12.1: Welcome to Informative Speaking
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An informative speech conveys knowledge, a task that you’ve engaged in throughout your life. When you give driving directions, you convey knowledge. When you caution someone about crossing the street at a certain intersection, you are describing a dangerous situation. When you steer someone away from using the carpool lane, you are explaining what it’s for.
When your professors greet you on the first day of a new academic term, they typically hand out a course syllabus, which informs you about the objectives and expectations of the course. Much of the information comes to have greater meaning as you actually encounter your coursework. Why doesn’t the professor explain those meanings on the first day? He or she probably does, but in all likelihood, the explanation won’t really make sense at the time because you don’t yet have the supporting knowledge to put it in context. However, it is still important that the orientation information be offered. It is likely to answer some specific questions, such as the following: Am I prepared to take this course? Is a textbook required? Will the course involve a great deal of writing? Does the professor have office hours? The answers to these questions should be of central importance to all the students. These orientations are informative because they give important information relevant to the course.
An informative speech does not attempt to convince the audience that one thing is better than another. It does not advocate a course of action. Let’s say, for instance, that you have carefully followed the news about BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Let’s further say that you felt outraged by the sequence of events that led to the spill and, even more so, by its consequences. Consider carefully whether this is a good topic for your informative speech. If your speech describes the process of offshore oil exploration, it will be informative. However, if it expresses your views on what petroleum corporations should do to safeguard their personnel and the environment, save that topic for a persuasive speech.
Being honest about your private agenda in choosing a topic is important. It is not always easy to discern a clear line between informative and persuasive speech. Good information has a strong tendency to be persuasive, and persuasion relies on good information. Thus informative and persuasive speaking do overlap. It remains up to you to examine your real motives in choosing your topic. As we have said in various ways, ethical speaking means respecting the intelligence of your audience. If you try to circumvent the purpose of the informative speech in order to plant a persuasive seed, your listeners will notice. Such strategies often come across as dishonest.