Know the Rules
The topic for your speech - ESU's guidance for speakers(2)
Choosing a topic
A public speech could be about anything, but in order for it to be a good speech you are going to need to consider the following things:
• Will the audience be interested in my topic?
Your audience does not necessarily need to be interested in your subject before the speech – indeed, most speeches that set out to inform will be on things that people know very little about – but the subject should at least be able to capture people’s imaginations. Does it have obvious parallels with something that they do know about? Does it affect their lives, even if they don’t realise that? Consider these and other issues to see if you can make a link between the topic and the audience.
• Am I interested in the topic?
You are going to spend a lot of time working on your speech; it will be more enjoyable for you if you pick something because it interests you, rather than because you think it worthy or appealing to the judges. However, it’s also essential for your credibility that you appear to care about your topic when you are speaking, or can explain to the audience the reasons you have chosen to discuss the issue or how you
came to know about it.
• Am I able to research my topic effectively?
You will need to use information in your speech to inform and persuade your audience. Where will you get it from? The internet, a library, interviews with other people, a personal experience? Make sure that you have access to the important facts that you’ll use to support your reasoning.
• Can I properly discuss my chosen topic in the limited time I have available?
Some topics are unfamiliar to audiences and may require considerable amounts of background description simply for you to get to a position to persuade people of something. For example, it is probably impossible to reasonably convince people that “The Meiji Restoration in Japan was unfair on the daimyos” if you have to begin your talk with a description of the state of Japan before the Restoration, then tell us what the Restoration changed, tell us what a daimyo is, and then present analysis of your previous descriptions to show how the daimyos suffered wrongly as a result of the Restoration, all in five minutes.
Interpreting the theme
In the ESU competition you are given a theme for your speech and asked to interpret it. It is important to note first that you are not allowed to use the theme as your title. Second, the theme is quite broad and deliberately does not suggest a specific subject area. This is because audience interest in your subject is also relative to the other speeches in the competition – if everyone gave a speech about modern architecture the audience would soon find the speakers dull however good they were!
Stick to the guidelines above about manageable topics that you are interested in. Don’t try to second guess what the ‘intention’ was behind the choice of theme, and do not pick something that you feel you ought to talk about in preference to something you really want to talk about.
Inform, persuade or inspire?
Above we discussed the three purposes of a public speech, and saw how each to some extent involves the others and establishes credibility. In this competition where you have a very limited period of time to deliver your speech, aiming simply to inform the audience will probably not enable you to demonstrate fully your public speaking skills. Though any good speech in this competition will contain plenty of information, the best speeches will aim to use that content, and other factors, to persuade their audience of the truth or falsity of something, or to inspire them to take a certain action.
Statement of intent
At this point we can draw up what will be the core of the speech – the few sentences that explain what the purpose of the speech is, and what the main points in it will be.
Complete the following sentence: “At the end of my speech I want to have persuaded the audience that ... ”.
Do not complete it with “ ... my topic is great.” Give yourself a specific target. So for example, rather than saying “At the end of my speech I want to have persuaded the audience that climate change is bad”, say “At the end of my speech I want to have persuaded my audience that climate change will have a serious effect on the global economy in the next twenty years, but that they are able to take action to alleviate it”. This is your statement of intent.
You do not necessarily need to deliver the statement of intent in your actual speech, but having one will help you to focus on the message you are giving.
Reproduced by permission from the Centre for Speech and Debate of ESU (The English-Speaking Union)
©Competition Handbook 2007
The English-Speaking Union
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