audience what renewable energy is and its role in improving our climate. Central Idea: As concerns mount about climate change, renewable energy holds the promise to significantly reduce emissions, save money, and improve our health.

  16. Topic, Purpose, & Central Idea: Laying the Foundation

    A thesis statement encapsulates the main points of a speech in just a sentence or two, and it is designed to give audiences a quick preview of what the entire speech will be about. The thesis statement for a speech, like the thesis of a research- based essay, should be easily identifiable and ought to very succinctly sum up the main points you ...

  17. Public Speaking #2 Flashcards

    The thesis statement, the theme or central idea of a speech, should be expressed in the form Click the card to flip 👆 1 / 10 Flashcards Learn Test Match Q-Chat Created by fluffyball10 Students also viewed Public Speaking Quizzes Week 5-6 28 terms sheryl_crew_copeland Preview Chapter 7 10 terms Ted_Paulmeno2 Preview Speech Quiz 7 10 terms BryceBo

  18. Persuasive Speech Criteria Flashcards

    All of the above. The central idea/thesis in your persuasive speech should follow all of the guidelines below EXCEPT: Be a complete sentence. Preview the main points of the speech. Serve as a transition to the body of the speech. Be located at the end of the introduction. There are no exceptions.

  19. publick speaking review chapter 4 Flashcards

    a concise statement articulating what the speaker will achieve in giving a speech ... a single declarative sentence that captures the essence or central idea of a speech. working outline. outline that guides you to chose topic and keep a clear idea ... specific purpose, thesis, and main points and should not be changed for any reason. false. T ...

  20. Speech Ch. 5 Flashcards

    to sharpen the focus to a single goal for the speech. The general purpose, specific purpose, and central idea are all. planning tools. The _______ purpose states the precise goal that the speaker wants to achieve in a speech. specific. The first step in selecting a speech topic is to choose something that is. important and meaningful to you.

  21. Chapter 5 Public Speaking Flashcards

    The central idea refines and sharpens your specific purpose. True. Study with Quizlet and memorize flashcards containing terms like The first step in speech making is choosing a topic., A topic is the subject of a speech., Brainstorming is a method of generating ideas for speech topics by free association of words and ideas. and more.

  22. 7.1: Selecting and Narrowing a Topic

    Determine the general purpose of a speech. List strategies for narrowing a speech topic. Compose an audience-centered, specific purpose statement for a speech. Compose a thesis statement that summarizes the central idea of a speech. Since you are enrolled in a communication class, you have the luxury of selecting the topics you want to present ...

  23. 7.2 The Topic, General Purpose, Specific Purpose, and Thesis

    The thesis statement for a speech, like the thesis of a research-based essay, should be easily identifiable and ought to very succinctly sum up the main points you will present. Some instructors prefer that your thesis, or central idea, be a single, declarative statement providing the audience with an overall statement that provides the essence ...