While the topics to choose from for informative speeches are nearly limitless, they can generally be pared down into five broad categories. Understanding the type of informative speech that you will be giving can help you to figure out the best way to organize, research, and prepare for it, as will be discussed below.
Type 1: History
A common approach to selecting an informative speech topic is to discuss the history or development of something. With so much of human knowledge available via the Internet, finding information about the origins and evolution of almost anything is much easier than it has ever been (with the disclaimer that there are quite a few websites out there with false information). With that in mind, some of the areas that a historical informative speech could cover would include:
(Example: the baseball; the saxophone). Someone at some point in history was the first to develop what is considered the modern baseball. Who was it? What was it originally made of? How did it evolve into the baseball that is used by Major League Baseball today?
(Example: your college; Disney World). There is a specific year that you college or university opened, a specific number of students who were initially enrolled, and often colleges and universities have name and mission changes. All of these facts can be used to provide an overall understanding of the college and its history. Likewise, the Disney World of today is different from the Disney World of the early 1970s; the design has developed over the last fifty years.
(Example: democracy; freedom of speech). It is possible to provide facts on an idea, although in some cases the information may be less precise. For example, while no one can definitively point to a specific date or individual who first developed the concept of democracy, it is known to have been conceived in ancient Greece (Raaflaub, Ober, & Wallace, 2007). By looking at the civilizations and cultures that adopted forms of democracy throughout history, it is possible to provide an audience with a better understanding of how the idea has been shaped into what it has become today.
Type 2: Biography
A biography is similar to a history, but in this case the subject is specifically a person, whether living or deceased. For the purposes of this class, biographies should focus on people of some note or fame, since doing research on people who are not at least mildly well-known could be difficult. But again, as with histories, there are specific and irrefutable facts that can help provide an overview of someone’s life, such as dates that President Lincoln was born (February 12, 1809) and died (April 15, 1865) and the years he was in office as president (1861-1865).
This might be a good place to address research and support. The basic dates of Abraham Lincoln’s life could be found in multiple sources and you would not have to cite the source in that case. But it you use the work of a specific historian to explain how Lincoln was able to win the presidency in the tumultuous years before the Civil War, that would need a citation of that author and the publication.
Type 3: Processes
Examples of process speech topics would be how to bake chocolate chip cookies; how to throw a baseball; how a nuclear reactor works; how a bill works its way through Congress.
Process speeches are sometimes referred to as demonstration or “how to” speeches because they often entail demonstrating something. These speeches require you to provide steps that will help your audience understand how to accomplish a specific task or process. However, How To speeches can be tricky in that there are rarely universally agreed upon (i.e. irrefutable) ways to do anything. If your professor asked the students in his or her public speaking class to each bring in a recipe for baking chocolate chip cookies, would all of them be the exact same recipe?
Probably not, but they would all be similar and, most importantly, they would all give you chocolate chip cookies as the end result. Students giving a demonstration speech will want to avoid saying “You should bake the cookies for 12 minutes” since that is not how everyone does it. Instead, the student should say something like:
“You can bake the cookies for 10 minutes.”
“One option is to bake the cookies for 10 minutes.”
“This particular recipe calls for the cookies to be baked for 10 minutes.”
Each of the previous three statements is absolutely a fact that no one can argue or disagree with. While some people may say 12 minutes is too long or too short (depending on how soft or hard they like their cookies), no one can reasonably argue that these statements are not true.
On the other hand, there is a second type of process speech that focuses not on how the audience can achieve a result, such as changing oil in their cars or cooking something, but on how a process is achieved. The goal is understanding and not performance. After a speech on how to change a car tire, the audience members could probably do it (they might not want to, but they would know the steps). However, after a speech on how a bill goes through Congress, the audience would understand this important part of democracy but not be ready to serve in Congress.
Type 4: Ideas and Concepts
Sometimes an informative speech is designed to explain an idea or concept. What does democracy mean? What is justice? In this case, you will want to do two things. First, you’ll want to define the idea or concept for the audience. The second is to make your concept concrete, real, and specific for your audience with examples.
Type 5: Categories or Divisions
Sometimes an informative speech topic doesn’t lend itself to a specific type of approach, and in those cases the topics tend to fall into a “general” category of informative speeches. For example, if a student wanted to give an informative speech on the four “C’s” of diamonds (cut, carat, color, and clarity), they certainly wouldn’t approach it as if they were providing the history of diamonds, nor would they necessarily be informing anyone on “how to” shop for or buy diamonds or how diamonds are mined. The approach in this case would simply be to inform an audience on the four “C’s” and what they mean. Other examples of this type of informative speech would be positions in playing volleyball or the customs to know when traveling in China.
As stated above, identifying the type of informative speech being given can help in several ways (conducting research, writing the introduction and conclusion), but perhaps the biggest benefit is that the type of informative speech being given will help determine, to some degree, the organizational pattern that will need to be used (see Chapter 7). For example, a How To speech must be in chronological order. There really isn’t a way (or reason) to present a How To speech other than how the process is done in a time sequence. That is to say, for a speech on how to bake chocolate chip cookies, getting the ingredients (Main Point 1) must come before mixing the ingredients (Main Point 2), which must come before baking them (Main Point 3). Putting them in any other order will only confuse the audience.
Similarly, most Histories and Biographies will be organized chronologically, but not always. It makes sense to explain the history of the baseball from when it was first developed to where it is today, but certain approaches to Histories and Biographies can make that irrelevant. For an informative speech on Benjamin Franklin, a student might choose as his or her three main points: 1) His time as a printer, 2) His time as an inventor, 3) His time as a diplomat. These main points are not in strict chronological order because Franklin was a printer, inventor, and diplomat at the same time during periods of his whole life. However, this example would still be one way to inform an audience about him without using the chronological organizational pattern.
As for general informative speeches, since the topics that can be included in this category are very diverse and cover a range of subject matter, the way they are organized will be varied as well. However, if the topic is “types of” something or “kinds of” something, the organizational pattern would be topical; if it were the layout of a location, such as the White House, it would be spatial.