Chapter 5: Developing Topics for Your Speech

5.1 – Getting Started with Your Topic and Purpose

When we start preparing for a speech, we often think about topics. That is understandable, but before we go any further, let’s recalibrate our minds to think also, or even more, about “purpose.” There are some benefits to considering purpose and topic simultaneously. Doing so will help you focus your speech to a manageable amount of content and become more audience-centered. Also, you will be able to make strategic decisions about other aspects of the speech, such as organization, supporting evidence, and visual aids.

Speeches have traditionally been seen to have one of three broad purposes: to inform, to persuade, and to inspire/entertain. This author contends that two of those three purposes are disingenuous.

Remember rule number two of communication: all communication is persuasive.

Anytime a person says they are speaking merely to inform, one must wonder what they want the listener to do with the information. If an action is to be taken or an opinion is to be changed, that would mean it was persuasive, not merely informative. If no action was to be taken and no opinions were to be changed, what was the purpose of the speech?

The more important planning need for public speaking is to know who you want to persuade to do what. The speaker must have a clear understanding of this question for every speech.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with communication being persuasive. Some students are nonplussed at the idea of all communication being persuasive, but they’re probably conflating persuasive with manipulative; manipulation is persuasion through dishonesty, which is unethical. This author recommends being honest in communication at all times.

However, when thinking about the traditional notions of speech purposes, one could note that these three purposes are not necessarily exclusive of the others. A speech designed to be persuasive can also be informative and entertaining, even if neither of those is the main purpose.

As you begin crafting your speech, consider these two basic questions:

  1. What value, connection, or interest does my purpose/topic have for the audience? What audience needs do they meet?
  2. Why would the audience consider me, the speaker, a credible source on this purpose/topic?

As you develop your speech, you should answer these questions, directly or indirectly, for your audience. If your audience is unfamiliar with your topic, for instance, you would want to address the first one early in the speech. If your audience does not know anything about you, you should mention (in an appropriate way) your background in the subject area.

One question that is embedded in the mind of anybody listening to the speech is “WIIFM”: “What’s In It For Me?” Keep the WIIFM acronym in mind as you start to think about your speeches more and more from your audience’s perspective and make sure that your audience can find something in your speech that is, indeed, in it for them.

5.2 – Formulating a Specific Purpose Statement

Now that you know your general purpose, you can start to move in the direction of the specific purpose. A specific purpose statement builds on your general purpose (to persuade) and makes it more specific (as the name suggests).

In writing your specific purpose statement, you will take three contributing elements that will come together. These three elements are you, the audience, and the context.


An old adage states, “Write about what you know.” In many ways, that is a great place to start with creating a speech, although you will need to consult other sources, as well. If you start with ideas that reflect your interests, goals, and passions, that passion and commitment will come across in your speech, give you more credibility in the eyes of your audience, and make your speech more interesting.

This would be a good place for you to do an inventory. Ask yourself about your connection to a wide variety of topics:

  • jobs you’ve had
  • places you’ve volunteered
  • clubs or organizations you’ve joined
  • times you’ve changed your mind about a serious topic
  • an important lesson you learned or an amazing course you took
  • hobbies about which you’re passionate
  • places you’ve traveled
  • sports or musical instruments you play
  • books, music, shows, or movies that helped you grow in some way

Consider if any ideas can be generated from your experiences or interests. You might find that an interesting topic can emerge from connecting or contrasting two of those, such as how travel taught you to enjoy following your own goals, but sports taught you how to achieve goals as a team. You might choose a provocative question to apply to one, such as why a particular book should be required reading in school or why everybody should work for a year before going to college (which isn’t bad advice, by the way).

At the same time, remember your audience wants to know WIIFM. Ultimately, your speech isn’t for you; it’s for the people in the audience.

The Audience

What you love or hate may be in stark contrast to how your audience feels, so keep them in mind at all times. After you examine what you know and are passionate about, you have to determine if and how the topic has practical value or interest for others. It may be that it is a topic the audience is not immediately interested in, but needs to know about for their own benefit. Then you need to find the angle and approach that will help them see the benefit of the topic and listen to you. The more you know about your audience, the better you can achieve this goal. Good speakers are very knowledgeable about their audiences.

The Context

Many aspects come into the context of a speech, but as mentioned in Chapter 2, the main ones are the time, place, and reason(s) for the event and the audience being there. Your classroom speeches have a fairly set context: time limits, the classroom, assignment specifications. Other speeches you will give in college (or in your career and personal life) will require you to think more deeply about the context just as you would the audience.

Putting It Together

Keeping these three inputs in mind, you can begin to write a specific purpose statement, which will be the foundation for everything you say in the speech and a guide for what you do not say. This formula will help you in putting together your specific purpose statement:

Specific Communication Word (in infinitive phrase) (to explain, to demonstrate, to describe, to define, to persuade, to argue)

Target Audience (my classmates, the members of the Social Work Club, my coworkers)

The Content (how to bake brownies, that Macs are better than PCs)

Each of these parts of the specific purpose is important. The first two parts make sure you are clear on your purpose and know specifically who will be hearing your message.

The content part of the specific purpose statement must first be singular and focused, and the content must match the purpose. The word “and” really should not appear in the specific purpose statement since that would make it seem that you have two purposes and two topics. Obviously, the specific purpose statement’s content must be very narrowly defined and, well, specific. One mistake beginning speakers often make is to try to cover too much material. This comes from an emphasis on the topic more than the purpose and from not keeping audience and context in mind. In other words, go deep (specific), not broad.

Next, the specific purpose statement should be relevant to the audience. Also keep in mind what you want the audience to walk away with or what you want them to know, to be able to do, to think, to act upon, or to respond to your topic—your ultimate outcome or result.

Here are several examples of specific purpose statements. Notice how they meet the standards of being singular, focused, relevant, and consistent.

To argue for a group of new graduate students the best definition of “academic freedom.”

To explain to the Lions Club members the problems faced by veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

To persuade the members of city council to allocate funds for a new recreation centre.

To motivate my classmates to engage in the College’s study abroad program.

To convince my classroom audience that they need at least seven hours of sleep per night to do well in their studies.

Despite all the information given about specific purpose statements so far, the next advice you read will seem strange: never start your speech by saying your specific purpose to the audience. In a sense, it is just for you and the instructor. For you, it’s like a note you might tack on the mirror or refrigerator to keep you on track. For the instructor, it’s a way for them to know you are accomplishing both the assignment and what you set out to do. Avoid the temptation to default to saying it at the beginning of your speech. It will seem awkward and repetitive. Even when you’re watching a moving titled Finding Nemo, you don’t want somebody to spoil the ending, right? (They find Nemo. It’s in the title.)

5.3 – Formulating a Central Idea Statement

The central idea statement is the same as the thesis sentence in an essay in that both are letting the audience know, without a doubt, your topic, purpose, direction, angle and/or point of view. On the other hand, the rules for writing a “thesis” or central idea statement in a speech are not as strict as in an essay. For example, you might phrase this central idea as a rhetorical question or a call to action. You certainly don’t want to begin with a boring essay lead, such as this:

“In this speech, I will try to motivate you to join me next month as a volunteer at the regional Special Olympics.”

That’s awful. Public speaking should be engaging and needs to tease the listener’s attention and curiosity, not hit them in the head with blunt, boring, direct messages.

Look at how the version below “hooks” the listener by providing a call to action, coupled with the hint of a surprise ending. They’ll need to listen to the speech to know what the surprise is at the end.

“If you want to experience an exciting new challenge, volunteering in next month’s regional Special Olympics would benefit the community, the participants, and you personally in ways you might not have anticipated.”

So, you don’t want to just repeat your specific purpose in the central idea statement, but you do want to provide complete information. Also, unlike the formal thesis of your English essays, the central idea statement in a speech can and should use personal language (I, me, we, us, you, your) and should attempt to be attention-getting and audience-focused. However, like a formal thesis sentence, it needs to be a complete sentence.

Another difference between the central idea statement and a thesis is there is no one place it must land in a speech. It could be the first line or it could even land somewhere in the middle (though probably not later than that).

You might choose to divide your central idea and the preview of main points into two sentences or three sentences if that works best for your speech. If your central idea consists of more than three sentences, then you are probably including too much information and taking up time that is needed for the body of the speech. Additionally, you will have a speech trying to do too much and that goes overtime.

The point of your central idea statement in terms of your audience is to reveal and clarify the ideas or assertions you will be addressing in your speech to fulfill your specific purpose.

However, as you are processing your ideas and approach, you may still be working on them. Sometimes those main points will not be clear to you immediately. As much as we would like these writing processes to be straightforward, sometimes we find that we have to revise our original approach.

This is why preparing a speech the night before you are giving it is a really, really bad idea. You need lots of time for the preparation and then the practice.

Sometimes you will hear the writing process referred to as “iterative.” This word means, among other definitions, that a speech or document is not always written in the same order as the audience finally experiences it. You may have noticed that we have not said anything about the introduction of your speech yet. Even though that is the first content the audience hears, it may be one of the last parts you actually compose. Consider your speech flexible as you work on it and to be willing to edit and revise. If your instructor asks you to submit the outline before the speech, you should be clear on how much you can revise after that. Otherwise, know that you can keep editing your speech until you deliver it, especially while you practice.


Be aware that all aspects of your speech are going to change as you move toward giving your speech. The exact wording of your central idea may change and you can experiment with different versions. However, your specific purpose statement should not change unless there is a really good reason. There are many aspects to consider in the seemingly simple task of writing a specific purpose statement and its companion, the central idea statement. Writing good ones early will save you time and effort later in your preparations.


This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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Public Speaking for Today's Audiences Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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