- Articulate and demonstrate an audience-centered perspective.
- Provide and demonstrate examples of ways to facilitate active listening.
Successfully delivering an informative speech requires adopting an audience-centered perspective. Imagine that you are in the audience. What would it take for the speaker to capture and maintain your attention? What would encourage you to listen? In this section we present several techniques for achieving this, including motivating your audience to listen, framing your information in meaningful ways, and designing your presentation to appeal to diverse learning styles.
Motivating the Listener
In an ideal world, every audience member would be interested in your topic. Unfortunately, however, not everyone will be equally interested in your informative speech. The range of interest might extend from not at all interested to very interested, with individual audience members all across this continuum. So what is a speaker to do in order to motivate the listener?
The perception process involves selection or choice, and you want your audience to choose to listen to you. You can have all the “bells and whistles” of a dramatic, entertaining or engaging speech and still not capture everyone’s attention. You can, however, use what you know to increase their chances of paying attention to you. Begin with your attention statement at the beginning of your speech and make sure it is dynamic and arresting. Remember what active listening involves, and look for opportunities throughout your speech to encourage active listening.
Let’s highlight seven strategies by posing questions that audience members may think, but not actually say out loud, when deciding whether to listen to your speech. By considering each question, you will take a more audience-centered approach to developing your speech, increasing your effectiveness.
How Is Your Topic Relevant to Me?
A natural question audience members will ask themselves is, what does the topic have to do with me? Why should I care about it? Your first response might be because it’s your turn to speak, so the least they can do is be respectful. Instead, consider the idea that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make her drink. If you are in a class, the audience is part of the class and they may be present in body, but they may arrive wishing they were somewhere else. You can put a stop to that wish by making your topic relevant for your audience. Relevance means that the information applies, relates, or has significance to the listener. Find areas of common ground and build on them.
If you are going to present an informative speech about the drinking and driving laws in your state, you can be assured that many people in the audience drive automobiles, some may consume alcohol, and according to psychologist Abraham Maslow, everyone needs safety. You may also consider that some of your listeners have had experiences with people who have consumed too much alcohol or people who have driven under the influence; they may have even had a loved one injured by an intoxicated driver. You may use the issue of safety to underscore relevance. You might consider briefly alluding to the effects of alcohol, asking rhetorically if audience members have ever seen someone try to walk, talk, or even drive after a drinking binge. All these strategies will reinforce the relevance of your topic and highlight connections across common ground.
What Will I Learn from You?
This question involves several issues. How much does the audience already know about your subject? What areas do you think they might not know? If you know that many people are aware of the laws in your state that pertain to intoxicated driving, you may consider informing them about proposed changes to these laws in your state legislature. Another approach might be to describe the impact of the laws on families and individuals. The consequences can be discussed in terms of annual statistics of motor vehicle accidents involving alcohol, the age and gender distribution of those involved, and the individual consequences in terms of financial penalties, impact on employment, and a criminal record. By building on the information the audience knows, briefly reviewing it and then extending it, illustrating it, and demonstrating the impact, you inform them of things they didn’t already know.
Why Are You Interested in This Topic?
Your interest in your topic is an excellent way to encourage your audience to listen. Interest involves qualities that arouse attention, stimulate curiosity, or move an individual to a more excited state of mind. You probably selected your topic with your audience in mind, but also considered your interest in the topic. Why did you choose it over other topics? What about your topic aroused your attention? Did it stimulate your curiosity? Did it make you excited about researching and preparing a speech on it? These questions will help you clarify your interest, and by sharing the answers with your listeners, you will stimulate excitement on their part.
How Can I Use the Knowledge or Skills You Present to Me?
In an informative speech you are not asking your listeners to go out and vote, or to quit smoking tomorrow, as you would in a persuasive speech. Nevertheless, you need to consider how they will apply their new understanding. Application involves the individual’s capacity for practical use of the information, skill, or knowledge. As a result of your speech, will your listeners be able to do something new like set up an auction on eBay? Will they better understand the importance of saving money and know three new ways to save for retirement?
For example, as a result of your informative speech on drunk driving laws, they may reflect on what a conviction would mean to them financially, think about how they would get to work if their driver’s license was suspended, or imagine the grief of a family when an innocent person is killed in a drunk driving accident. Although your goal is not to persuade but inform, the new knowledge gained by your audience may motivate them to make new decisions about their lives.
When you prepare your presentation, consider ways you can actively show application of your material or content. Incorporate messages into your speech to highlight the practical use of the knowledge or skill. A couple of helpful comments about how the audience will actually use the information will go a long way toward encouraging listening and gaining attention.
What Is New about What You Propose to Present?
Sometimes humans seem like a mass of contradictions. We are naturally attracted to novelty, yet we appreciate predictability. We like clear organization, yet there are times when we enjoy a little controlled chaos. Novelty involves something new, unusual, or unfamiliar. As a speaker, how do you meet the two contrasting needs for familiarity and novelty?
Address both. You may want to start by forming a clear foundation on what you have in common with the audience. Present the known elements of your topic and then extend into areas where less is known, increasing the novelty or new information as you progress. People will feel comfortable with the familiar, and be intrigued by the unfamiliar.
You might also invert this process, starting from a relatively unfamiliar stance and working your way back to the familiar. This is a technique often used in cinema, where the opening shot is an extreme close-up of something and you can’t guess what it is for lack of perspective. As the camera pulls back or pans left or right, you get more clues and eventually are able to see what it is. It is intriguing, yet familiar. Consider ways to reinforce the novelty of your material to your audience to encourage listening.
Are You Going to Bore Me?
You have probably sat through your fair share of boring lectures where the speaker, teacher, or professor talks at length in a relatively monotone voice, fails to alternate his or her pace, incorporates few visual aids or just reads from a PowerPoint show for an hour in a dimly lighted room. Recall how you felt. Trapped? Tired? Did you wonder why you had to be there? Then you know what you need to avoid.
Being bored means the speaker failed to stimulate you as the listener, probably increased your resistance to listening or participating, and became tiresome. To avoid boring your audience, speak with enthusiasm, and consider ways to gain, and keep gaining, their attention. You don’t have to be a standup comedian, however, to avoid being a boring speaker. Consider the rhetorical situation, and let the audience’s needs guide you as you prepare. Adjust and adapt as they give you feedback, nonverbal or verbal. Consider the question, “What’s in it for me?” from the audience’s perspective and plan to answer it specifically with vivid examples. If your presentation meets their expectations and meets their needs, listeners are more likely to give you their attention.
You may also give some thought and consideration to the organizational principle and choose a strategy that promises success. By organizing the information in interesting ways within the time frame, you can increase your effectiveness. The opposite of boring is not necessarily entertaining. Variety in your speech, from your voice to your visual aids, will help stimulate interest.
Is This Topic Really as Important as You Say It Is?
No one wants to feel like his or her time is being wasted. That trapped, tired, or bored feeling is often related to a perception that the topic is not relevant or important. What is important to you and what is important to your audience may be two different things. Take time and plan to reinforce in your speech how the topic is important to your audience. Importance involves perceptions of worth, value, and usefulness.
How can you express that the topic is worthy of their attention? We’ve discussed the importance of considering why you chose the topic in the first place as a strategy to engage your audience. They will want to know why the topic was worthy of your time, and by extension, their time.
Consider how to express through images, examples, or statistics the depth, breadth, and impact of your topic. Tell the audience how many drivers under the age of twenty-one lose their lives each year in alcohol-related accidents, or what percentage of all under-twenty-one deaths in your state are related to a combination of drinking and driving. Remember, too, that because statistics may sound impersonal or overwhelming, focusing on a specific case may provide more depth. As a final tip, be careful not to exaggerate the importance of your topic, as you may run the risk of having the audience mentally call your bluff. If this happens, you will lose some credibility and attention.
The presentation of information shapes attitudes and behavior. This is done through framing and content. Framing involves placing an imaginary set of boundaries, much like a frame around a picture or a window, around a story, of what is included and omitted, influencing the story itself. What lies within the frame that we can see? What lies outside the frame that we cannot see? Which way does the window face? All these variables impact our perspective, and by the acts of gatekeeping and agenda setting, the media frames the stories we see and information we learn.
Suppose you are presenting an informative speech about media effects on viewers. You might cite the case of the 1993 movie The Program about college football players (James, C., 1993). In one scene, to demonstrate their “courage,” the football players lie on the divider line of a busy highway at night as cars rush past. After viewing the film, several teenagers imitated the scene; some were seriously injured and one died as a result (Wilson, J. and Wilson, S., 1998). How will you frame this incident in the context of your speech? You might mention that the production studio subsequently deleted the highway sequence from the film, that the sequence clearly indicated the actors were stunt men, or that The Program ultimately argues that such behavior is destructive and unwarranted. Or you might cite additional incidents where people have been injured or killed by trying a stunt they saw in the media.
One form of framing is gatekeeping. Gatekeeping, according to Pearson and Nelson, is “a process of determining what news, information, or entertainment will reach a mass audience” (Pearson, J. and Nelson, P., 2000). The term “gatekeeping” was originally used by psychologist Kurt Lewin as a metaphor, featuring a series of gates that information must pass through before ever reaching the audience (Wilson, J. and Wilson, S., 1998). In the context of journalism and mass media, gates and gatekeepers may include media owners, editors, or even the individual reporter in the context of mass communication. In the context of public speaking, you as the speaker are the gatekeeper to the information.
Another function of gatekeeping is agenda setting. Setting the agenda, just like the agenda of a meeting, means selecting what the audience will see and hear and in what order. Who decides what is the number one story on the evening news? Throughout the twentieth century, professional communicators working in the media industry set the agenda for readers, listeners, and viewers; today widespread Internet access has greatly broadened the number of people who can become agenda setters. In giving a speech, you select the information and set the agenda. You may choose to inform the audience on a topic that gets little press coverage, or use a popular story widely covered in a new way, with a case example and local statistics.
Another aspect of framing your message is culture. According to Pearson and Nelson, culture within the context of communication is “a set of beliefs and understandings a society has about the world, its place in it, and the various activities used to celebrate and reinforce those beliefs” (Pearson, J. and Nelson, P., 2000). Themes of independence, overcoming challenging circumstances, and hard-fought victory are seen repeatedly in American programming and national speeches. They reflect an aspect of American culture. In the case of football, it is sometimes viewed as the quintessentially male American sport, and its importance on Thanksgiving Day is nothing short of a ritual for many Americans. If you went to a country in Latin America, you would probably find the television set tuned to a soccer game, where soccer is the revered sport. What do these sports say about culture?
One might argue that American football is aggressive and that, while the team is important, the individual’s effort and record are celebrated in all the time between plays. Significant attention is given to the salary each individual player makes. In South American football, or soccer, the announcer’s emphasis is on the team and at breaks, some discussion of key players is present, but not to the same degree, though this is changing.
What do these differences tell us? Our interpretation of these differences may point toward ways in which the media reinforces national culture and its values. However, since you are speaking to inform, take care not to overgeneralize. To state that American football is a male-viewer-dominated sport may be an accurate observation, but to exclude women when discussing the sport would lead to a generalization that is not accurate, and may even perpetuate a stereotype.
The media and its public communication is an active participant in the perpetuation of stereotypes in many ways. In the mid-1990s, Julia Wood made an interesting observation of the world according to television: “It is a world in which males make up two-thirds of the population. The women are fewer in number perhaps because less than 10 percent live beyond 35. Those who do, like their male counterparts and the younger females, are nearly all white and heterosexual. In addition to being young, the majority of women are beautiful, very thin, passive, and primarily concerned with relationships and getting rings out of collars and commodes” (Pearson, J. and Nelson, P., 2000).
This limited view, itself a product of gatekeeping, agenda setting, and the profit motive, has little connection to the “real world.” Most people in the world are not white, and the majority of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese. There are more women than men in the adult populations of most countries. Women do not tend to die off at age thirty-five, in fact women on average live longer than men. Many people, particularly in a diverse country that is undergoing dramatic demographic changes, are not members of just one racial, ethnic, or cultural group but rather a member of many groups. Consider culture when selecting content and note that diversity of information and sources will strengthen your speech and relate to more members of your audience.
Andrews, Andrews, and Williams offer eight ways to help listeners learn that are adapted and augmented here.
Limit the Number of Details
While it may be tempting to include many of the facts you’ve found in your research, choose only those that clearly inform your audience. Try to group the information and then choose the best example to reduce your list of details. You don’t want the audience focusing on a long list of facts and details only to miss your main points.
Focus on Clear Main Points
Your audience should be able to discern your main points clearly the first time. You’ll outline them in your introduction and they will listen for them as you proceed. Connect supporting information to your clear main points to reinforce them, and provide verbal cues of points covered and points to come.
Use internal summaries, where you state, “Now that we’ve discussed X point, let’s examine its relationship to Y point. This will help your audience follow your logic and organization and differentiate between supporting material and main points. You may also want to foreshadow points by stating, “We’ll examine Z point in a moment but first let’s consider Y point.”
Pace Yourself Carefully
Talking too fast is a common expression of speech anxiety. One way to reduce your anxiety level is to practice and know your information well. As you practice, note where you are in terms of time at the completion of each point. After a few practice rounds, you should begin to see some consistency in your speed. Use these benchmarks of time to pace yourself. When you deliver your speech, knowing you have time, are well prepared, and are familiar with your speech patterns will help you to pace yourself more effectively.
Speak with Concern for Clarity
Not everyone speaks English as his or her first language, and even among English speakers, there is a wide discrepancy in speaking style and language use. When you choose your language, consider challenging terms and jargon, and define them accordingly. You may assume that everyone knows “NIH” stands for “National Institutes of Health,” but make sure you explain the acronym the first time you use it, just as you would if you were writing a formal article. Also pay attention to enunciation and articulation. As your rate of speech picks up, you may tend to slur words together and drop or de-emphasize consonants, especially at the ends of words. Doing this will make you harder to understand, discouraging listening.
Use Restatement and Repetition
There is nothing wrong with restating main points or repeating key phrases. The landmark speech titled “I have a dream,” which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, used that phrase multiple times to reinforce the main message effectively.
Provide Visual Reinforcement
We’ve discussed the importance of visual aids to support and illustrate your content. As a speaker giving a prepared presentation, you have the luxury of preparing your visual aids with your audience in mind. In an impromptu speech, or a media interview, you may lack this luxury and find the effort challenging to appropriately reinforce your content. Take advantage of the known time frame before your speech to prepare effective visual aids and your speech will be more effective.
Include Time for Questions
You can’t possibly cover all the information about a topic that every audience member would want to know in the normal five to seven minutes of a speech. You may do an excellent job of supporting and reinforcing your points, but many listeners may have questions. Take this as a compliment—after all, if you hadn’t piqued their interest, they wouldn’t have any questions to ask. Answering questions is an opportunity to elaborate on a point, reinforcing what you presented and relying on your thorough preparation to illustrate the point with more depth.
In some situations, the speaker will accept and answer questions during the body of the presentations, but it is more typical to ask listeners to hold their questions until the end. Depending on your instructor’s guidelines, you may advise the class at the beginning of your presentation which of these formats you will follow.
Look for Ways to Involve Listeners Actively
Instead of letting your audience sit passively, motivate them to get involved in your presentation. You might ask for a show of hands as you raise a question like, “How many of you have wondered about…?” You might point out the window, encouraging your audience to notice a weather pattern or an example of air pollution. Even stepping away from the podium for a moment can provide variety and increase active listening.
Assess Learning, If Possible
Questions during a speech can help assess understanding, but also run the risk of derailing your speech as the audience pursues one point while you have two more to present. Make time for dialogue after the conclusion of your speech and encourage your audience to write down their questions and ask them at that time. Perhaps asking your audience to reflect on a point, and then to write a few sentences at the conclusion of your speech, might reinforce your central message.
To present a successful informative speech, motivate your audience by making your material relevant and useful, finding interesting ways to frame your topic, and emphasizing new aspects if the topic is a familiar one.
- Visit an online news Web site such as CNN, MSNBC, or PBS NewsHour. Select a news video on a topic that interests you and watch it a few times. Identify the ways in which the speaker(s) adapt the presentation to be informative and frame the topic. Discuss your results with your classmates.
- Watch a news program and write down the words that could be considered to communicate values, bias, or opinion. Share and compare with the class.
- Watch a news program and find an example that you consider to be objective, “just the facts,” and share it with the class.
- Note how television programs (or other media) use novelty to get your attention. Find at least three headlines, teaser advertisements for television programs, or similar attempts to get attention and share with the class.
- How can an audience’s prior knowledge affect a speech? What percentage of an informative presentation do you expect an audience to remember? Why?
Andrews, P. H., Andrews, J., & Williams, G. (1999). Public speaking: Connecting you and your audience. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
James, C. (1993, October 24). If Simon says, ‘Lie down in the road,’ should you? New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/24/weekinreview/the-nation-if-simon-says-lie-down-in-the-road-should-you.html.
Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Pearson, J., & Nelson, P. (2000). An introduction to human communication: Understanding and sharing (p. 133). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Wilson, J., & Wilson, S. (1998). Mass media/mass culture (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Wood, J. (1994). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Random House.