Chapter 8: Supporting Your Speech Ideas

8.1 – Why Supporting Materials are Needed

Preparing to give a presentation is not a totally linear process. Even as you practice, you will make small changes to your basic outline, since the way something looks on paper and the way it sounds are usually different. For example, long sentences may look intelligent on paper, but they are hard to say in one breath and hard for the audience to understand.

Using your supporting materials effectively is essential because audiences crave detail and specifics. Supporting material make your ideas, arguments, assertions, points, or concepts real and concrete. Sometimes supporting materials are thought of as supports for a bridge. Without these supports, while you might be able to see the beginning and the end, the whole structure would quickly collapse.

Of course, as we will see in this chapter, all supporting materials are not considered equal. In general, there are two basic ways to think about the role of supporting materials:

  1. they clarify, explain, or provide specifics (and, therefore, understanding) for the audience, or
  2. they provide evidence and, therefore, persuade the audience.

Of course, some can do both.

You might ask, how much supporting material is enough? The time you are allowed or required to speak will largely determine that, but students often struggle with having enough supporting materials. Make sure your supporting materials answer the “who, what, when, where, why, and how,” questions and add more description and evidence.

With all the sources available to you through reliable Internet and published sources, finding information is not difficult. Recognizing the difference between supporting information and the general idea you are trying to support or argue is more difficult, as is providing adequate citation.

Along with clarifying and arguing, supporting materials, especially narrative ones, also make your speech much more interesting and attention-getting. Ultimately, you will be perceived as a more credible speaker if you provide clarifying, logical, evidence-based, and interesting supporting material.

8.2 – Types of Supporting Materials

Essentially, there are seven types of supporting materials: examples, narratives, definitions, descriptions, historical and scientific facts, statistics, and testimony. Each provides a different type of support and you will want to choose the supporting materials that best help you make the point you want to get across to your audience.


This type of supporting material is the first and easiest to use but also easy to forget. Examples are almost always short but concrete specific instances to illuminate a concept. They are designed to give audiences a reference point.

The key to effectively using examples in your speeches is this: what is an example to you may not be an example to your audience, if they have a different experience. Television shows from 30 years ago are pretty meaningless to young audiences today. Time and age are not the only reasons an example may not work with the audience. If you are a huge soccer fan speaking to a group who barely knows soccer, using a well-known soccer player as an example of perseverance or overcoming discrimination in the sports world may not communicate. It may only leave the audience members scratching their heads.

Additionally, one good, appropriate example is worth several less apt ones.


Narratives, stories, and anecdotes are useful in speeches to interest the audience and clarify, dramatize, and emphasize ideas. They have, if done well, strong emotional power. They can be used in the introduction, the body, and the conclusion of the speech. They can be short, as anecdotes usually are. They could be longer, although they should not comprise large portions of the speech.

Narratives can be personal, literary, historical, or hypothetical. Personal narratives can be helpful in situations where you want to achieve these outcomes:

  • Relate to the audience on a human level, especially if they may see you as competent, but not really similar or connected to them.
  • Build your credibility by mentioning your experience with a topic.

Of course, personal narratives must be true. They must also not portray you as more competent, experienced, brave, or intelligent than you are; in other words, along with being truthful in using personal narratives, you should be reasonably humble.

Historical narratives (sometimes called documented narratives) have power. In using these, you should treat them as fact and, therefore, give a citation as to where you found the historical narrative. By “historical,” we do not mean the story refers to something that happened many years ago, only that it has happened in the past and there were witnesses to validate the happening.

Hypothetical narratives are ones that could happen but have not yet. To be effective, they should be connected to reality so that audiences can connect to the narrative.


When we use the term “definition” here as a supporting material, we are not talking about something you can easily find from the dictionary or from the first result that comes up on Google.

First, using a dictionary definition does not really show your audience that you have researched a topic (anyone can look up a definition in a few seconds). Secondly, does the audience need a definition of a word like “love,” “bravery,” or “commitment?”

To define means to set limits on something; defining a word is setting limits on what it means, how the audience should think about the word, and/or how you will use it. We know there are denotative and connotative definitions or meanings for words, which we usually think of as objective and subjective responses to words. You only need to define words that would be unfamiliar to the audience or words that you want to use in a specialized way.

You may want to use a stipulated definition early in your speech. In this case, you clearly tell the audience how you are going to use a word or phrase in your speech.

“When I use the phrase ‘liberal democracy’ in this speech, I am using it in the historical sense of a constitution, representative government, and elected officials, not in the sense of any particular issues that are being debated today between progressives and conservatives or in reference to a particular political party.”

This is a helpful technique and makes sure your audience understands you, but you would only want to do this for terms that have confusing or controversial meanings for some.

You can also define terms in contrast to each other or in connection to each other. Terms can be defined operationally, that is, how they apply in the real world or what they look like when put to action.


The key to description is to think in terms of the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and feel.

Description as a method of support also depends on details, or answering the five questions of what, where, how, who, when. To use description, you must dig deeper into your vocabulary and think concretely. This example shows that progression:

  1. Furniture
  2. A chair
  3. A recliner
  4. A La-Z-Boy® rocker-recliner
  5. An old green velvet La-Z-Boy® rocker recliner
  6. An old lime green velvet La-Z-Boy® rocker recliner with a cigarette burn on the left arm

As you add more description, there are two benefits. The “camera focus” becomes clearer, but you also add tone, or attitude. A recliner is one generic, but who buys a lime green velvet recliner? And someone sat in it smoked and was sloppy about it. In this case, the last line is probably too much description unless you want to paint a picture of a careless person with odd taste in furniture.

Historic and Scientific Facts

This type of supporting material is useful for clarification, but is especially useful for arguing a point. American President John Adams is quoted as saying, “Facts are stubborn things,” but that does not mean everyone accepts every fact as a fact or that everyone is capable of distinguishing a fact from an opinion. A fact is defined by the Urban Dictionary as “The place most people in the world tend to think their opinions reside.” This is a humourous definition, but often true about how we approach facts. The meaning of “fact” is complicated by the context in which it is being used. The National Center for Science Education (2008) defines fact this way:

In science, an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as “true.” Truth in science, however, is never final and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow.

Another source explains fact this way:

[Fact is] a truth known by actual experience or observation. The hardness of iron, the number of ribs in a squirrel’s body…and the like are all facts. Is it a fact that electrons orbit around atomic nuclei? Is it a fact that Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar? Is it a fact that the sun will rise tomorrow? None of us has observed any of these things—the first is an inference from a variety of different observations, the second is reported by Plutarch and other historians who lived close enough in time and space to the event that we trust their report, and the third is an inductive inference after repeated observations. (“Scientific Thought,” n.d.)

Without getting into a philosophical dissertation on the meaning of truth, for our purposes facts are pieces of information with established “backup.” You can cite who discovered the fact and how other authorities have supported it. In using scientific and historical fact in your speech, do not take citation for granted. If it is a fact worth saying and a fact new to the audience, assume you should cite the source of the fact.


Statistics are widely used in public speaking, but they are often misunderstood by the speaker and the audience. Statistics include numerical information, descriptive statistics (such as ratios and percentages), and the more in-depth process of analyzing, comparing, and interpreting numerical data. Another category of statistics is inferential statistics, which are analyses that are used to generalize sample results to populations. So, for example, political polling results reporting margins of error that give us an idea of voters’ preferences as a whole are based on inferential statistical analysis.

Statistics are also misunderstood because the science of statistics is difficult. Even terms such as mean, median, and mode often confuse people, much less regression analysis, two-tailed T-tests, and margin of error. Before you can use statistics in a speech, you should have a basic understanding of them.

Mean is the same as mathematical average, something you learned to do early in math classes.

The median, however, is the middle number in a distribution. If all salaries of players in Major League Baseball were listed from highest to lowest, the one in the exact middle of the list would be the median. You can tell from this that it probably will not be the same as the average, and it rarely is; however, the terms “median” and “mean” are often interchanged carelessly. Mode is the name for the most frequently occurring number in the list.

There are many other terms you would be introduced to in a statistics class, but the point remains: be careful of using a statistic that sounds impressive unless you know what it represents. There is an old saying about “figures don’t lie but liars figure” and another: “There are liars, damn liars, and statisticians.” These sayings are exaggerations, but they point out that we are inundated with statistical information and often do not know how to process it.

In using statistics, you are probably going to use them as evidence, more than as explanation. Here are some tips:

  1. Use statistics as support, not as a main point.
  2. Always provide the source of the statistic.
  3. Only depend on the reliable statistics.
  4. Do not overuse statistics.
  5. Use graphs/charts/tables to display the most important statistics.
  6. Explain your statistics as needed, but do not make your speech a statistics lesson.
  7. If you do your own survey or research and use numerical data from it, explain your method for producing the statistics.
  8. It goes without saying that you will use the statistic ethically, that there will be no distortion of what the statistic means. However, it is acceptable and a good idea to round numerical data to avoid overwhelming the audience (such as “over four million,” instead of “4,121, 098”).
  9. Additionally, do not make statistics mean what they do not mean. Otherwise, you would be pushing the boundaries on ethics.
  10. An effective technique with numerical data is to use physical comparisons. For example,  “The national debt is 1.6 trillion dollars. That means means that every Canadian owes over $40,000.”
  11. Finally, because statistics can be confusing, slow down when you say them, give more emphasis, and find small ways of helping the audience grasp them.


Testimony is the words of others. You might think of them as quoted material. Obviously, all quoted material or testimony is not the same. Some quotations you just use because they are funny, compelling, or attention-getting. They work well as openings to introductions. Other types of testimony are more useful for furthering your arguments. Testimony can also give an audience insight into the feelings or perceptions of others. Testimony is basically divided into two categories: expert and peer.

Expert Testimony

What is an expert? Here is a quotation of the humourous kind: an expert is “one who knows more and more about less and less” (Nicholas Butler). Actually, an expert for our purposes is someone with recognized credentials, knowledge, education, and/or experience in a subject. When using expert testimony, you should follow these guidelines:

  • Use the expert’s testimony in their relevant field, not outside of it.
  • Provide at least some of the expert’s relevant credentials.
  • Choose experts to quote whom your audience will respect and/or whose name or affiliations they will recognize as credible.
  • Make clear that you are quoting the expert testimony verbatim or paraphrasing it. If verbatim, add words such as, “…and I quote…” to make clear this is a direct quote.
  • If you interviewed the expert yourself, make that clear in the speech.

Expert testimony is one of your strongest supporting materials to advance your arguments, but in a sense, by clearly citing the source’s credentials, you are arguing that your source is truly an expert to validate their information.

Peer Testimony

Any quotation from a friend, family member, or classmate about an incident or topic would be peer testimony. It is useful in helping the audience understand a topic from a personal point of view. As evidence goes, however, this is among the weakest.

8.3 – Attention Factors and Supporting Material

Attention and perception are closely tied concepts, but they are not exactly the same. If you have taken an introduction to psychology course, one of the earliest chapters in the textbook was probably about perception, since our perceptual processes are so foundational to how we think and process.

Perception deals primarily with how we organize and interpret the patterns of stimuli around us. The key words in this definition are patterns, organize, and interpret. The brain does the work of taking thousands of stimuli around us and making sense of them. Sensation is taking in the stimuli in the physical realm; perception is doing something with it psychologically. Perception is obviously influenced by memory, experiences, past learning, and so on. If you taste a desert, the scent and taste are physically going to your brain and, thus, you are sensing it. But, if you say, “This tastes like my mother’s recipe for this desert,” then you are perceiving.

Attention, on the other hand, is focused perception. Attention is defined as focus on one stimulus while ignoring or suppressing reactions to other stimuli. It has been referred to as the “allocation of limited processing resources” (Anderson, 2005, p. 519). Although we think we can multitask and pay attention to three stimuli at a time, we cannot.

When you pay attention, you focus and other stimuli become muted or nonexistent in your mind for that amount of time. We have all had experiences when we so focused on a stimulus—it could be a concert, a movie, a roller coaster ride—that we almost “wake up” to the rest of the world when it is over.

Why Do We Pay Attention?

Perception is not something we have a good deal of control over, but we do have more say in attention. There are basically five reasons we pay attention to what we do when confronted with lots of competing stimuli.

  1. Choice: we choose to focus on one stimuli over another.
  2. Expectations: if you anticipate a particular stimulus, you will pay attention until you notice it.
  3. Need states: when we are in a need state, we will be focused on those items that meet the need. Information meets a personal need will draw more attention (such as an advertisement about food when you’re hungry).
  4. Past training and experiences: you will notice what you have been taught or trained, either directly or indirectly, to focus on. Sometimes you will not even be aware that you are doing so. For example, if you played a particular sport, you will notice if actors in a movie are realistically enacting the minutiae of playing that sport.
  5. Attention factors: there are certain qualities or characteristics of stimuli that naturally attract our attention. These have been termed the “factors of attention.” If a public speaker puts these traits into the speech and presentation aids, the audience’s ability to pay attention will be bolstered. These characteristics, listed below, are generally ways to “perk up” your audience’s ears and gain their attention, at least temporarily. Our attention can wane rather quickly and a speaker must work to keep the audience engaged. Incorporating attention factors can help.

Attention Factors

The list of factors that can help you get or maintain attention during your speech is rather long and a speaker cannot, of course, use all of them in one speech, but they are useful tools in certain speech situations.

The first factor in getting or maintaining attention is movement. A moving object will gain more attention than a stationary one. You can use stories that have movement in plot. You can use physical movement in your delivery. Transitions give a sense of movement to a speech, as well as not dwelling on one idea too long.

The second factor of attention is conflict. Showing ideas, groups, teams, and so on that are in conflict draws attention. Stories also utilize conflict.

The third factor of attention is novelty. Your ideas and the way you approach them should be fresh and new to the audience.

The fourth factor of attention is humour. Humour is usually not the focus of your speech, especially in a class situation, but well-placed and intentional humour can be helpful to maintain attention of your audience. It should be appropriate to the topic and well-practiced.

The fifth factor of attention is familiarity. As mentioned already, supporting materials should be immediately accessible and draw from your audience’s experience so they can understand quickly in an oral communication setting. Familiarity is attractive because it is comfortable. Familiarity may seem in conflict with novelty and, in a sense, they show both sides of how our minds work.

The sixth factor is contrast. This one is particularly useful to a speaker in creating visual aids so that key words stand out, for example, on presentation slides. Contrast also applies to the variety in your voice (avoiding what we would call monotone or monorate).

The seventh factor of attention is repetition. We have already seen how key repetitions at points in the speech can remind the audience of your structure and main ideas.

Suspense is the eighth factor of attention. Although not as useful in public speaking as some of the factors, suspense can be useful in an introduction. You can use a series of questions asking the audience to guess your topic; however, this is a risky approach if you disappoint your audience when the “real” topic is not what they are guessing. You can also tell a story in the introduction and say you will give the outcome of the story at the end of the speech or pose a question and promise that by the end of the speech they will know the answer. However, always be sure to deliver on the promise!

The ninth factor is proximity, which refers to physical closeness. While not applicable to supporting materials, proximity does relate to public speaking delivery. The more physical distance between the audience members and the speaker and the audience, the less the audience to remain attentive. If you know that only 20 people are going to attend a presentation, have it in a 20-seat room, not an auditorium that seats 100. The audience members will spread out and feel detached from each other, and you will not feel to close to them.

The tenth factor of attention is need-oriented subjects. We pay attention to what meets our needs. For example, when you are hungry, you probably notice fast food advertisements more on television.

The eleventh factor is intensity, which is also useful in the delivery aspect of public speaking. Raising your voice at key times and slowing down are useful for attention.

The last attention factor is concreteness, which in a sense describes all of them. All of the factors and types of supporting materials are tied to real or concrete experience. The more a speaker can attach the speech to real experience, either their own or, preferably, the audience’s, the more effective they will be.


A speech without supporting materials is unlikely to be effective. Think of it like cooking a flavourful cuisine; there will be a mixture of spices and tastes, not just one. Statistics, narratives and examples, testimony, definitions, descriptions, and facts all clarify your concepts for the audience. Statistics, testimony, facts, and historical examples also support logical arguments. In the process of composing your speech, be sure to provide sources and use varied and interesting language to express the support your speech ideas require and deserve.


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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