For several months, a major architectural firm had been working on designs for the arts center to be built in the middle of downtown. Members of the city council and guests from various constituencies in the city, as well as a number of concerned citizens, were taking their seats as the long anticipated presentation was about to begin. As Linda Garner, mayor and presiding officer of the city council, finished her introduction, Donald Harper, the principal architect of the project, walked to the microphone to begin his speech.
This is but one of many scenarios played out every day as speakers struggle to help us increase our understanding of complex issues. In this chapter, we build on the action steps of general speech preparation by focusing on informative speaking.
As an informative speaker, your rhetorical goals are to present information in a way that holds interest, facilitates understanding and increases the likelihood of remembering. We begin by focusing on principles of informing that you can use to consider (1) how to create interest so the audience will listen, (2) how to explain in a way that will help the audience understand, and (3) how to discuss the information in a way that will help the audience remember. Then we consider four methods of informing that effective speakers must master. We conclude the chapter with a sample informative speech that illustrates these principles.
Principles of Informing
You will be a more effective informative speaker if you apply principles of credibility, intellectual stimulation, creativity, relevance and emphasis.
Principle 1: Audiences are more likely to listen to you if they like, trust and have confidence in you.
Although we have already discussed the bases of credibility (knowledge or expertise, trustworthiness and personality), we emphasize it here because building or maintaining your credibility is essential to your success. If your listeners have faith in you, they will be more willing to learn. The three points mentioned here are reminders of what you must do in your speech to establish credibility.
1. Demonstrate your expertise. As an informative speaker, you must talk knowledgeably and fluently, with command of your information and without stumbling and making a variety of misstatements.
2. Emphasize your interest in the audience’s well being. Likewise, you must show your listeners that you care about them and what happens to them.
3. Look and sound enthusiastic. Finally, you must show enthusiasm for your information.
You probably will see the cumulative effect of credibility during this course. As your class proceeds from speech to speech, some speakers will grow in stature in your mind and others will diminish.
Principle 2: Audiences are more likely to listen to information they perceive to be intellectually stimulating.
Information will he perceived as intellectually stimulating when it is new to audience members and when it meets deep seated needs to know.
When we say new, we mean information either that most of the audience is not familiar with or that presents new insights or twists on a familiar topic. If you really have researched your topic, you are likely to have information that will be new to a majority of your audience. For example, a topic likely to be perceived as flew that is a very important one to bun about for college students especially women is the drug rohypnol. On one hand, it gives a cheap but dangerous high; on the other hand, it is being used by people to lower the defenses and resistance of others. Even if the audience has heard about the so called rape drug, they are unlikely to know much of its history, properties and other dangers.
But just being new is not enough. The information must also meet the audience’s deep seated hunger for knowledge and insight. Part of the informative speaker’s job is to feed that hunger. Every day we are touched by ideas and issues that we do not fully grasp, but we often ignore them, partly out of insufficient motivation to find additional information. For instance, several years ago scientists discovered an “ice man” buried in a glacier of the southern Alps, the well preserved body of a man who lived between four and five thousand years ago. Newspaper headlines announced the significance of the discovery. Readers were excited by the information, but they probably did not pursue study of the topic. The informative speaker seizes the topic and links the significance of the ice man to an understanding of our own history and development, which may well stimulate our natural intellectual curiosity.
Let’s consider a more typical example. Suppose you are planning a speech on new cars. From the April issue of Consumer Reports alone the month in which comparative statistics and ratings are given for all new cars you could find information that would be intellectually stimulating. For instance, we are aware that over time Japanese made cars have captured an increasingly large share of the U.S. market at least partly because of perceived quality issues. How are U.S. companies responding to those issues? Are American made cars achieving higher quality ratings? Are American made cars “competitive”? Are sales increasing? Equally stimulating speeches could explore information on safety features, mileage data or styling.
You may work from your brainstorming list to find a topic. But, for an important informative speech, do not be satisfied with a superficial topic. Brainstorm until you have a new angle that you can pursue.
Principle 3: Audiences are more likely to listen to, understand and remember information that is presented creatively.
Creativity may be defined as a person’s capacity to produce new or original ideas and insights (Eysenck, 1994, p. 200). Although you may be thinking “I’m just not a creative person,” all of us can be creative if we are willing to work at it. Let’s consider how you can proceed that will result in creative speaking.
1. Gather enough high quality information to provide a broad base from which to work. Contrary to what many of us may think” creativity is more likely a product of perspiration than inspiration. If you have more quality information than you really need for the speech, you have more flexibility and more choices.
2. Give yourself enough time for the creative process to work. Many students finish their outline just in time to “go over the speech” once before they present it. Then they wonder why they are not able to “be creative.” Your mind needs time to reflect on your outline and information. This is why we recommended completing your outline for a classroom speech at least two days before the actual presentation. With that time, you are likely to find that the morning after an uninspiring practice you suddenly have two or three fresh ideas to work with, While you were sleeping, your mind was still going over the material. When you awoke, the product of unconscious or subconscious thought reached your consciousness. You can facilitate creatively simply by giving your mind time to work with your information.
3. Be prepared to pursue a creative idea when it comes. Have you ever noticed how ideas seem to come at odd times while you are cleaning your room, mulching the garden or waiting at a stoplight? Have you also noticed that when you try to recall those “great” ideas, they are likely to have slipped away? Many speakers, writers and composers carry pencil and paper with them at all times and when an idea comes, they make a note of it. Not all of these flights of fancy are flashes of creative genius, but some of them are good or at least worth exploring. If you do not make a note of your ideas, you will never know whether they are good.
4. Force yourself to practice sections of the speech in different ways. Too often, when our outline is finished, we act as if it is cast in stone. Then we keep going over it the same way “to learn it.” Take the time to practice in different ways rather than being content with the first way of presenting material that comes to mind. If you purposely phrase key ideas in different ways in each of the first few practices, you give yourself choices. Although some of the ways you express a point may be similar, trying new ways will stretch your mind and chances are good that one or two of the ways will be far superior and much more imaginative than any of the others. Let’s focus on one example to see how creativity can help you think about alternative choices.
Creating alternative choices Suppose you are planning to give a speech on climatic variation in the United States and that your research has uncovered the data. We will use these data to show (1) that one set of data can suggest several lines of development on one topic and (2) that the same point can be made in many different ways.
Study your information and ask what is unusual or noteworthy and why. The information includes several unusual or noteworthy points. First, you might notice that yearly high temperatures in U.S. cities vary far less than yearly low temperatures. The yearly highs in July were about 96 degrees for Miami and 95 for Minneapolis, whereas the yearly lows were 50 degrees in Miami and -27 degrees in Minneapolis a 77 degree difference! Conventional wisdom would suggest that high temperatures should vary nearly as much as low temperatures, which might lead you to ask, “Why is this not so?”
You might also notice that it hardly ever rains on the west coast in the summer. Two of the three west coast cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, show only a trace of rain in July and a third, Seattle a city often considered a rainy city shows nine tenths of an inch in July. This is almost three inches less than any eastern city and five inches less than Miami. Why is there so little rain on the west coast in July? Why is there so much more rain in the east?
Finally, in the major cities cited in the cast and in the midwest, you might notice that July, a month thought to be hot and dry, produces more than the average one twelfth of the annual precipitation. Conventional wisdom suggests July as the driest month of the year. Why do we perceive July to be a dry month? Why isn’t it?
Thus, as we study the data in this one chart, we can raise questions that suggest at least three different lines of development for a speech on climate: Why are highs so similar but lows so different? Why is there so much more rain in the summer in the midwest and east than in the west? Why is July wetter in most cities than we would expect?
Create different ways of making the same point Using only the information from the climatic data, let’s consider two ways of supporting the point that “Yearly high temperatures in U.S. cities vary far less than yearly low temperatures.”
1. Of the thirteen cities selected, ten (77 percent) had yearly highs between 90 and 100 degrees. Four (30 percent) had yearly lows above freezing; two (15 percent) had yearly lows between zero and 32 degrees and seven (54 percent) had low temperatures below zero.
2. Cincinnati, Miami, Minneapolis, New York and St. Louis cities at different latitudes all had yearly high temperatures of 95 to 98 degrees. In contrast, the lowest temperature for Miami was 50 degrees, and the lowest temperatures for Cincinnati, Minneapolis, New York and St. Louis were -7, -27, -2 and -9 degrees, respectively.
Can you find another way of making the same point?
As we discussed previously, to be creative you must give yourself time to think.
Principle 4: Audiences are more likely to listen to and remember information they perceive as relevant.
Rather than acting like sponges that absorb every bit of information, most of us act more like filters: We listen only to that information we perceive to be relevant. Relevance is the personal value people find in information when it relates to their needs and interests. Relevance might be measured by the audience’s “need to know.”
Finding vital information information the audience perceives as a matter of life or death may be the ultimate in relevance. Police cadets, for instance, will see information explaining what they should do when attacked as vital. Similarly, students may perceive information that is necessary to their passing a test as vital. When speakers show listeners that information is critical to their well being, they have a compelling reason to listen.
Of course, information does not have to be vital to be perceived as relevant. But always ask yourself in what way the material you plan to present is truly important to the audience and emphasize that connection in your speech. For example, in a speech on Japan, a topic that may seem distant from the audience’s felt needs and concerns, you can increase the perception of relevance by focusing on the importance of Japanese manufacturing to our economy, including local jobs. In a speech on the Egyptian pyramids, you can increase perception of relevance by relating pyramid construction to contemporary building construction. In any speech you give, it is up to you to show how the information relates to the audience’s needs and interests.
Although determining relevance is important throughout the speech, it is especially important during your introduction when audience members are sure to ask themselves, “Why should I listen to a speech on … ?” Notice how this opening for a speech on high speed rail transportation establishes relevance:
Have you been stuck in a traffic jam lately? Have you started what you had hoped would be a pleasant vacation only to be trampled at the airport or worse, to discover when you got to your destination that your luggage hadn’t? We’re all aware that every year our highways and our airways are getting more congested. At the same time, we are facing a rapidly decreasing supply of petroleum. Today, I’m going to tell you about one of the most practical means for solving these problems high speed rail transportation.
Principle 5: Audiences are more likely to understand and to remember information that is emphasized.
Audiences will remember only some of the content presented in a speech the rest is likely to be lost over time. Part of your challenge is to determine what you want the audience to retain and then to give that information proper emphasis. To do so, you must prioritize your information.
Ordinarily, the highest priority information in your speech includes the specific goal, the main points and key facts that give meaning to the main points. So, if you are giving a speech on choosing a credit card, you would want to make sure the audience remembered these elements:
• The goal: to understand the three criteria for evaluating a credit card offer.
• The main points: three criteria for evaluating credit cards are know the real interest rates, know the annual fees and know the unique benefits.
• Important facts: interest rates tend to be quite high up to 18 percent or more; fees range from twenty to thirty dollars on most cards; many offer unique benefits such as frequent flier miles, cash back rebates or coupons.
Once you have prioritized your information, plan a strategy for increasing the audience’s retention of these items. In previous chapters, we have discussed various methods of emphasizing information. Let’s remind ourselves of the importance of visual aids, repetition, transitions, humorous stories and one additional method, mnemonics.
Use visual aids Recall that visual aids emphasize because we remember more when we can associate pictures with words. Especially for informative speeches, you will want to think very carefully about the kind of visual aid that will work best for you.
Repeat important words and ideas Recall that just because a word is spoken does not necessarily mean that we perceive it. One of the best ways of breaking through is sheer repetition. Also, recall that you might repeat a word or you might restate an idea in a slightly different way. Remember, however, that when repetition is overdone it loses its effectiveness. In your speech, repeating a few important words and ideas will pay dividends but repeating too many words or ideas will backfire.
Use transitions to guide audience thinking Listeners cannot go back if they get lost, so it is especially important for speakers to do what they can to help audiences see where they have been and where they are going. Thus, in the introduction of the speech, you tell the audience what you will cover: “In this speech, we will look at the three criteria for choosing a credit card.” Then, as you proceed through a long main point, you might remind your listeners where you are going by saying, “So we’ve seen that one criterion for choosing a credit card is the interest rate, now let’s consider a second criterion, the annual fee.” And before the end of the speech you might review, “So, in this speech we’ve looked at the three criteria for choosing a credit card: interest rates, annual fees and unique benefits.
The value of such clarifying structure is tremendous. Because listeners minds may wander, you must exercise control in how you want the audience to perceive what you say. I have heard listeners swear that a speaker never stated the second main point of the speech when in reality the point was stated, but in a way that had no effect on the audience. Clarifying structure, through transitions, helps your audience recognize where you are in the speech and why your point is significant.
Use humor to stress key points Of all the forms of presenting information, our own experience shows that people are more likely to remember information in humorous story form. For instance, suppose you were giving a speech on the importance of having perspective. Your main point might be that a problem that seems enormous at the moment might turn out to be minor in a few days, so being able to put events into perspective saves a great deal of psychological wear and tear. To cement the concept of perspective, you might tell a story like this one:
A first time visitor to the races bet two dollars on the first race on a horse that had the same name as his elementary school. The horse won and the man was ten dollars ahead. In each of the next several races, he bet on horses such as “Apple Pie,” his favorite, and “Kathie’s Prize,” after his wife’s name and he kept winning. By the end of the sixth race he was 700 dollars ahead. He was about to go home when he noticed that in the seventh race, Seventh Veil was scheduled in the number seven position and was currently going off at odds of seven to one. The man couldn’t resist he bet his entire 700 dollars. And sure enough, the horse came in seventh. When he got home his wife asked, “How did you do?” Very calmly he looked at his wife and said, “Not bad I lost two dollars.” That’s perspective.
Create memory aids for your audience You can help your listeners retain more of your speech by suggesting memory aids, formally called mnemonics. For instance, if you are giving a speech on the criteria for evaluating diamonds, you might want the audience to remember that the criteria for evaluating a diamond are weight, clarity, tint and shape. But your audience is more likely to remember this information if you list the criteria as “carat, clarity, color and cutting.” Why? With a little bit of creativity, you have created a memory aid the four criteria all begin with the letter” C.”
Mnemonics may be acronyms, words formed from initial letters of each of the successive parts of a compound term (NATO, OPEC), common words that comprise the first letters of objects or concepts (HOMES for the five Great Lakes), or sentences with each word starting with a letter that signals something else (“Every good boy does fine” for the five lines of the musical staff). For instance, in her speech on the healing power of listening, Carol Koehler (1998), a professor of communication and medicine, offered the word CARE to reflect the qualities of the therapeutic communicator: C stands for concentrate, A stands for acknowledge, R stands for response and E stands for emotional control (pp. 543 to 544).
Most memory aids are a form of association. An association is the tendency of one thought to stimulate recall of another, similar thought. Suppose you are trying to help the audience remember the value of color in a diamond. Because blue is the most highly prized tint and yellow or brown tints lower a diamond’s value, you might associate blue tint with “the blue ribbon prize” and yellow (or brown) tint with “a lemon.” Thus, the best diamond gets the “blue ribbon” and the worst diamond is a “lemon.”
Figurative associations like these fall into the two categories of similes and metaphors. Recall that a simile is a comparison using “like”: “A computer screen is like a television monitor.” A metaphor states an identity: “Laser printers are the Cadillacs of computer printers.” I still remember vividly a metaphor I heard in a speech more than twenty years ago. A student explained the functioning of a television tube by saying, “A television picture tube is a gun shooting beams of light.” If you make your associations striking enough, your audience will remember your point as well as I remember that point about how a television tube works.