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15.1: What are Informative Speeches?

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    106516
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    Learning Objectives

    1. Identify strategies for researching and supporting informative speeches.
    2. 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?

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Monash University – Surgery Workshop 2012 – CC BY-NC 2.0.

    Informative Speaking Defined

    Very simply, an informative speech can first be defined as a speech-based entirely and exclusively on facts. Basically, an informative speech conveys knowledge, a task that every person engages in every day in some form or another. Whether giving someone who is lost driving directions, explaining the specials of the day as a server, or describing the plot of a movie to friends, people engage in forms of informative speaking daily. Secondly, 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. Consider the following two statements:

    2 + 2 = 4

    George Washington was the first President of the United States.

    In each case, the statement made is what can be described as irrefutable, meaning a statement or claim that cannot be argued. In the first example, even small children are taught that having two apples and then getting two more apples will result in having four apples. This statement is irrefutable in that no one in the world will (or should!) argue this: It is a fact.

    Similarly, with the statement, “George Washington was the first President of the United States,” this again is an irrefutable fact. If you asked one hundred history professors and read one hundred history textbooks, the professors and textbooks would all say the same thing: Washington was the first president. No expert, reliable source, or person with any common sense would argue about this.

    (Someone at this point might say, “No, John Hanson was the first president.” However, he was the president under the Articles of Confederation for a short period—November 5, 1781, to November 3, 1782—not under our present Constitution. This example shows the importance of stating your facts clearly and precisely and being able to cite their origins.)

    Therefore, an informative speech should not incorporate opinion. This can be the tricky part of developing an informative speech, because some opinion statements sometimes sound like facts (since they are generally agreed upon by many people), but are really opinions.

    Additionally, you should never take sides on an issue in an informative speech, nor should you “spin” the issue in order to influence the opinions of the listeners. Even if you are informing the audience about differences in views on controversial topics, you should simply and clearly explain the issues. This is not to say, however, that the audience’s needs and interests have nothing to do with the informative speech. We come back to the WIIFM principle (“What’s in it for me?) because even though an informative speech is fact-based, it still needs to relate to people’s lives in order to maintain their attention.

    The question may arise here, “If we can find anything on the Internet now, why bother to give an informative speech?” The answer lies in the unique relationship between audience and speaker found in the public speaking context. The speaker can choose to present information that is of most value to the audience. Secondly, the speaker is not just overloading the audience with data. As we have mentioned before, that’s not really a good idea because audiences cannot remember great amounts of data and facts after listening. The focus of the content is what matters. This is where the specific purpose and central idea come into play. Remember, public speaking is not a good way to “dump data” on the audience, but to make information meaningful.

    Finally, although we have stressed that the informative speech is fact-based and does not have the purpose of persuasion, information still has an indirect effect on someone. If a classmate gives a speech on correctly using the Heimlich Maneuver to help a choking victim, the side effect (and probably desired result) is that the audience would use it when confronted with the situation.

    Avoiding Persuasion

    We should avoid thinking of informing and persuading as dichotomous, meaning that it’s either one or the other. It’s more accurate to think of informing and persuading as two poles on a continuum, as in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): “Continuum of Informing and Persuading” (Olbricht, 1968). Most persuasive speeches rely on some degree of informing to substantiate the reasoning. And informative speeches, although meant to secure the understanding of an audience, may influence audience members’ beliefs, attitudes, values, or behaviors.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Continuum of Informing and Persuading
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    Speakers can look to three areas to help determine if their speech is more informative or persuasive: speaker purpose, function of information, and audience perception (Verderber, 1991). First, for informative speaking, a speaker’s purpose should be to create understanding by sharing objective, factual information. The specific purpose and thesis statements help establish a speaker’s goal and purpose and can serve as useful reference points to keep a speech on track. When reviewing your specific purpose and thesis statement, look for words like should/shouldn’t, good/bad, and right/wrong, as these often indicate a persuasive slant in the speech.

    Second, information should function to clarify and explain in an informative speech. Supporting materials shouldn’t function to prove a thesis or to provide reasons for an audience to accept the thesis, as they do in persuasive speeches. Although informative messages can end up influencing the thoughts or behaviors of audience members, that shouldn’t be the goal.

    Third, an audience’s perception of the information and the speaker helps determine whether a speech is classified as informative or persuasive. The audience must perceive that the information being presented is not controversial or disputed, which will lead audience members to view the information as factual. The audience must also accept the speaker as a credible source of information. Being prepared, citing credible sources, and engaging the audience help to establish a speaker’s credibility. Last, an audience must perceive the speaker to be trustworthy and not have a hidden agenda. Avoiding persuasion is a common challenge for informative speakers, but it is something to consider, as violating the speaking occasion may be perceived as unethical by the audience. Be aware of the overall tone of your speech by reviewing your specific purpose and thesis to make sure your speech isn’t tipping from informative to persuasive.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Hans Splinter – balance – CC BY-ND 2.0.

    Avoid Faux or Fake Informative Speech Topics

    Sometimes students think that because something sounds like an informative speech topic, it is one. This happens a lot with political issues that are usually partisan in nature. Some students may feel that the speech topic “To inform my audience why William Henry Harrison was a bad president” sounds factual, but really this is an opinion. Similarly, a number of topics that include conspiracy and paranormal subject matter are usually mistaken for good informative topics as well.

    Conspiracy van
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): "Conspiracy van" by mag3737 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The problem here, as you have probably already guessed, is that these facts are not irrefutable. Not every single person who sees something unknown in the sky will agree it is an alien spacecraft, and there can be little doubt that not everyone who claims to have been abducted by a UFO is telling the truth. This isn’t to say that you can’t still do an informative speech on alien sites. For example, two viable options are “To inform my audience about the SETI Project” or “To inform my audience of the origin of the Area 51 conspiracy.” However, these types of speeches can quickly devolve into opinion if you aren’t careful, which would then make them persuasive speeches. Even if you start by trying to be objective, unless you can present each side equally, it will end up becoming a persuasive speech. Additionally, when a speaker picks such a topic, it is often because of a latent desire to persuade the audience about them.

    Pick a Specific or Focused Topic

    Perhaps one of the biggest and most common misconceptions students have about informative speech topics is that the topic needs to be broad in order to fill the time requirements for the speech. It is not uncommon for a student to propose an informative speech topic such as “To inform my audience about the history of music.” How is that topic even possible? When does the history of music even begin? The thinking here is that this speech will be easy to research and write since there is so much information available. But the opposite is actually true. A topic that is this broad makes doing research even harder.

    Let’s consider the example of a student who proposes the topic “To inform my audience about the Civil War.” The Civil War was, conservatively speaking, four years long, resulted in over 750,000 casualties, and arguably changed the course of human history. So to think that it is possible to cover all of that in five to seven minutes is unrealistic. Also, a typical college library has hundreds of books dealing with the Civil War. How will you choose which ones are best suited to use for your speech?

    The better approach, in this case, is to be as specific as possible. A revised specific purpose for this speech might be something like “To inform my audience about the Gettysburg Address.” This topic is much more compact (the Gettysburg Address is only a few minutes long), and doing research will now be exponentially easier—although you will still find hundreds of sources on it. Or, an even more specific topic would be like the one in the outline at the end of this chapter: “To inform my classmates of the specific places in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, that are considered haunted.”

    Instead of looking through all the books in your campus library on the Civil War, searching through the library’s databases and catalog for material on the Gettysburg Address will yield a much more manageable number of books and articles. It may sound counterintuitive, but selecting a speech topic that is very specifically focused will make the research and writing phases of the informative speech much easier.

    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. 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.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): To avoid boring an audience, effective informative speakers possess good research skills and the ability to translate information to be engaging and relevant for an audience. Niall Kennedy – Sleep – CC BY-NC 2.0.

    As was mentioned earlier, the goal of 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.

    Avoiding Information Overload

    Many informative speakers have a tendency to pack a ten-minute speech with as much information as possible. This can result in information overload, which is a barrier to effective listening that occurs when a speech contains more information than an audience can process. Editing can be a difficult task, but it’s an important skill to hone, because you will be editing more than you think. Whether it’s reading through an e-mail before you send it, condensing a report down to an executive summary, or figuring out how to fit a client’s message on the front page of a brochure, you will have to learn how to discern what information is best to keep and what can be thrown out. In speaking, being a discerning editor is useful because it helps avoid information overload. While a receiver may not be attracted to a brochure that’s covered in text, they could take the time to read it, and reread it, if necessary. Audience members cannot conduct their own review while listening to a speaker live. Unlike readers, audience members can’t review words over and over (Verderber, 1991). Therefore competent speakers, especially informative speakers who are trying to teach their audience something, should adapt their message to a listening audience. To help avoid information overload, adapt your message to make it more listenable.

    Although the results vary, research shows that people only remember a portion of a message days or even hours after receiving it (Janusik, 2012). If you spend 100 percent of your speech introducing new information, you have wasted approximately 30 percent of your time and your audience’s time. Information overload is a barrier to effective listening, and as good speakers, we should be aware of the limitations of listening and compensate for that in our speech preparation and presentation. I recommend that my students follow a guideline that suggests spending no more than 30 percent of your speech introducing new material and 70 percent of your speech repackaging that information. I specifically use the word repackaging and not repeating. Simply repeating the same information would also be a barrier to effective listening, since people would just get bored. Repackaging will help ensure that your audience retains most of the key information in the speech. Even if they don’t remember every example, they will remember the main underlying point.

    Avoiding information overload requires a speaker to be a good translator of information. To be a good translator, you can compare an unfamiliar concept with something familiar, give examples from real life, connect your information to current events or popular culture, or supplement supporting material like statistics with related translations of that information. These are just some of the strategies a good speaker can use. While translating information is important for any oral presentation, it is especially important when conveying technical information. Being able to translate complex or technical information for a lay audience leads to more effective informing because the audience feels like they are being addressed on their level and don’t feel lost or “talked down to.” The History Channel show, The Universe, provides excellent examples of informative speakers who act as good translators. The scientists and experts featured on the show are masters of translating technical information, like physics, into concrete examples that most people can relate to based on their everyday experiences. Preview statements, section transitions, and review statements are some examples of orienting material that helps focus an audience’s attention and facilitates the process of informing (Verderber, 1991).

    11.1.8N.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Comparing the turbulent formation of the solar system to the collisions of bumper bars and spinning rides at an amusement park makes the content more concrete. Alexander Svensson – Ferris Wheel – CC BY 2.0.

    Engaging Your Audience

    As a speaker, you are competing for the attention of your audience against other internal and external stimuli. Getting an audience engaged and then keeping their attention is a challenge for any speaker, but it can be especially difficult when speaking to inform. As was discussed earlier, once you are in the professional world, you will most likely be speaking informatively about topics related to your experience and expertise. Some speakers fall into the trap of thinking that their content knowledge is enough to sustain them through an informative speech or that their position in an organization means that an audience will listen to them and appreciate their information despite their delivery. Content expertise is not enough to be an effective speaker. A person must also have speaking expertise (Verderber, 1991). Effective speakers, even renowned experts, must still translate their wealth of content knowledge into information that is suited for oral transmission, audience-centered, and well organized. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the stereotype of the absentminded professor or the genius who thinks elegantly in his or her head but can’t convey that same elegance verbally. Having well-researched and organized supporting material is an important part of effective informative speaking, but having good content is not enough.

    Audience members are more likely to stay engaged with a speaker they view as credible. So complementing good supporting material with a practiced and fluent delivery increases credibility and audience engagement. In addition, as we discussed earlier, good informative speakers act as translators of information. Repackaging information into concrete familiar examples is also a strategy for making your speech more engaging. Understanding relies on being able to apply incoming information to life experiences.

    Repackaging information is also a good way to appeal to different learning styles, as you can present the same content in various ways, which helps reiterate a point. While this strategy is useful with any speech, since the goal of informing is teaching, it makes sense to include a focus on learning within your audience adaptation. There are three main learning styles that help determine how people most effectively receive and process information: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (Fleming, 2012). Visual learners respond well to information presented via visual aids, so repackage information using text, graphics, charts, and other media. Public speaking is a good way to present information for auditory learners who process information well when they hear it. Kinesthetic learners are tactile; they like to learn through movement and “doing.” Asking for volunteers to help with a demonstration, if appropriate, is a way to involve kinesthetic learners in your speech. You can also have an interactive review activity at the end of a speech, much like many teachers incorporate an activity after a lesson to reinforce the material.

    “Getting Real”

    Technical Speaking

    People who work in technical fields, like engineers and information technology professionals, often think they will be spared the task of public speaking. This is not the case, however, and there is actually a branch of communication studies that addresses public speaking matters for “techies.” The field of technical communication focuses on how messages can be translated from expert to lay audiences. I actually taught a public speaking class for engineering students, and they basically had to deliver speeches about the things they were working on in a way that I could understand. I ended up learning a lot more about jet propulsion and hybrid car engines than I ever expected!

    Have you ever been completely lost when reading an instruction manual for some new product you purchased? Have you ever had difficulty following the instructions of someone who was trying to help you with a technical matter? If so, you’ve experienced some of the challenges associated with technical speaking. There are many careers where technical speaking skills are needed. According to the Society for Technical Communication, communicating about specialized or technical topics, communicating by using technology, and providing instructions about how to do something are all examples of technical speaking (Society for Technical Communication, 2012). People with technical speaking skills offer much to organizations and businesses. They help make information more useable and accessible to customers, clients, and employees. They can help reduce costs to a business by reducing unnecessary work that results from misunderstandings of instructions, by providing clear information that allows customers to use products without training or technical support and by making general information put out by a company more user-friendly. Technical speakers are dedicated to producing messages that are concise, clear, and coherent (Society for Technical Communication, 2012). Such skills are used in the following careers: technical writers and editors, technical illustrators, visual designers, web designers, customer service representatives, salespeople, spokespeople, and many more.

    1. What communication skills that you’ve learned about in the book so far do you think would be important for a technical speaker?
    2. Identify instances in which you have engaged in technical speaking or received information from a technical speaker. Based on what you have learned in this chapter, were the speakers effective or not, and why?

    Key Takeaways

    • Getting integrated: Informative speaking is likely the type of public speaking we will most often deliver and be audience to in our lives. Informative speaking is an important part of academic, professional, personal, and civic contexts.
    • Effective informative speaking requires good research skills, as speakers must include novel information, relevant and proxemic examples, and “take-away” information that audience members will find engaging and useful.
    • An effective informative speaker should avoid persuasion by reviewing the language used in the specific purpose and thesis statements, using objective supporting material, and appearing trustworthy to the audience.
    • An effective informative speaker should avoid information overload by repackaging information and building in repetition and orienting material like reviews and previews.
    • An effective informative speaker engages the audience by translating information into relevant and concrete examples that appeal to different learning styles.

    Exercises

    1. Getting integrated: How might you use informative speaking in each of the following contexts: academic, professional, personal, and civic?
    2. Brainstorm potential topics for your informative speech and identify which topic category each idea falls into. Are there any risks of persuading for the topics you listed? If so, how can you avoid persuasion if you choose that topic?

    References

    Fleming, N., “The VARK Helpsheets,” accessed March 6, 2012, http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=helpsheets.

    Janusik, L., “Listening Facts,” accessed March 6, 2012, d1025403.site.myhosting.com/f.org/Facts.htm.

    Olbricht, T. H., Informative Speaking (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1968), 1–12.

    Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed March 6, 2012, http://www.oed.com.

    The Past in Pictures, “Teaching Using Movies: Anachronisms!” accessed March 6, 2012, www.thepastinthepictures.wild.ctoryunit!.htm.

    Scholasticus K, “Anachronism Examples in Literature,” February 2, 2012, accessed March 6, 2012, www.buzzle.com/articles/anachronism-examples-in-literature.html.

    Society for Technical Communication, “Defining Technical Communication,” accessed March 6, 2012, http://www.stc.org/about-stc/the-profession-all-about-technical-communication/defining-tc.

    Verderber, R., Essentials of Informative Speaking: Theory and Contexts (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1991), 3.

    Vuong, A., “Wanna Read That QR Code? Get the Smartphone App,” The Denver Post, April 18, 2011, accessed March 6, 2012, http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_17868932.


    15.1: What are Informative Speeches? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.