- Understand how speakers can use statistics to support their speeches.
- Differentiate among the five types of definitions.
- Differentiate among four types of supportive examples.
- Explain how narratives can be used to support informative, persuasive, and entertaining speeches.
- Differentiate between the two forms of testimony.
- Differentiate between two types of analogies that can be used as support.
Now that we’ve explained why support is important, let’s examine the various types of support that speakers often use within a speech: facts and statistics, definitions, examples, narratives, testimony, and analogies.
Facts and Statistics
As we discussed in Chapter 7 “Researching Your Speech”, a fact is a truth that is arrived at through the scientific process. Speakers often support a point or specific purpose by citing facts that their audience may not know. A typical way to introduce a fact orally is “Did you know that…?”
Many of the facts that speakers cite are based on statistics. Statistics is the mathematical subfield that gathers, analyzes, and makes inferences about collected data. Data can come in a wide range of forms—the number of people who buy a certain magazine, the average number of telephone calls made in a month, the incidence of a certain disease. Though few people realize it, much of our daily lives are governed by statistics. Everything from seat-belt laws, to the food we eat, to the amount of money public schools receive, to the medications you are prescribed are based on the collection and interpretation of numerical data.
It is important to realize that a public speaking textbook cannot begin to cover statistics in depth. If you plan to do statistical research yourself, or gain an understanding of the intricacies of such research, we strongly recommend taking a basic class in statistics or quantitative research methods. These courses will better prepare you to understand the various statistics you will encounter.
However, even without a background in statistics, finding useful statistical information related to your topic is quite easy. Table 8.3 “Statistics-Oriented Websites” provides a list of some websites where you can find a range of statistical information that may be useful for your speeches.
Statistics are probably the most used—and misused—form of support in any type of speaking. People like numbers. People are impressed by numbers. However, most people do not know how to correctly interpret numbers. Unfortunately, there are many speakers who do not know how to interpret them either or who intentionally manipulate them to mislead their listeners. As the saying popularized by Mark Twain goes, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” (Twain, 1924).
To avoid misusing statistics when you speak in public, do three things. First, be honest with yourself and your audience. If you are distorting a statistic or leaving out other statistics that contradict your point, you are not living up to the level of honesty your audience is entitled to expect. Second, run a few basic calculations to see if a statistic is believable. Sometimes a source may contain a mistake—for example, a decimal point may be in the wrong place or a verbal expression like “increased by 50 percent” may conflict with data showing an increase of 100 percent. Third, evaluate sources (even those in Table 8.3 “Statistics-Oriented Websites”, which are generally reputable) according to the criteria discussed earlier in the chapter: accuracy, authority, currency, and objectivity.
Imagine that you gave a speech about the use of presidential veto and your audience did not know the meaning of the word “veto.” In order for your speech to be effective, you would need to define what a veto is and what it does. Making sure everyone is “on the same page” is a fundamental task of any communication. As speakers, we often need to clearly define what we are talking about to make sure that our audience understands our meaning. The goal of a definition is to help speakers communicate a word or idea in a manner that makes it understandable for their audiences. For the purposes of public speaking, there are four different types of definitions that may be used as support: lexical, persuasive, stipulative, and theoretical.
A lexical definition is one that specifically states how a word is used within a specific language. For example, if you go to Dictionary.com and type in the word “speech,” here is the lexical definition you will receive:
the faculty or power of speaking; oral communication; ability to express one’s thoughts and emotions by speech sounds and gesture: Losing her speech made her feel isolated from humanity.
the act of speaking: He expresses himself better in speech than in writing.
something that is spoken; an utterance, remark, or declaration: We waited for some speech that would indicate her true feelings.
a form of communication in spoken language, made by a speaker before an audience for a given purpose: a fiery speech.
any single utterance of an actor in the course of a play, motion picture, etc.
the form of utterance characteristic of a particular people or region; a language or dialect.
manner of speaking, as of a person: Your slovenly speech is holding back your career.
a field of study devoted to the theory and practice of oral communication.
Lexical definitions are useful when a word may be unfamiliar to an audience and you want to ensure that the audience has a basic understanding of the word. However, our ability to understand lexical definitions often hinges on our knowledge of other words that are used in the definition, so it is usually a good idea to follow a lexical definition with a clear explanation of what it means in your own words.
Persuasive definitions are designed to motivate an audience to think in a specific manner about the word or term. Political figures are often very good at defining terms in a way that are persuasive. Frank Luntz, a linguist and political strategist, is widely regarded as one of the most effective creators of persuasive definitions (Luntz, 2007). Luntz has the ability to take terms that people don’t like and repackage them into persuasive definitions that give the original term a much more positive feel. Here are some of Luntz’s more famous persuasive definitions:
- Oil drilling → energy exploration
- Estate tax → death tax
- School vouchers → opportunity scholarships
- Eavesdropping → electronic intercepts
- Global warming → climate change
Luntz has essentially defined the terms in a new way that has a clear political bent and that may make the term more acceptable to some audiences, especially those who do not question the lexical meaning of the new term. For example, “oil drilling” may have negative connotations among citizens who are concerned about the environmental impact of drilling, whereas “energy exploration” may have much more positive connotations among the same group.
A stipulative definition is a definition assigned to a word or term by the person who coins that word or term for the first time. In 1969, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull wrote a book called The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. In this book, they defined the “Peter Principle” as “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His [sic] Level of Incompetence” (Peter & Hull, 1969). Because Peter and Hull coined the term “Peter Principle,” it was up to them to define the term as they saw fit. You cannot argue with this definition; it simply is the definition that was stipulated.
Theoretical definitions are used to describe all parts related to a particular type of idea or object. Admittedly, these definitions are frequently ambiguous and difficult to fully comprehend. For example, if you attempted to define the word “peace” in a manner that could be used to describe all aspects of peace, then you would be using a theoretical definition. These definitions are considered theoretical because the definitions attempt to create an all-encompassing theory of the word itself.
In an interpersonal communication course, one of our coauthors asked a group of random people online to define the term “falling in love.” Here are some of the theoretical definitions they provided:
I think falling in love would be the act of feeling attracted to a person, with mutual respect given to each other, a strong desire to be close and near a person,…and more.
Being content with the person you are with and missing them every minute they are gone.
Um…falling in love is finding a guy with lots of credit cards and no balances owing.
Falling in love is when you take away the feeling, the passion, and the romance in a relationship and find out you still care for that person.
Meeting someone who makes your heart sing.
Skydiving for someone’s lips.
Definitions are important to provide clarity for your audience. Effective speakers strike a balance between using definitions where they are needed to increase audience understanding and leaving out definitions of terms that the audience is likely to know. For example, you may need to define what a “claw hammer” is when speaking to a group of Cub Scouts learning about basic tools, but you would appear foolish—or even condescending—if you defined it in a speech to a group of carpenters who use claw hammers every day. On the other hand, just assuming that others know the terms you are using can lead to ineffective communication as well. Medical doctors are often criticized for using technical terms while talking to their patients without taking time to define those terms. Patients may then walk away not really understanding what their health situation is or what needs to be done about it.
Another often-used type of support is examples. An example is a specific situation, problem, or story designed to help illustrate a principle, method, or phenomenon. Examples are useful because they can help make an abstract idea more concrete for an audience by providing a specific case. Let’s examine four common types of examples used as support: positive, negative, nonexamples, and best examples.
A positive example is used to clarify or clearly illustrate a principle, method, or phenomenon. A speaker discussing crisis management could talk about how a local politician handled herself when a local newspaper reported that her husband was having an affair or give an example of a professional baseball player who immediately came clean about steroid use. These examples would provide a positive model for how a corporation in the first instance, and an individual in the second instance, should behave in crisis management. The purpose of a positive example is to show a desirable solution, decision, or course of action.
Negative examples, by contrast, are used to illustrate what not to do. On the same theme of crisis management, a speaker could discuss the lack of communication from Union Carbide during the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal, India, or the many problems with how the US government responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The purpose of a negative example is to show an undesirable solution, decision, or course of action.
A nonexample is used to explain what something is not. On the subject of crisis management, you might mention a press release for a new Adobe Acrobat software upgrade as an example of corporate communication that is not crisis management. The press release nonexample helps the audience differentiate between crisis management and other forms of corporate communication.
The final type of example is called the best example because it is held up as the “best” way someone should behave within a specific context. On the crisis management theme, a speaker could show a clip of an effective CEO speaking during a press conference to show how one should behave both verbally and nonverbally during a crisis. While positive examples show appropriate ways to behave, best examples illustrate the best way to behave in a specific context.
Although examples can be very effective at helping an audience to understand abstract or unfamiliar concepts, they do have one major drawback: some audience members may dismiss them as unusual cases that do not represent what happens most of the time. For example, some opponents of wearing seat belts claim that not wearing your seat belt can help you be thrown from a car and save you from fire or other hazards in the wrecked automobile. Even if a speaker has a specific example of an accident where this was true, many audience members would see this example as a rare case and thus not view it as strong support.
Simply finding an example to use, then, is not enough. An effective speaker needs to consider how the audience will respond to the example and how the example fits with what else the audience knows, as discussed under the heading of accuracy earlier in this chapter.
A fourth form of support are narratives, or stories that help an audience understand the speaker’s message. Narratives are similar to examples except that narratives are generally longer and take on the form of a story with a clear arc (beginning, middle, and end). People like stories. In fact, narratives are so important that communication scholar Walter Fisher believes humans are innately storytelling animals, so appealing to people through stories is a great way to support one’s speech (Fisher, 1987).
However, you have an ethical responsibility as a speaker to clearly identify whether the narrative you are sharing is real or hypothetical. In 1981, Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her story of an eight-year-old heroin addict (Cooke, 1980). After acknowledging that her story was a fake, she lost her job and the prize was rescinded (Green, 1981). In 2009, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal gave a nationally televised speech where he recounted a story of his interaction with a local sheriff in getting help for Hurricane Katrina victims. His story was later found to be false; Jindal admitted that he had heard the sheriff tell the story after it happened but he had not really been present at the time (Finch, 2009).
Obviously, we are advocating that you select narratives that are truthful when you use this form of support in a speech. Clella Jaffe explains that narratives are a fundamental part of public speaking and that narratives can be used for support in all three general purposes of speaking: informative, persuasive, and entertaining (Jaffe, 2010).
Jaffe defines informative narratives as those that provide information or explanations about a speaker’s topic (Jaffe, 2010). Informative narratives can help audiences understand nature and natural phenomena, for example. Often the most complicated science and mathematical issues in our world can be understood through the use of story. While many people may not know all the mathematics behind gravity, most of us have grown up with the story of how Sir Isaac Newton was hit on the head by an apple and developed the theory of gravity. Even if the story is not precisely accurate, it serves as a way to help people grasp the basic concept of gravity.
Persuasive narratives are stories used to persuade people to accept or reject a specific attitude, value, belief, or behavior. Religious texts are filled with persuasive narratives designed to teach followers various attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors. Parables or fables are designed to teach people basic lessons about life. For example, read the following fable from Aesop (http://www.aesopfables.com): “One winter a farmer found a snake stiff and frozen with cold. He had compassion on it, and taking it up, placed it in his bosom. The Snake was quickly revived by the warmth, and resuming its natural instincts, bit its benefactor, inflicting on him a mortal wound. ‘Oh,’ cried the Farmer with his last breath, ‘I am rightly served for pitying a scoundrel.’” This persuasive narrative is designed to warn people that just because you help someone in need doesn’t mean the other person will respond in kind.
Entertaining narratives are stories designed purely to delight an audience and transport them from their daily concerns. Some professional speakers make a very good career by telling their own stories of success or how they overcame life’s adversities. Comedians such as Jeff Foxworthy tell stories that are ostensibly about their own lives in a manner designed to make the audience laugh. While entertaining narratives may be a lot of fun, people should use them sparingly as support for a more serious topic or for a traditional informative or persuasive speech.
Another form of support you may employ during a speech is testimony. When we use the word “testimony” in this text, we are specifically referring to expert opinion or direct accounts of witnesses to provide support for your speech. Notice that within this definition, we refer to both expert and eyewitness testimony.
Expert testimony accompanies the discussion we had earlier in this chapter related to what qualifies someone as an expert. In essence, expert testimony expresses the attitudes, values, beliefs, or behaviors recommended by someone who is an acknowledged expert on a topic. For example, imagine that you’re going to give a speech on why physical education should be mandatory for all grades K–12 in public schools. During the course of your research, you come across The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Fit and Healthy Nation (http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/obesityvision/obesityvision2010.pdf). You might decide to cite information from within the report written by US Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin about her strategies for combating the problem of childhood obesity within the United States. If so, you are using the words from Dr. Benjamin, as a noted expert on the subject, to support your speech’s basic premise. Her expertise is being used to give credibility to your claims.
Eyewitness testimony, on the other hand, is given by someone who has direct contact with the phenomenon of your speech topic. Imagine that you are giving a speech on the effects of the 2010 “Deepwater Horizon” disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps one of your friends happened to be on a flight that passed over the Gulf of Mexico and the pilot pointed out where the platform was. You could tell your listeners about your friend’s testimony of what she saw as she was flying over the spill.
However, using eyewitness testimony as support can be a little tricky because you are relying on someone’s firsthand account, and firsthand accounts may not always be reliable. As such, you evaluate the credibility of your witness and the recency of the testimony.
To evaluate your witness’s credibility, you should first consider how you received the testimony. Did you ask the person for the testimony, or did he or she give you the information without being asked? Second, consider whether your witness has anything to gain from his or her testimony. Basically, you want to know that your witness isn’t biased.
Second, consider whether your witness’ account was recent or something that happened some time ago. With a situation like the BP oil spill, the date when the spill was seen from the air makes a big difference. If the witness saw the oil spill when the oil was still localized, he or she could not have seen the eventual scope of the disaster.
Overall, the more detail you can give about the witness and when the witness made his or her observation, the more useful that witness testimony will be when attempting to create a solid argument. However, never rely completely on eyewitness testimony because this form of support is not always the most reliable and may still be perceived as biased by a segment of your audience.
An analogy is a figure of speech that compares two ideas or objects, showing how they are similar in some way. Analogies, for public speaking purposes, can also be based in logic. The logical notion of analogies starts with the idea that two ideas or objects are similar, and because of this similarity, the two ideas or objects must be similar in other ways as well. There are two different types of analogies that speakers can employ: figurative and literal.
Figurative analogies compare two ideas or objects from two different classes. For the purposes of understanding analogies, a “class” refers to a group that has common attributes, characteristics, qualities, or traits. For example, you can compare a new airplane to an eagle. In this case, airplanes and eagles clearly are not the same type of objects. While both may have the ability to fly, airplanes are made by humans and eagles exist in nature.
Alternatively, you could attempt to compare ideas such as the struggle of The Church of Reality (http://www.churchofreality.org/wisdom/welcome_home/, a group that sees the use of marijuana as a religious sacrament) to the struggle of the civil rights movement. Is a church’s attempt to get marijuana legalized truly the same as the 1960s civil rights movement? Probably not, in most people’s view, as fighting for human rights is not typically seen as equivalent to being able to use a controlled substance.
Figurative analogies are innately problematic because people often hear them and immediately dismiss them as far-fetched. While figurative analogies may be very vivid and help a listener create a mental picture, they do not really help a listener determine the validity of the information being presented. Furthermore, speakers often overly rely on figurative analogies when they really don’t have any other solid evidence. Overall, while figurative analogies may be useful, we recommend solidifying them with other, more tangible support.
Literal analogies, on the other hand, compare two objects or ideas that clearly belong to the same class. The goal of the literal analogy is to demonstrate that the two objects or ideas are similar; therefore, they should have further similarities that support your argument. For example, maybe you’re giving a speech on a new fast-food brand that you think will be a great investment. You could easily compare that new fast-food brand to preexisting brands like McDonald’s, Subway, or Taco Bell. If you can show that the new start-up brand functions similarly to other brands, you can use that logic to suggest that the new brand will also have the same kind of success as the existing brands.
When using literal analogies related to ideas, make sure that the ideas are closely related and can be viewed as similar. For example, take the Church of Reality discussed in Section 8 “Expert Testimony”. You could compare the Church of Reality’s use of marijuana to the Native American Church’s legal exemption to use peyote in its religious practices. In this instance, comparing two different religious groups’ use of illegal drugs and demonstrating that one has legal exemption supports the idea that the other should have an exemption, too.
As with figurative analogies, make sure that the audience can see a reasonable connection between the two ideas or objects being compared. If your audience sees your new fast-food brand as very different from McDonald’s or Subway, then they will not accept your analogy. You are basically asking your audience to confirm the logic of your comparison, so if they don’t see the comparison as valid, it won’t help to support your message.
- Speakers often use facts and statistics to reinforce or demonstrate information. Unfortunately, many speakers and audience members do not have a strong mathematical background, so it is important to understand the statistics used and communicate this information to the audience.
- Speakers use definitions—which may be lexical, persuasive, stipulative, or theoretical—to clarify their messages. Lexical definitions state how a word is used within a given language. Persuasive definitions are devised to express a word or term in a specific persuasive manner. Stipulative definitions are created when a word or term is coined. Theoretical definitions attempt to describe all parts related to a particular type of idea or object.
- Examples—positive, negative, non, and best—help the audience grasp a concept. Positive examples are used to clarify or clearly illustrate a principle, method, or phenomenon. Negative examples show how not to behave in a specific situation. Nonexamples are used to express what something is not. Best examples show the best way someone should behave in a situation.
- Narratives can be used in all three general purposes of speaking: informative, persuasive, and entertaining. Informative narratives provide information or explanations about a speaker’s topic. Persuasive narratives are stories a speaker can use to get his or her audience to accept or reject a specific attitude, value, belief, or behavior. Entertaining narratives are stories that are designed purely to delight an audience. Speakers have an ethical obligation to let the audience know whether a narrative is true or hypothetical.
- Expert testimony is an account given by someone who is a recognized expert on a given topic. Eyewitness testimony is an account given by an individual who has had firsthand experience with a specific phenomenon or idea. Explaining the context of the testimony is important so your audience can evaluate the likelihood that the testimony is accurate, current, and unbiased.
- Analogies, both figurative and literal, can help audiences understand unfamiliar concepts. Figurative analogies compare two ideas or objects from two different classes. Conversely, literal analogies compare two objects or ideas that clearly belong to the same class. Speakers using analogies need to make sure that the audience will be able to see the similarity between the objects or ideas being compared.
- Look at the speech you are currently preparing for your public speaking class. What types of support are you using? Could you enhance the credibility of your speech by using other types of support? If so, what types of support do you think you are lacking?
- Find and analyze a newspaper op-ed piece or letter to the editor that takes a position on an issue. Which types of support does the writer use? How effective and convincing do you think the use of support is? Why?
- You’ve been asked to give a speech on child labor within the United States. Provide a list of possible examples you could use in your speech. You should have one from each of the four categories: positive, negative, non, and best.
- Of the three types of narratives (informative, persuasive, and entertaining), which one would you recommend to a friend who is giving a sales presentation. Why?
Cooke, J. (1980, September 28). Jimmy’s world. The Washington Post, p. A1.
Finch, S. (2009, Feb 27). Bobby Jindal’s fishy Katrina story. Daily Kos. Retrieved from http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/02/27/702671/-Bobby-Jindals-Fishy-Katrina-Story
Fisher, W. R. (1987). Human communication as narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
Green, B. (1981, April 19). The confession: At the end, there were the questions, then the tears. The Washington Post, p. A14.
Jaffe, C. (2010). Public speaking: Concepts and skills for a diverse society (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.
Luntz, F. (2007). Words that work: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear. New York, NY: Hyperion.
Peter, L. J., & Hull, R. (1969). The Peter principle: Why things always go wrong. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company, p. 15.
Twain, M. (1924). Autobiography (Vol. 1). New York, NY: Harper & Bros., p. 538.