Chapter 3: Preparing for Your First Speech



Where Do I Begin?

“Watch out! You just about ran me over, Ellis. Don’t you know that reading and walking at the same time can be dangerous for your health–or mine? You were totally focused on whatever that is you’re reading. What is it? The latest stats for the NFL draft? Or maybe some juicy gossip in the latest edition of Campus Connection?”

“Sorry, Kym, I didn’t see you. No, actually I was thinking about running for student government, but I can see now that I was delusional. I just picked up a copy of the requirements, and apparently all candidates have to give a speech in the quad next week, introducing themselves and outlining three ideas they have to improve campus life. I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“I think you’d make a great officer, Ellis. You’re smart, and you’d give it your all. What’s the holdup? Afraid of speaking in public?”

“Well, there’s some of that, but really it’s more about the issues we’re supposed to address. We only have five minutes each to speak, and I have no idea how to choose the issues from the hundreds of improvements we need around here or how to narrow it all down to a five-minute presentation. Plus, I’m supposed to turn in an outline of my planned speech to the faculty advisor two days before the presentation. I haven’t done an outline since high school, and mine weren’t so great even then–at least that’s what my English teacher wrote every time he marked a big red ‘D’ on my paper.”

“Ouch! I still have nightmares about the thirty-page research paper I had to do in Simpson’s history class! Seriously though, you’re just overwhelmed. You need to take it one step at a time. Figure out the issues you care about most and then decide how many details you can give for each.”

“Yeah, but how do I actually do that? Make a list or something?”

“Sure, it’s called brainstorming. Make a list of every issue you can think of, and then choose four or five that you think are most important and focus on those. Once you’ve narrowed the list down to the ones you want to discuss, do a little research and figure out what it is you want to say about each. You’d have to time yourself, so you know how much you can include in the five minutes allotted to you. Then you can decide what to leave in and what you have to leave out.” “Yeah, but what about that outline?”

“I’d be glad to help you with the outline. It’s really just a skeleton of the speech you plan to give–you know, the bones of the speech. Then you add in a few examples, maybe a funny story, and voila–you’ve got a speech. And look at the bright side–there’s no grade for this one!” “You do make it seem less intimidating by breaking it down into manageable chunks. I guess I’ll give it a try, as long as you promise to respect my fear of red ink and go easy on the critique.”

“No red ink, I promise. Besides, your biggest worry isn’t a grade on an outline. In case you’ve forgotten, you’ve still got to face all those students in the quad. You’re on your own there!”


You probably have a first speech coming up soon, and we understand that you may feel some uncertainty–maybe even a bit of intimidation–at the thought of preparing and delivering that first presentation. New speakers are often overwhelmed by the process of putting a speech together from beginning to end. Where do you begin? How do you know which topic will work best with your audience? How much information is enough? Can you have too much information? Relax! We wouldn’t ask you to deliver a speech at this point without first providing you with the necessary tools that you’ll need to be successful as you move towards that first speaking deadline.

Your initiation into public speaking began in Module 1, when we introduced you to a new vocabulary–the basic concepts and terms known to all public speakers. You gained some insight into the process of public speaking and discovered the necessary components of that process, such as the speaker, the listener, and the message. We also discussed speech anxiety in that first chapter because we wanted to immediately address, and hopefully reduce, any fear that you might have as you begin this process. Module 2 focused on the methods available to you to analyze your audience and determine the interests, beliefs, and demographic data of audience members. We believe that it is crucial that you understand just how important your audience is and to develop an audience-centered mindset from the beginning. We want you to become more than just an adequate speaker; we want you to be an engaging and effective speaker, and becoming audience-centered is a positive first step in that direction.

We’ve purposefully designed this course as a step-by-step guide to public speaking. That means that every module is designed to build on earlier concepts and skills. While the first two modules focused on the overall process of public speaking and the importance of your audience, Module 3 will focus on those initial steps you’ll need to take as you prepare for your speech. First, we’ll discuss the topic–the subject and focus of your speech–and give you some tips on choosing a topic that balances your interests with those of your audience. It will also be important to discuss how much information you will actually be able to discuss, given the time allotted for your presentation, and the number of main ideas that you’ll need to adequately cover the subject matter. Narrowing your topic and including only the most pertinent information will ensure that you are able to do both.

This module will introduce a few new terms as well. We’ll discuss the difference between a general and a specific purpose and find out what a thesis is and why it is so important to include one in your introduction. Finally, we’ll spend some time discussing how to prepare an outline. An effective outline will assist you in organizing the information you’ll cover as you speak. We’ll discuss the different formats and styles available and give you some important tips to using your outline effectively.


Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:

  • Differentiate between a general and a specific purpose
  • Choose and narrow speech topics appropriately
  • Draft an outline using correct formatting and style
  • Demonstrate how to effectively use an outline while speaking


This module provided the “nuts and bolts” needed for your first speech. Finding a topic can seem overwhelming–that’s why we recommend that you brainstorm and go through your own personal inventory. What do you enjoy doing? What hobbies and skills do you have that you might share? Do you have specialized knowledge in a certain area? Sharing what you enjoy can be a great way to determine a topic. But you can’t stop there. Remember, it is important that you narrow your topic sufficiently. Most classroom speeches are between four -six minutes long. We’d prefer that you give several details and examples to fully explain a couple of main ideas completely rather than attempting to cover too many ideas inadequately.

We also discussed your general and specific purposes for speaking. Know why you want to speak. Are you intending to teach something to your listeners or perhaps you hope to persuade them? What will you teach them? What is the intent of your persuasion? These types of questions ensure that you have a clear purpose in mind–a necessary first step towards a good thesis and great main ideas. Preview for your audience what you will cover in the speech. Let them know what they can expect from you–what you’ll be explaining. It’s much easier for them to follow along and to retain your message. Then organize all those thoughts swirling around in your head by putting them down on paper through the use of an outline. An effective outline allows you to create a visual of your thoughts. Which ideas are most important? Which details, examples, and facts should you include? Where will you place them? The outline is one of the best tools you can use to plan, prepare, and present your speech, so don’t overlook it!

Each of these first few modules will give you the necessary skills that you’ll need for your first speech. You’re learning the lingo, you’re gathering the necessary items you’ll need, and soon you’ll be delivering a speech. As long as you take it one step at a time, you’ll do fine.

Humans are multifaceted beings with often contradictory beliefs and a wide range of interests. Respecting the diversity and complexity of your listeners should be your goal throughout your speech process.


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Fundamentals of Public Speaking Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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