- Identify common topic categories for informative speeches.
- Identify strategies for researching and supporting informative speeches.
- Explain the different methods of informing.
- Employ strategies for effective informative speaking, including avoiding persuasion, avoiding information overload, and engaging the audience.
Many people would rather go see an impassioned political speech or a comedic monologue than a lecture. Although informative speaking may not be the most exciting form of public speaking, it is the most common. Reports, lectures, training seminars, and demonstrations are all examples of informative speaking. That means you are more likely to give and listen to informative speeches in a variety of contexts. Some organizations, like consulting firms, and career fields, like training and development, are solely aimed at conveying information. College alumni have reported that out of many different speech skills, informative speaking is most important (Verderber, 1991). Since your exposure to informative speaking is inevitable, why not learn how to be a better producer and consumer of informative messages?
Creating an Informative Speech
As you’ll recall from Chapter 9 “Preparing a Speech”, speaking to inform is one of the three possible general purposes for public speaking. The goal of informative speaking is to teach an audience something using objective factual information. Interestingly, informative speaking is a newcomer in the world of public speaking theorizing and instruction, which began thousands of years ago with the ancient Greeks (Olbricht, 1968). Ancient philosophers and statesmen like Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian conceived of public speaking as rhetoric, which is inherently persuasive. During that time, and until the 1800s, almost all speaking was argumentative. Teaching and instruction were performed as debates, and even fields like science and medicine relied on argumentative reasoning instead of factual claims.
While most instruction is now verbal, for most of modern history, people learned by doing rather than listening, as apprenticeships were much more common than classroom-based instruction. So what facilitated the change from argumentative and demonstrative teaching to verbal and informative teaching? One reason for this change was the democratization of information. Technical information used to be jealously protected by individuals, families, or guilds. Now society generally believes that information should be shared and made available to all. The increasing complexity of fields of knowledge and professions also increased the need for informative speaking. Now one must learn a history or backstory before actually engaging with a subject or trade. Finally, much of the information that has built up over time has become commonly accepted; therefore much of the history or background information isn’t disputed and can now be shared in an informative rather than argumentative way.
Choosing an Informative Speech Topic
Being a successful informative speaker starts with choosing a topic that can engage and educate the audience. Your topic choices may be influenced by the level at which you are speaking. Informative speaking usually happens at one of three levels: formal, vocational, and impromptu (Verderber, 1991). Formal informative speeches occur when an audience has assembled specifically to hear what you have to say. Being invited to speak to a group during a professional meeting, a civic gathering, or a celebration gala brings with it high expectations. Only people who have accomplished or achieved much are asked to serve as keynote speakers, and they usually speak about these experiences. Many more people deliver informative speeches at the vocational level, as part of their careers. Teachers like me spend many hours lecturing, which is a common form of informative speaking. In addition, human resources professionals give presentations about changes in policy and provide training for new employees, technicians in factories convey machine specifications and safety procedures, and servers describe how a dish is prepared in their restaurant. Last, we all convey information daily in our regular interactions. When we give a freshman directions to a campus building, summarize the latest episode of American Idol for our friend who missed it, or explain a local custom to an international student, we are engaging in impromptu informative speaking.
Whether at the formal, vocational, or impromptu level, informative speeches can emerge from a range of categories, which include objects, people, events, processes, concepts, and issues. An extended speech at the formal level may include subject matter from several of these categories, while a speech at the vocational level may convey detailed information about a process, concept, or issue relevant to a specific career.
Since we don’t have time to research or organize content for impromptu informative speaking, these speeches may provide a less detailed summary of a topic within one of these categories. A broad informative speech topic could be tailored to fit any of these categories. As you draft your specific purpose and thesis statements, think about which category or categories will help you achieve your speech goals, and then use it or them to guide your research. Table 11.1 “Sample Informative Speech Topics by Category” includes an example of how a broad informative subject area like renewable energy can be adapted to each category as well as additional sample topics.
Speeches about objects convey information about any nonhuman material things. Mechanical objects, animals, plants, and fictional objects are all suitable topics of investigation. Given that this is such a broad category, strive to pick an object that your audience may not be familiar with or highlight novel relevant and interesting facts about a familiar object.
Speeches about people focus on real or fictional individuals who are living or dead. These speeches require in-depth biographical research; an encyclopedia entry is not sufficient. Introduce a new person to the audience or share little-known or surprising information about a person we already know. Although we may already be familiar with the accomplishments of historical figures and leaders, audiences often enjoy learning the “personal side” of their lives.
Speeches about concepts are less concrete than speeches about objects or people, as they focus on ideas or notions that may be abstract or multifaceted. A concept can be familiar to us, like equality, or could literally be a foreign concept like qi (or chi), which is the Chinese conception of the energy that flows through our bodies. Use the strategies discussed in this book for making content relevant and proxemic to your audience to help make abstract concepts more concrete.
Speeches about events focus on past occasions or ongoing occurrences. A particular day in history, an annual observation, or a seldom occurring event can each serve as interesting informative topics. As with speeches about people, it’s important to provide a backstory for the event, but avoid rehashing commonly known information.
Informative speeches about processes provide a step-by-step account of a procedure or natural occurrence. Speakers may walk an audience through, or demonstrate, a series of actions that take place to complete a procedure, such as making homemade cheese. Speakers can also present information about naturally occurring processes like cell division or fermentation.
Last, informative speeches about issues provide objective and balanced information about a disputed subject or a matter of concern for society. It is important that speakers view themselves as objective reporters rather than commentators to avoid tipping the balance of the speech from informative to persuasive. Rather than advocating for a particular position, the speaker should seek to teach or raise the awareness of the audience.
Researching an Informative Speech Topic
Having sharp research skills is a fundamental part of being a good informative speaker. Since informative speaking is supposed to convey factual information, speakers should take care to find sources that are objective, balanced, and credible. Periodicals, books, newspapers, and credible websites can all be useful sources for informative speeches, and you can use the guidelines for evaluating supporting materials discussed in Chapter 9 “Preparing a Speech” to determine the best information to include in your speech. Aside from finding credible and objective sources, informative speakers also need to take time to find engaging information. This is where sharp research skills are needed to cut through all the typical information that comes up in the research process to find novel information. Novel information is atypical or unexpected, but it takes more skill and effort to locate. Even seemingly boring informative speech topics like the history of coupons can be brought to life with information that defies the audience’s expectations. A student recently delivered an engaging speech about coupons by informing us that coupons have been around for 125 years, are most frequently used by wealthier and more educated households, and that a coupon fraud committed by an Italian American businessman named Charles Ponzi was the basis for the term Ponzi scheme, which is still commonly used today.
As a teacher, I can attest to the challenges of keeping an audience engaged during an informative presentation. While it’s frustrating to look out at my audience of students and see glazed-over eyes peering back at me, I also know that it is my responsibility to choose interesting information and convey it in a way that’s engaging. Even though the core content of what I teach hasn’t change dramatically over the years, I constantly challenge myself to bring that core information to life through application and example. As we learned earlier, finding proxemic and relevant information and examples is typically a good way to be engaging. The basic information may not change quickly, but the way people use it and the way it relates to our lives changes. Finding current, relevant examples and finding novel information are both difficult, since you, as the researcher, probably don’t know this information exists.
Here is where good research skills become necessary to be a good informative speaker. Using advice from Chapter 9 “Preparing a Speech” should help you begin to navigate through the seas of information to find hidden treasure that excites you and will in turn excite your audience.
As was mentioned earlier, the goal for informative speaking is to teach your audience. An audience is much more likely to remain engaged when they are actively learning. This is like a balancing act. You want your audience to be challenged enough by the information you are presenting to be interested, but not so challenged that they become overwhelmed and shut down. You should take care to consider how much information your audience already knows about a topic. Be aware that speakers who are very familiar with their speech topic tend to overestimate their audience’s knowledge about the topic. It’s better to engage your topic at a level slightly below your audience’s knowledge level than above. Most people won’t be bored by a brief review, but many people become lost and give up listening if they can’t connect to the information right away or feel it’s over their heads.
A good informative speech leaves the audience thinking long after the speech is done. Try to include some practical “takeaways” in your speech. I’ve learned many interesting and useful things from the informative speeches my students have done. Some of the takeaways are more like trivia information that is interesting to share—for example, how prohibition led to the creation of NASCAR. Other takeaways are more practical and useful—for example, how to get wine stains out of clothing and carpet or explanations of various types of student financial aid.