- Define Informative Speaking
- Identify Types of Informative Speeches
- Explain guidelines for Developing an Informative Speech
Has someone provided you information and afterward you thought, “what were they talking about?” or “why does this matter to me?” We, too, have found ourselves dazed and confused after an informational presentation or an exchange in a meeting.
“What?” we ask ourselves, often in response to information that: a) we already knew, b) is confusingly presented, or c) doesn’t seem applicable to us. In these instances, the information was ineffectively presented. Perhaps it wasn’t clear. Perhaps it was disorganized. Perhaps it was not adapted to meet you as the recipient.
Gathering and understanding new information is a part of becoming critical thinkers, so effective information sharing through informative speaking can be a powerful and important tool. In this chapter, we chart informative speaking and provide guidelines for approaching and preparing an informative speech. Let’s start with the purpose and goal.
What is an Informative Speech?
The purpose of an informative speech is to share information that: a) increases audience understanding around a topic, b) provides an alternative, and/or c) raises awareness. You might, for example, give an informative speech that raises awareness about the increase in Kansas tornadoes over the past 15 years. Alternatively, you may increase your audience’s understanding about your city’s housing code changes. In each of these examples, you are selecting a topic and relevant content that would be useful for the audience to know.
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 directions, explaining the specials of the day as a server, or describing the plot of a movie to friends, people engage in daily forms of information sharing. When done well, information can provide a new perspective or increase our knowledge around a topic.
Despite the everyday nature of information sharing, approaching an informative speech can be slightly daunting. As the speaker, you are responsible for identifying an argument that is worthwhile—and in the age of globalization and access to digital information, there’s a lot of stuff to sort through and choose from.
The key to an effective informative speech is identifying what information your audience needs. Why, for example, would it be important for your audience to know about major climate changes in Kansas? Does the audience already know? Would it benefit them? Remember that all information may not be relevant to all audiences. You may decide that sharing the city’s changes to housing codes isn’t particularly useful for an audience that doesn’t reside in the affected neighborhoods. In other words: information is not equal in all contexts, so your job as a speaker is to advocate for meaningful, teachable content. When you select that content to share with an audience – an action that can provide alternatives and expand viewpoints—you are advocating for the relevance and timeliness of that informative topic.
Through information sharing, however, you are not taking a particular side or providing the audience with a call to action. While informative speeches advocate for novel ideas, they do not explicitly attempt to convince the audience that one thing is better than another—it doesn’t attempt to persuade (which we’ll cover in the next chapter). This can be a tricky distinction and one that you should attend to. Even if you are informing the audience about differences in views on controversial topics, you should simply and clearly explain each side of the issue.
Understanding the types of informative speeches may help as you work on selecting information that doesn’t persuade.
“Can’t We Find all the Information We Need on the Internet?
We often hear, “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.
Third, 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.
Types of Informative Speeches
Understanding types of informative speech that you will give can help you to figure out the best way to organize, research, and prepare. While the topics to choose for informative speeches are nearly limitless, they can generally be pared down into four broad types: description, definition, explanation, or demonstration.
Speeches that Describe
Speeches of description provide a clear, vivid, and memorable picture of a person, place, thing, idea, or alternative. In this category, your goal is to effectively describe your topic in ways that allow the audience to visualize that idea. Put differently: you place the audience in the scene of the topic.
Suppose you are an archaeologist (some of you likely are). This approach would be appropriate if you wanted to highlight a recent discovery in your field – you might describe a key finding from a dig site that advances the scientific perspective on evolution. The speech would attempt to place the audience at the dig site by describing how the finding was uncovered, the artifact itself, etc. Describing information can help simplify content for an audience that is unfamiliar with an archaeological perspective.
If you opt to provide information to an audience about alternatives, describing the differences in each alternative can be an effective application of descriptive speeches. June, for example, is celebrated as LGBTQ Pride month throughout the United States. After doing research and brainstorming, you may realize that there are a plethora of Pride events and gatherings throughout your city, and you want to provide your audience with that information. Describing the different venues and events might allow audiences to understand what each alternative event experience might provide.
For any topic that you approach descriptively, ask yourself:
- Have I effectively described this idea for an audience that may be unfamiliar with the information?
- Can I revisit the language and be more vivid?
- Am I describing information that’s related to my thesis statement?
- How can I use descriptive language that intrigues the audiences and relates this information to their lives?
Speeches that Define
Definitional speeches provide the meaning of an idea to the audience. Definitional speeches are helpful to clarify or simplify concepts, theories, or ideas that an audience may be otherwise unfamiliar.
For example, one of our authors has the tattoo “advocate feminism.”
“What does that mean?” she’s often asked. If we take a definitional approach, she would work to define and outline feminism, perhaps by providing the origin of the word or defining different feminist movements. While “advocate feminism” may appear persuasive, definitional informative speeches allow speakers to identify components of an idea that are based in information-sharing rather than asking the audience to change their perspective.
A common approach to selecting a definitional speech topic is to trace the history or origin of an idea (like feminism), an object, person, or theory.
If you’re a mathematician, for example, you might opt for a definitional speech that focuses on a contemporary mathematical theory. Because the perspective may seem abstract, a definitional approach can simply that abstraction by defining what it is for the audience.
For any topic that takes a definitional approach, ask:
- Have I provided definitional support in a way that’s clear to my audience?
- Have I defined all key parts of my topic? Have I over-defined? (In other words, is my speech just a list of definitions?)
- Is my speech too abstract? Have I provided examples and placed these definitions in contexts that my audience can connect with?
Speeches that Explain
Speeches of explanation detail processes or how something works, often explaining an otherwise complex, abstract, or unfamiliar idea to the audience. This approach is common in industry-settings or professional contexts where a speaker needs to explain the process, data, or results of a study or program.
Explanatory speeches provide audiences with a behind-the-scenes look at information. Interested in philosophy? An explanatory speech may be appropriate to help audiences wade through a current philosophical perspective that you find fascinating. Interested in the United States criminal justice system? You could report on current body camera policies.
Teaching is a great example of explanatory speeches because teachers regularly explain assignments, protocols, policies, rubrics, etc. A teacher’s main goal is to clarify expectations by using language that’s appropriate to the audience—their students!
Think back to our opening topic example about changes in city codes around housing. An explanatory approach would work to explain how those changes occurred, detail the code changes to the audience, and/or explain how the changes would affect their neighborhoods.
For explanatory speech topics, ask yourself:
- Have I effectively explained all components of the topic?
- Are my explanations effectively translated to the audience and context?
- Do my explanations detail how and why this information is relevant to the audience?
Speeches that Demonstrate
Speeches of demonstration are, well, you guessed it: speeches that demonstrate how something is done for the audience. These can be fun because they allow you to teach the audience something cool and interesting.
Demonstration speeches are commonly called “how to” speeches because they show the audience how to do something. These speeches require you to provide steps that will help your audience understand how to accomplish a specific task or process—bake cookies, for example. After a speech on how to verify information that’s found on memes, for example, the audience members could probably do it on their own.
However, these speeches can be tricky because a) the audience may be familiar with your demonstration, or b) the limited time can constrain what you’re able to demonstrate. If you want to demonstrate how to bake cookies, for example, your audience may be familiar with that process. The demonstration may lack uniqueness or novelty, especially if audiences are more confident turning on YouTube. It may also be difficult to provide all the necessary steps in the space or context that you’re speaking. If you’re an experienced baker, you may know that determining when the cookies are done can be a difficult part of the process, but your classroom space likely doesn’t facilitate the inclusion of that step.
- Does this information require a demonstration (i.e. is a demonstrative speech the best approach)?
- Am I able to outline all the steps in the time provided?
- Have I adequately outlined all the steps?
- What materials do I need to bring to guarantee the success of the demonstration in the space that I’ve been given to speak?
While we have provided categories to assist in understanding types of informative speeches, your topic may require adopting tactics from more than one approach.
Consider “recidivism” in the criminal justice system – the likelihood for a person to re-offend after being convicted of a crime. If you were interested in informing your audience about recidivism, you would likely need to define recidivism – a term that may be unfamiliar to some – and explain how recidivism occurs in the context of the prison system. Alternatively, you could take a descriptive approach – after defining recidivism – and describe one person’s experience going through the system.
Different Informative Speech Routes to 3D Printing
Define 3D printing, the history, key events, or figures.
Describe a 3D printer and describe how new material is created.
Explain the science behind 3D printing and how it affects different industries.
Bring in a 3D printer and show the audience how it works.
As you begin to develop your topic, these 4 types of informative speeches can help direct your preparation and identify your specific purpose statement. Your goal, in general, is to inform, but your specific purpose will be to define, demonstrate, explain, and/or describe.
Guidelines for Selecting and Developing Your Informative Speech
Now that you have a better understanding of the informative speech types, let’s talk specifically about developing your own informative speech: from topic selection through a completed outline.
We know what you’re thinking: “We’ve already covered how to select, write, and organize arguments.” While, yes, we did discuss general approaches to these processes in Part 2 on arguments, a refresher always helps. Below, we focus on guidelines for developing your informative speeches, specifically.
Pick a Focused and Unique Topic
First, pick an informative topic that is narrow and novel. Your speech emanates and builds from your topic, and your goal should be picking a thesis statement that is focused and unique to your audience.
A large misconception about informative speeches is that bigger and broader is better. Oftentimes, topics that are super broad happen for two reasons:
- As the speaker, you believe that a broader topic will require less research. You might believe that you can brainstorm and research 5 minutes of information on a topic quickly, but if you investigate the topic, that research is often overwhelming because of the breadth of information. For example, suppose that you selected “to describe the Civil War for my audience” as your specific purpose. The Civil War was, conservatively speaking, four years long, resulted in over 750,000 casualties, and arguably changed the course of human history. A typical college library has hundreds of books dealing with the Civil War. It’s a myth, then, that broader topics mean less research. (Also: research is cool, so try to hone your research skills, not avoid them.)
- The speaker uses their first topic idea or concept that seems interesting. When you find a topic that sparks your interest, it’s tempting to keep that idea as-is. You may want to select the Civil War because you’re interested in learning more about a key moment in U.S. history. Great! We encourage you to research, learn, and explore – but it’s unlikely that you have time to cover all facets of the topic with any depth. It’s OK to use the first topic that sparks your interest, but it’s likely that the topic will be too broad.
Instead, limit and narrow your topic. “How do we do that?” you might be wondering.
Like we mentioned in Chapter 3, brainstorming will allow you to map what information you already know about an argument or topic.
Brainstorming Run-Down: The Funnel Approach
What are the most interesting components of this topic, for me?
What do I already know?
What areas of this topic do I have expertise?
How does research characterize or categorize this topic?
Are there new or current insights?
Is this information unique and useful to my audience?
The questions in Figure 12.2 can aid you in narrowing your topic and identifying an insight that’s unique to your audience. We often refer to this as the “funnel approach” – or starting broad and moving downward to a more specific idea. The Civil War is a broad, umbrella topic, and you could use research and the lateral approach (as introduced in Chapter 4) to funnel toward, for example, focusing on a key person that’s often left out of history.
While all the questions in Figure 12.2 are important, the last question – “is this information unique to my audience?” – is key. Think about “unique” topics in two ways:
- A topic is unique if the audience is unfamiliar with the idea. You may, for example, inform your audience about a new Climate Change technology that a local non-profit was launching. In this case, the entire topic is unique and the audience will learn something new. They’re unfamiliar with the tech.
- Second, a topic is unique if it provides novelty. There are times when your audience will know about the topic generally, but that doesn’t automatically eliminate that idea; instead, ask: can I provide or approach this topic in a new or unfamiliar way? For example, “organ donation” is a common informative speech topic, but it often lacks novelty because speakers include general information that is already known by the audience. That doesn’t prohibit “organ donation” as a topic, but it means speakers should approach the topic by finding information that is novel and fresh.
Let’s talk through an extended example. Malcolm Gladwell (2019) in his podcast, “Revisionist History,” provides an interesting informative perspective about the Boston Tea Party. At first glance, “Boston Tea Party” seems pretty broad for a topic, and it’s likely that many of Gladwell’s audience is already familiar with the Boston Tea Party, so the idea appears too big and lacking novelty. Gladwell, however, narrows the topic by focusing on smuggling practices that facilitated the event. We won’t spoil the episode, but he masterfully narrows down a broad idea to provide listeners with a fresh and unfamiliar perspective.
Pick a Clear Structure
After selecting a topic, you’ll begin expanding your informative argument, identifying an organizational pattern, and writing the outline. As you begin a working outline, the structure will play an important role in writing a successful speech. By structure, we mean 3 things: the outline structure, the argument structure, and the citation structure. Pay attention to all 3 during the speech development stage.
First, ask yourself, “what organizational pattern fits my specific purpose and/or working thesis statement?”
For topics that are broad, the information may be applicable to any of the organizational patterns that we outlined in Chapter 6. If your information is easily manipulated into multiple organizational patterns, we’d suggest asking, “can I make this more focused?” or, “how do I want to present this information?”
If you’re confident in your working thesis statement, begin to gather information and research. As you do, think about how that information might fit into organizational patterns and how those patterns provide opportunities or constraints for your topic.
Consider our opening example about housing code changes in a city. You could approach this chronologically and map the linear progression of changes to the city code. Alternatively, you could use a categorical pattern and compare how the housing codes will affect different neighborhoods. These are both possibilities – it just depends on the kind of story you want to tell the audience.
Working on a clear structure doesn’t stop with the organizational pattern, however. Be attuned to the argument structure within your main points.
Even with informative speeches, claims, evidence, and warrants should still be integrated. For example, one main point on a demonstrative baking speech might read:
- Claim: Bake cookies for approximately 10 minutes for chewy yet crunchy cookies.
- Evidence: In 2019, Stacy Smith of Bakers Forever tested different times for baking cookies, finding that 10 minutes was the sweet spot.
- Warrant: A reputable baker, Stacy’s research does the work for us! Rather than open the oven every few seconds, we can be confident that a 10-minute cookie will result in the perfect consistency.
Warrants can play a particularly important role in an informative speech. A warrant – or connection between the claim and evidence – isn’t always persuasive. Instead, utilize warrants to detail why that information should matter for the audience. If it’s helpful, you can think of the warrant as the link between the claim, evidence, and audience.
Being clear in your argument structure can also aid in narrowing your topic. It’s common for informative speakers to realize, “Woah! I have way too many claims here. I need to add more supporting materials and explanations, but I won’t have time. I need to narrow this topic down.”
As you work on your outline, it’s imperative that your claims are accompanied by their appropriate argumentative companions: evidence and warrants.
Finally, citations – both written and spoken – are part of a clear informative speech structure.
As you strengthen your ability to write arguments, continue to integrate proper references. Ask yourself: “Have I given credit to this evidence in the outline and reference page?” “Have I rehearsed my oral citations?”
Part of answering these questions is being appraised of the proper citation structure that’s required – APA, or MLA, for example. If you aren’t properly integrating that structure, you aren’t properly citing the research that supports your topic.
Provide Accurate, Clear, and Interesting Information
A good informative speech conveys accurate information to the audience in a way that is clear and that keeps the listener interested in the topic. Achieving all three of these goals—accuracy, clarity, and interest—is the key to being an effective speaker. If information is inaccurate, unclear, or uninteresting, it will be of limited usefulness to the audience.
Part of being accurate is making sure that your information is current. Even if you know a great deal about your topic, you will need to verify the accuracy and completeness of what you know, especially if it is medical or scientific information. Most people understand that technology changes rapidly, so you need to update your information almost constantly. The same is true for topics that, on the surface, may seem to require less updating. For example, the Civil War occurred over 150 years ago, but contemporary research still offers new and emerging theories about the causes of the war and key individuals who may have been left out of common history books. Even with a topic that seems to be unchanging, carefully check the information to be sure it’s accurate and up to date.
Second, be clear. Like we’ve discussed, make sure you’re avoiding jargon or complicated information that the audience may not understand. Remember that informative speeches are meant to increase the audience’s understanding, and if the language, evidence, or examples are too complex, it’s unlikely to achieve that goal.
Third, be interesting! What defines “interesting?” In approaching the informative speech, you should keep in mind the overall principle that the audience is asking, “what’s in it for me?” The audience is either consciously or unconsciously wondering “What’s in this topic for me? How can I use this information? Of what value is this speech content to me? Why should I listen to it?” A good way to answer this question for others is to answer it for yourself. Why do you find your topic interesting? Work outward from there. You might consider it one of the jobs of the introduction to directly or indirectly answer this question. If you can’t, then you need to think about your topic and why you are addressing it. If it’s only because the topic is interesting to you, you are missing the point.
Accuracy, clarity, and interest are incredibly important. It can be tempting to approach informative speaking with the attitude that “I’m just reporting facts that other people have stated,” but we want to minimize that approach. You are gathering information and crafting an interesting narrative around the importance of that idea – that’s a difficult but worthwhile skill.
Remember the 3 C’s: Constitutive, Contextual, Cultural
Finally, when developing your informative speech, ask yourself, am I representing information in ways that acknowledge that communication is constitutive, contextual, and cultural?
It’s common to believe that reporting knowledge or “facts” could never result in unethical communication or representations. After all, it’s not persuasive! But information sharing is not neutral, even in informative speaking, so we must consider how our communication represents others.
You may decide, for example, to provide your audience with information on a cultural practice that differs from their own, and that can be great! However, if you aren’t part of that culture, be careful in how you represent those practices to others and work to avoid appropriating or reducing complex cultural beliefs or practices.
In sum, your speeches are part of world-making. The language that you use to describe, define, explain, or demonstrate an idea is impactful to your audience.
Learning how to give informative speeches will serve you well in your college career and your future work. Keep in mind the principles in this chapter but also those of the previous chapters: relating to the informational needs of the audience, using clear structure, and incorporating interesting and attention-getting supporting evidence.