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Finding a Topic Personal Inventory Organizing the Topic Narrowing the Topic
General Purpose Specific Purpose Central Idea Study Questions & Exercises

Finding A Topic

In real life your topics will be determined by the situation or your boss. For example, you may be asked to give a presentation about how to fund a new project or you may be asked to speak at an awards banquet for firefighters. In other cases, such as an after-dinner speech, you may choose your own topic. That's the way it is in this class; however, with some reservations. Many will find that dealing with free choice of topics comes with its own problems, the biggest ones being overwhelmed by the possiblities and being insecure about the choice you make. The following discussion is designed to help you overcome such problems.

Rule 1: Begin early.

Deciding on a topic early will give you more time to prepare and think, both consciously and unconciously, about what you want to say. Although beginning early may cause initial stress that could be alleviated by procrastination, an early start will lower your stress level when you give your speech--when you really need to be as relaxed as possible.

Rule 2: Choose a topic you're interested in.

If you are bored with or not interested in the topic, your audience will be even more bored--not because of the topic, but because of how you present it. Chances are, your lack of interest will show, and you will lack credibility. On the other hand, many people make the mistake of thinking that people are not interested in what they are interested in. This may be true, but a dynamic presentation can get people interested. I had a student who suffered from extreme speech anxiety and claimed that he couldn't find an interesting topic. After questioning him, I found that he was into composting--a subject that he thought his audience did not care about. True, almost every student in class had never given a second of thought to the subject. However, when he got up to give his speech, he was so "into" the subject that he lost his fear of speaking before an audience, kept the class's attention, and got them interested in the topic. Passion about a topic rubs of on the audience. I once had an advanced statistical modeling course from a leader in the field who was more statistical evangelist than professor. Although the subject was deadly, with complex formulae spread across two chalkboards, he made his students as passionate about the subject as he was.

Rule 3: Select a topic you know about or easily research

Most of us think we live uninteresting lives; however, it's not necessarily true that our experiences are uninteresting to others. In fact, to alleviate boredom, many of us become involved in hobbies such as gardening, flying, or music. Even jobs like working in a bank can be grist for the topic mill. For example, a detailed description of what is involved in getting a home mortgage is useful information that people need. In fact, I once refinanced my home at the bank employing a student who gave an excellent speech on the topic.

Filling out a personal inventory is an excellent way to identify possible topics. Simply take a sheet of paper and list the following headings with enough room under each heading to fill five lines. The headings are:

1. Work experience (past and present)

2. Special skills or knowledge

3. Hobbies, sports, recreation, etc.

4. Travel

5. Unusual experiences

6. School interests

7. Concerns/beliefs (politics, society, family, etc.)

Try to force yourself to list at least five things under each topic.

Another, similar method is to make a list of the following topics to be filled in.

1. People

2. Places

3. Things

4. Health/Medicine

5. Music

6. Literature

7. Sports

8. Current events

9. Politics

10. Social policy

Make certain that you choose a topic that is easily researchable if you need to do research. UT students have a major university library available and must know how to use it. Research is becoming easier as a result of computer assisted communications such as the World Wide Web otherwise known as the web. In fact, knowing how to separate the wheat from the chaff on the web is a big problem. For more information on research see my chapter on research.

One way to see if a topic is easily researchable is to look at the paper version of The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. If the Reader's Guide has lots of entries having to do with your subject, then you know it will be easy to research the topic. Another simple way to begin researching your topic is to find your topic in CQ Researcher, published for the benefit of members of Congress who want a quick overview of a subject of public concern. CQ Researcher is invaluable because it prints opposing viewpoints and excellent bibliographies to get you started.

Topic Organization

Narrow the Topic

Once you have chosen a topic, your first job is to narrow it. Assume that you choose crime as your topic. Crime is a broad subject with libraries of books having been written about it. Even if you narrow the topic to juvenile crime, the subject is still too broad. Perhaps an historical overview of juvenile justice in America would be more appropriate as an informative speech that could be managed in under a half an hour.

My favorite method for narrowing the topic is what I call the bubble method.

Determine the Purpose

General Purpose

I list three general purposes of speeches here:
  1. To inform
  2. To persuade
  3. To entertain
In real life you may find that your speech may have mixed purposes. A persuasive speech may have an informative component; an informative speech, a persuasive bent; and both types may also entertain. Nevertheless, you should have a clear idea about what your general goal is.

Informative speeches are concerned with giving information to the audience so that they understand and remember it. Here are some possible topics.

  1. How to go about building your own computer.
  2. The history of HMOšs in the U.S.
  3. A night in a hospital emergency department.
  4. Management of the bear population in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park.
  5. An overview of Appalachian music.
  6. How to conduct CPR.
Persuasive speeches are meant to change peoplešs minds, change peoplešs behavior, or to reinforce thoughts and behaviors that people already have. For example, you might give a speech that attempts to convince people to support legislation that reduces acid rain in the Smokeys.

Questions to answer about your general purpose

  1. Does the purpose meet the assignment?
    Sometime the professor, including this one, does not explain the assignment clearly enough. Ask if you are uncertain. Others in the class probably have the same question.
  2. Can I give the speech in the allotted time?
    If there is a time limit, make certain that you can meet it. You canšt inform the audience about the causes of the American Civil War in ten minutes.
  3. Is the purpose relevant to the audience?
    Trying to convince members of the Tucson Chamber of Commerce to pass laws against clearcutting our national forests would cause heads to nod.
  4. Is the purpose too trivial?
    This is a college level class and your speeches should teach your audience something on their level. A speech about how to make a pizza or what a wonderful pet your dog is will not cut it.
  5. Is the purpose too technical?
    A speech about the theory of Self Organized Criticality or the Central Limit Theorem may bore your audience unless you can deliver it in a way that clarifies and simplifies the ideas for a general audience.The same goes for a speech about the definition of arguments in the Holy Koran. Of course, if you are speaking to a group statisticians about the aforementioned mathematical subjects, go ahead. They will be able to understand you.

Speeches to entertain will not be treated here.

Specific Purpose

Once you determine your general purpose, next determine the specific purpose of your speech, stating exactly what you want to accomplish in your speech.

		  Topic: Hiking
	General Purpose: To inform
       Specific Purpose: To tell my listeners about various hiking trails
                            in Mt. Rainier National Park.

When you create your speech outline, you will use the specific purpose to guide your speech, writing it at the top of the outline. You wonšt actually say your specific purpose. Instead you will use it as a central hub for your speech, making certain that all your material relates to it in one way or another. Itšs there to keep you from rambling.

Begin your specific purpose with an infinitive (a verb preceded by to.)

Include a reference to your audience. Your specific should refer to your audience. This way you keep in mind the fact that you should be communicating with an audience, not just getting up and going through the motions of giving a speech. Above all, your speech should communicate.

Limit the specific purpose statement to one major idea This helps you keep the topic limited and well defined.

Make your statement precise
Poor:To tell my audience about how to visit the Big South Fork National Park
Better:To tell my audience about three places in the Big South Fork National Park that can be enjoyed on a one day trip

Make sure you can finish your speech in the allotted time. Donšt try to cover too much. Generally, students donšt understand that ten or fifteen minutes for a speech is really a very short time. Therefore, they prepare to much material and find that they go on too long when the speech is delivered.

Dontš be too technical. Donšt assume that everyone in the audience knows what you know. Engineers and scientists often have a difficult time communicating with their audience because the fail to realize that most people donšt know the difference between quark from a ion. These are alien words.

Central Idea

The central idea is the central message of your speech expressed in a single, complete sentence. It is the thesis sentence. Whereas the specific purpose is written from the speakeršs point of view and is written as an infinitive phrase, the central idea is written from the audiencešs point of view and is written as a complete sentence. For example:
TopicGeneral PurposeSpecific PurposeCentral Idea
ComputersTo informTo show my audience how to build their own computerBuilding your own computer is an easy, inexpensive way to own a powerful desktop computer

Guidelines for writing a central idea

  1. Every speech should have only one central idea.
  2. Write out the central idea.
  3. Limit the central idea to one sentence.
  4. Phrase the central idea as an assertion rather than as a statement of fact.
  5. Let the central idea determine the content of the entire speech.

Study questions & exercises

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