Department of Communication

Selecting a Topic

Selecting a topic for a speech or presentation is often restricted: in school, speakers are limited by the nature of the assignment whereas outside of school, speakers are limited by the nature of the speaking engagement. Even within limitations, speakers generally have a fair amount of flexibility to generate their own unique angles on the speech topic. Developing a topic and identifying the purpose of a speech will aid in the organization and direction of the overall performance.

Selecting a Topic

Identify the nature of the speaking engagement. Is it to inform, persuade, or commemorate? Certain speech topics lend themselves to certain occasions more than others (an informative speech that commemorated the life of Martin Luther King, or a persuasive speech that only taught people how to weave baskets would not meet the basic requirements of the assignments.)

Establish interest areas. What is interesting to the speaker? People generally speak better on issues that they are familiar with; so identifying own interests is a helpful step in developing a topic.

What books, movies, films, tv shows, magazines, etc do you like? Are there connecting themes across these different media? For example, do the things you like in media all relate to "coming of age" or "adventure" or "science"? You might identify an interesting speech topic by doing a simple inventory of what interests you.

What do you know about, not know about, and want to know more about? Your own feelings towards an issue might be similar to an audience's--so explore your reactions to certain topics. If you are really interested in politics, you might be able to speak to an audience with a lot of passion on the subject; just as you would be an effective speaker on polymers if you had a deep and abiding love for polymers.

People, events, processes, places, and things make good speech topics. These five areas encompass most public speeches. Categorizing them as such allows a speaker to identify what type of subject they want to speak about.

Explore databases. Identify some keywords that might relate to the topic and look them up in either paper or electronic databases. The Library of Congress subject headings in the library will reveal related topics that might help round out a speech or push it in a new, productive direction. Online databases like ERIC, Lexis/Nexis, or EBSCO have a vast store of fulltext articles that might inspire an original topic. Finally, searching the internet with Google or a similar search engine can produce interesting topics. Sometimes this option can be too overwhelming, though, so be certain to have a focused search and disciplined surfing.

Identifying the General Purpose

There are three main genres of public speech: informative, persuasive, and ceremonial. Each has a different function and thus requires different elements. An informative speech attempts to communicate ideas to an audience. A persuasive speech attempts to sway an audience to embrace the speaker's position. A ceremonial speech celebrates (or sometimes denigrates) the subject. An informative speech might be expected to be very detail oriented, involve visual aids, or incorporate hands-on experience. Persuasive speeches will likely include rhetorical techniques like metaphors, repetition, and evidence from expert sources. A ceremonial speech often uses artful language to praise or blame the subject and relies on telling stories as primary evidence. Establishing the general purpose can help to calibrate the type of style, type of evidence, and mode of reasoning needed to be an effective public speaker.

Identifying the Specific Purpose

After narrowing the purpose of the speech, further refine the purpose to express the particular goal that your speech will have. If wanting to inform an audience on the quality of different websites, then your specific purpose would be: To inform about the quality of different websites. If you wanted to persuade the audience to visit a particular website, the specific purpose would be: To persuade an audience to visit a particular website. If the speech was a ceremonial speech lauding the virtues of a particular speech, the specific purpose would be: To celebrate a particular website.