Module VIII: Public Speaking

Section 4: The Topic and Thesis

After completing this section, students should be able to:

  1. explain how creating a speech is a holistic process.
  2. develop a speech in the proper order.
  3. create a speech using the appropriate lengths for sections.
  4. apply topic selection criteria to the selection of a topic for an audience.
  5. develop a specific speech purpose.
  6. translate a specific speech purpose into a properly worded thesis statement.

A Holistic Approach to Speech Development

An image of a puzzle.
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Although there are "steps" to preparing a speech, a more appropriate way of thinking of speech preparation is as a dynamic process.

Instead of seeing speech development as a linear process, it is better to see it as a holistic process of creating all components of the speech so they fit together as an effective whole. A puzzle metaphor demonstrates this approach.

As the model illustrates, the core of this dynamic process is the audience analysisSee Module VIII, Section 3, and the speech is built around our understanding of our audience. We then develop the content (selecting the topic, finding the content, and organizing the speech), and prepare the content for presentation (practice the delivery).

Although there is a sense of a linear process, sticking to some sort of artificial step process is not as important as making sure that all the pieces fit together as an effective, unified whole. Although we may have developed one area, as we prepare the whole speech, we may need to revisit earlier parts of the process and alter those to achieve a unified whole.

Parts of the Speech

Parts of a Speech
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While there are a variety of ways to organize a speech, the most common structure breaks the speech into four parts:

  • Introduction
  • Thesis/preview
  • Body of the speech
  • Conclusion

Portions of the Speech

The introduction, ending with the thesis/preview, comprises approximately 10% of the speech. The body of the speech is about 85% of the speech, and the remaining 5% is the conclusion.
The percentages should be used as guidelines for the speaker, not as absolutes. The majority of the speaker’s efforts should be focused on relating the core information or arguments the speaker needs to share and the audience is there to hear. Since the body of the speech contains this core information, most of the time should be spent in that area.

Order of development  

In developing the speech, novice speakers often make the mistake of starting with the introduction.  Since the introduction comes first, it seems logical to start there; however, this is wrong.  Creating the thesis is the first step in good speech development. Until we know what the speech is about, we cannot effectively determine an introduction. Just as we cannot introduce a person we do not know, we cannot introduce a topic not yet developed. The most effective order of preparation is:

  1. Thesis.  Since the thesis defines what the speech is about and what it is not about, developing it first helps guide the speaker in developing the body, doing research, and staying properly focused.
  2. Body.  The body of the speech is the key content the audience is there to hear, so the speaker should spend a substantive amount of time researching, organizing, and fine-tuning this core content.
  3. Introduction.  A speech introduction is the most creative part of the process.  Since it is intended to pull the audience into the thesis and prepare them for the body, by waiting until after developing the body, the speaker will have a clear sense of what the introduction should do.  During research for the body, it is common to come across a quotation, example, or some other idea for the attention getting device of the introduction.
  4. Conclusion.  While it is the shortest part of a speech, it is very important as it is the last thing the audience will hear, leaving the audience with their final impression of the speech.  This is developed last as there are ways to conclude a speech that are built on how the speaker begins the speech.

While this order of development is important, always remember the “puzzle” metaphor: we have to work to make all the parts fit together, so there can be a lot of revisiting parts to alter or fine tune them.  Speech development is a dynamic process in which changing one part of the speech may have a ripple effect, affecting other parts.  In the end, a good speaker makes sure that the speech is consistent, coherent, organized, and flows well for the audience.

One of the most challenging steps classroom students face when given the classic speech assignment is to select and narrow a topic to fit the time limits of the assignment. 

Topic Selection

Decorative: female student speaking
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Coming up with a topic “out of the blue” is quite difficult.  Realistically, finding a topic for a classroom speech is far more difficult than finding one for a speech in a work or community setting. 

The vast majority of presentations outside the classroom will be on topics in which the speaker is well versed and comfortable.  If asked to speak, it will typically be to share knowledge within their field of expertise. If a business hires a Communication Studies instructor to present at a training session, they are clearly hiring them for expertise in communication. Even then, the speaker still has a responsibility to narrow to a specific topic, to adapt it to their audience and the occasion, and to fit the time limits.  So outside of the initial step, determining the overall subject, speakers still have to go through the topic development process.

Topic Selection Criteria

In selecting a topic, one of the most common mistakes novice speakers make to take a sender-based approachSee Module I, Section 1. This is assuming the audience has a strong interest in the same things the speaker feels passionate about.  Just because a speaker may be deeply into video gaming does not inherently mean the audience shares that interest.  To select a good topic, the speaker needs to be receiver-basedSee Module I, Section 1 and objectively consider what is most likely to be successful.  While the speaker’s interest can certainly serve as a good starting point to identify a general topic, the specific topic and approach to the topic must be carefully considered.

There are four criteria to determine the appropriateness of a topic:

  1. Audience Interest

    We need to select a topic we think will appeal to the specific audience.  This may be a topic we know the audience will have an immediate interest in, or one in which the audience will have an interest once we develop the topic to some degree.  Being receiver-based, the speaker must be honest in their assessment of the topic and the audience, careful not to project their own interests on the audience.

  2. Speaker Interest

    Although audience interest is certainly key, the speaker must also have an interest in the topic.  A lack of speaker interest can be deadly. If the speaker is unmotivated to develop and present the speech, the speech usually sounds as if the speaker is bored and does not care.  The speaker loses their own sense of desire to do a good job.  A good topic is one that has a healthy balance of audience interest and speaker interest.

  3. Occasion Appropriateness

    We need to consider why the audience is gathered and select a topic that fits the occasion.  If the audience is gathered at a business conference, learning new ways of interacting with clients, an informative topic on some aspect of communication skill may be appropriate.  For a commencement address, talking about the dire state of the economy may not fit the celebratory nature of the event; the topic should invoke growth, opportunity, and an optimistic future.  We want our topic to complement the reason the audience is gathered.

  4. Time Limits

    The speaker must fit the speech into the given time limits.  The speech needs to fill the allotted time, and yet it cannot exceed that given time.  It is a core speaker responsibility to treat the audience with respect and to fill those time limits appropriately.  Exceeding time limits is simply not an option.  If a topic cannot be covered within a given time, the speaker has two options: limit the topic, or get a new topic.

    As we know from looking at culture, Americans are quite monochronicSee Module I, Section 1.  We see time as a resource, like money, to be budgeted and spent wisely.  When speeches end on time, we have gotten what we have paid for.  If they run a little short, we may feel we got a deal, but if they run quite short, we feel we got cheated.  The audience is spending their time on the speaker; give them their money’s worth. On the other end, if the speech runs overtime, the speaker is "stealing" time from the audience, taking our time resource without our permission. Time limits are very important in a monochronic culture.

Narrowing a Topic

Since the speaker needs to fit the speech into the allotted time, we need to move from a broader topic to a narrower, much more specific topic.  Finding a specific topic is a process of analysis, selection, and narrowing. The goal of the process is to find a specific topic that fits the same criteria as discussed above: audience interest; speaker interest; occasion appropriateness; and time limits. 

A good way to narrow the topic is to start with a broader topic and brainstorm a large list of sub-topics.  Using the previous four criteria, narrow the topic to the best fit.  If the topic is still too large, repeat the process as often as needed to reach a manageable size topic.

Specific Speech Purpose

The parameters of the speech.
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After finding that specific topic, develop the specific speech purpose. The specific speech purpose is the narrow, focused direction the speech will be taking.  The function of the specific speech purpose is twofold:  to identify what goes in the speech, and to identify what does not go in the speech.  The specific speech purpose establishes the parameters of the speech.  We use the parameters as guidance as to what to include in the speech and what to keep out of the speech. This is an important consideration. Unless the speaker keeps a tight rein on the development of the speech, the speech can get out of control, suddenly diverting into a different area or expanding beyond the time limit.

For example:

  • After listening to my speech, the audience will be informed of how to write an effective resume.
  • After listening to my speech, the audience will be informed of alternative forms of financial aid.
  • After listening to my speech, the audience will be informed of creative ways of using macaroni and cheese.

For persuasion, the specific speech purposes would be slightly different, reflecting the idea of changing an audience's belief, attitude, or action:

  • After listening to my speech, the audience will be persuaded to donate blood.
  • After listening to my speech, the audience will be persuaded to vote for the school referendum.
  • After listening to my speech, the audience will be persuaded to use a designated driver.

The Thesis

Once the specific speech purpose has been developed, we can easily create the thesis.  The thesis is the specific, concise statement of intent for the speech.  It is the one, single sentence clearly stating exactly what the speech will be addressing.  Converting the specific speech purpose to the thesis is simple:

  • "After listening to my speech, the audience will be informed of how to write an effective resume."


    "Today I'll take you through the steps of writing an effective resume."

  • "After listening to my speech, the audience will be informed of alternative forms of financial aid."


    "There are several alternate forms of financial aid for you to consider."

  • "After listening to my speech, the audience will be informed of creative ways of using macaroni and cheese."


    "I'll show you several creative ways of using macaroni and cheese."

  • "After listening to my speech, the audience will be persuaded to donate blood."


    "Today I'll show you why it is important that you donate blood."

  • "After listening to my speech, the audience will be persuaded to vote for the school referendum."


    "Voting for the upcoming school referendum is important for the success of our schools."

  • " After listening to my speech, the audience will be persuaded to use a designated driver."


    "When you go out partying, you should use a designated driver."

There are several traits of a good speech thesis:

  • Concise. The thesis is a simple, straightforward sentence clearly telling the audience what the speech is going to be about.

  • Grammatically simple. There is one subject and one predicate; it is not a compound sentence, nor a compound-complex sentence.  The thesis is not a question.

  • Blatant. A speech thesis is more blunt and obvious than what we might use in writing.

  • Identifies the parameters of the speech. It  tells the audience what the speaker will be doing; which, by definition, also tells the audience what the speaker is not doing.

  • Consistent with the speaker's overall speech purpose. The wording reflects the proper informative or persuasive tone.


Key Concepts

The terms and concepts students should be familiar with from this section include:

Speech Development

Parts of the Speech

Topic Selection Criteria

Specific Speech Purpose

The Thesis