Up to this point, we have discussed finding secondary sources or primary sources that are published. It is also possible for you to use some truly firsthand research in your speeches.
The first type of primary research you can use is through surveys. Your instructor may ask you to construct a short survey to learn something about your audience before, for example, a persuasive speech. A survey can be helpful if the questions are correctly written and if the survey is not too long.
For the most part, a survey should use objective questions. That means questions with a few predetermined answers for the survey-takers to choose from, such as multiple-choice, true-false, I agree/Neutral/I disagree, or yes-no. If the researcher wants to construct a multiple choice question, he or she must try to provide all the reasonable options. For example, if the student wanted to give a speech about why consumers should not buy gas with ethanol, and used the question:
What grade of gas do you buy for your car? Regular Medium High Octane/Premium
This question left out the option of diesel. It also failed to account for students who don’t own or drive a car, who are unsure what grade of gasoline they buy, or who buy more than one grade of gasoline. You also don’t want to ask open-ended questions for a short survey like this. If you wanted to know what grocery stores in the area your audience patronized, this question would be a problem:
At which grocery store does your family shop?
The version shown below would be more useful and easy to interpret:
At which of these grocery stores does your family shop?
- Food Lion
- Food City
- Other: ______________________
Additionally, you should allow the people taking your survey to select more than one of the responses, since few people shop at just one store. Or you could phrase the question, “At which of these grocery stores does your family spend most of its grocery budget?” In that case, there would only be one answer, and it would tell you more specific information.
The criteria for what constitutes a “short” survey are fluid, but five questions would probably be enough to let you know what you need. A survey taker would probably become tired of answering a long list of questions or suspicious of too many, too vague, or too personal questions, making them less likely to give totally honest answers. Asking what brand of shampoo someone uses is less intrusive than asking how many times a week someone washes her hair.
If you want to know about attitudes of your audience, you should write questions in an unbiased way. “Do you favor raising the minimum wage in our state to $15.00 per hour?” is more balanced than “Do you believe that business owners in our state should be required to treat their employees better by having to raise their minimum wage to a more reasonable and fair $15.00 per hour?” You also would not want to insult your survey takers with questions such as “Do you agree that young people whose parents brought them into this country illegally should be deported?” You also want to state the issue as positively as possible. A question like “Are you against the government repealing cuts to Medicaid?” is confusing; better, “Should the government increase or decrease Medicaid spending?”
Finally, how should you administer the survey? Today there are online tools, even free ones, for surveys; probably the most popular are Survey Monkey and Google Forms. These are easy to use and helpful for short surveys; usually you need to pay a fee for extensive surveys to large numbers of people. You can also interview people orally with surveys, but that is time-consuming and often affects the anonymity that we expect with surveys. Your instructor may have you make photocopies and pass them around class. Either way, knowing your audience’s level of knowledge and their attitudes about your topic ahead of time can be a helpful source in creating an audience-centered speech.
You may also benefit from conducting an interview with a person who is knowledgeable about your topic, such as a professional with educational and career credentials in their field. Using a first-hand interview will add a great deal of credibility to your speech, if done correctly. If you are going to give a speech about the effects of the No Child Left Behind policy or the Common Core standards, it makes sense to talk to an elementary school principal for her knowledge and expertise on the issue.
However, there are good ways to do this and bad ways. Here are some valuable strategies.
1. Do the interview AFTER you have read some published sources on the topic, not before. You should have a good understanding of the basic issues involved. For example, if you are giving a persuasive speech on drinking and driving and you want to interview a state trooper, you should have gathered the statistics on the problem and information on the laws in your state from published sources or the Internet before interviewing the officer.
If you are interviewing a registered nurse who works in a mental health facility about the problems faced by those suffering from schizophrenia, you would want to be sure to understand the terminology of the disease, how prevalent it is, some information on causes, and how schizophrenia presents itself in a patient. You will be far more knowledgeable and ready to ask good questions if you have a foundation.
2. Be sure you have chosen the right person. The easiest source for a speech on the topic may seem to be a professor at your college. However, the professor may think you are trying to get out of doing research in public sources, so we caution you not to go that direction. Also, your source should be an expert. Your friend may have an uncle with diabetes but that doesn’t make your friend an expert on the subject.
3. Make an appointment with the interviewee, and be on time for it. Likewise, assume that the person you are interviewing is busy and cannot give you lots of time. This assumption may be wrong, but it’s better to go in with the expectation of limited time than to expect the person to speak with you for an hour.
4. Prepare your questions in advance and have your questions in a logical order. Do not start with, “I have to give a speech on ____. What can you tell me about it?”
5. Ask the person for information you cannot get from other sources. For example, the interviewee will probably not know national statistics off the top of her head. She will know about her daily experience with the topic. The principal mentioned before will be able to talk about test score trends at her school, but not across the nation.
6. Be sure not to ask inappropriate, proprietary, or embarrassing questions. If you were interviewing a human resources officer about how the company trains employees to prevent safety hazards, he probably would not respond well to “How many workers’ compensation claims has this company had to file this year?” You are not an investigative journalist. These folks are doing you a favor.
7. Finally, write the person a thank-you note or email afterward. He or she has helped you out, writing a thank-you note is the right thing to do, and you might need to network with that professional later.