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For most people, giving speeches is downright terrifying. Public speaking is among the biggest fears we have in day-to-day life, but once you realize that most people are unnerved by it, it’s easier to relax a little and focus on the task at hand no matter what kind of speech you have to give. The most common speech is the expository speech, which is a speech to explain or inform, and the good news is that the range of expository speech topics is as vast as the sea.
Understanding Expository Speech Ideas
The word “expository” sounds intimidating, but it really just means to explain or be informative. Breaking it down like that means the vast array of expository speeches can boggle the mind. An expository speech topic or an informative speech topic for college could be an expansive topic like "the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in a post-Civil-War America," or it could be something fun and playful like “how to play Pokémon Go.”
The important thing comes down to the writing of the speech. In writing the speech, you’ll need to do your research and present the ideas in a clear, informative way. The best approach is to proceed as if your audience knows nothing about the topic, with your goal being that they walk out of that room and can confidently tell someone all about what they’ve just learned from you. If you achieve that kind of comfort and familiarity with the topic at the end of your speech, you’ve been successful.
Think of expository speeches as being a long answer to a question. How did America react to Abraham Lincoln’s death, and what kind of turmoil did the assassination create? How is Pokémon Go played, and why do people enjoy it so much? A well-written speech teaches your audience all they need to know about those topics, even if they come in without any basic understanding.
The Four Kinds of Expository Speeches
There are commonly four styles of expository speeches, but they’re broad categories.
- Descriptive: These speeches give a mental image to the audience. It puts them in a place or shows them an experience, an item or a process. A travelogue presentation at the library would be a descriptive speech and so would telling people about life at college, experience in a workplace and so on.
- Demonstrative: This is a speech that teaches how to do something. It can be, say, about how to excel in sports by training differently or something low-key and fun, like how to cook spaghetti or how to play a game.
- Explanatory: This is the cornerstone of expository speeches: the explanation speech that explains a topic. For instance, a speech on how Wall Street works would be explanatory, including topics like how the Dow Jones Industrial Average influences the economy, or it could be something simpler like explaining the importance of having renter’s insurance when you get your first apartment even if you think you own nothing valuable.
- Definition: The definition speech explains a theory or concept. A speech on altruism for philosophy class, for instance, or even a minister’s sermon about a Bible passage’s moral premise could be a definition speech.
If you think about it, nearly any topic under the sun could fit in these four categories.
The Power of Persuasive Speeches
Persuasive speaking is speaking designed to make your ideas compelling enough to persuade your audience to buy into your line of thinking. At the end, if you’ve convinced them that your ideas have merit and that perhaps they’ve had it all wrong, then you’ve done your job. In a perfect world, persuasion would play a part in any speech you give.
Persuasive speaking is the tool that makes for a winning sales pitch or a final commentary in a job interview so you get hired. To be persuasive is to have the perfect blend of logic and emotion to hook your audience. To get yourself inspired for the power of persuasion, watch the riveting 2007 film “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington about the first-ever group of black college students to debate at Harvard. It has fantastic tips for speaking and debating.
The young Wiley College team had to overcome the challenges of Jim Crow America in the 1930s but still managed to be viewed as the most persuasive and convincing debaters on offer from collegiate America. It’s a master class in speaking and worth watching if you aspire to command audiences, too.
Writing Great Speeches
Any great expository speech needs a confident touch with the topic. From research and quotes to pop culture supporting evidence, there are all kinds of ways to beef up a topic while keeping it engaging for your audience. Writing is writing whether it’s a speech or an essay, so don’t fret too much about the fact that it’s a speech. The similarity between speeches and essays is the questions that need answering if you are to do it well – the five W’s.
Suppose your topic is “the importance of mental health care.” Research extensively. Think about stories from your life and people you know and how you can share some of those with your listeners, especially in a way that underscores individual points you have to make. Remember to think of the topic as if the audience is completely in the dark, and you’re there to shine a light so they see it through your eyes.
- Who: Think about your audience. Who are they? What do they like and enjoy and relate to? Your speech needs to hit them on their wavelength, so if you are to use something like a movie reference, it needs to be one they recognize. First-year college students may not relate to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest," but they might be familiar with "The Silver Linings Playbook."
- What: This is the breakdown of your topic: mental illness, health care and why each matters enough that you’re speaking about it.
- Where: This can be in reference to a place from your topic – perhaps you’re speaking about Washington, D.C. and the need for lawmakers to do more for the mentally ill, or perhaps you have anecdotes you can include about the local region to which your audience will latch on. If it’s the latter, that can be a good hook to ensure your speech resonates with listeners.
Why: “Because” is never enough of a reason. You need to have concrete arguments that support your topic. Your argument might be that mental health care is important because no one should be left behind, but there’s still a "why." What happens if people are left behind, and why should we care? “Mental health care is important because if people aren’t left behind, then they can build a life for themselves, and that means others won’t have to care for them, so family health will be stronger, and everyone can contribute to the betterment of society”
that’s a "why."
* When: What’s a good timeline for this? When should health care be improved?
Eight Tips for Overcoming Nerves
Even people who love to speak and who do it frequently tend to be anxious before a speaking engagement. Few people enjoy being under scrutiny while speaking. Simply accepting your nerves as being part of the deal is a great way to get a positive start to your speech. Here are some other tips to get you through the experience.
- Drink water. Be well hydrated because dehydration causes confusion and unclear speech. You’ll hem and haw and stutter and sputter if you’re not properly hydrated before you speak. (Tip: If you have dry, cracked lips, or you can’t pinch and hold the skin on the back of your wrist with your fingers, it means you’re not hydrated enough.)
- Make notes on cards for prime speaking points and only have exact text for difficult sections where you need to reference clear data. You should know the speech backward and forward, so the cards are merely a reminder of your outline as you're speaking.
- Find a friendly face. Have someone you know or like in the audience whom you can look at when you’re losing your way a bit or when nerves are bettering you. Sometimes, a kind smile or affirming nod makes all the difference.
- Talk to yourself. In the days leading up to your speech, don’t “practice” the speech as much as simply talk it through – while washing the dishes, cleaning the house or walking home from transit. Just keep saying your speech out loud without notes so that you become thoroughly intimate with all the talking points. No great speaker ever read directly off the page. The best speeches come naturally and comfortably from speakers who know their content.
- Visuals aren’t always a plus. If you’re speaking about a personal experience, especially anything heartfelt, having a PowerPoint or slide show behind you can be a distraction and complication. Sometimes, a compelling topic with an open, engaging speaker can be as commanding as one with all the bells and whistles. If fiddling with slides or a presentation will fluster you and isn’t technically required, then skip it.
- Do mouth exercises. Immediately before you get up there, do all kinds of opening/closing and flexing of your mouth, jaw, neck and shoulders so you can loosen up before you talk. This and hydration are critical for the simple mechanics of speaking.
- Embrace quiet. Don’t say “um” or “uh” if you hit a snag in the speech. Just smile, take a second and speak when you’re ready.
- Speak at a steady, easy pace. Speak loudly and use the microphone well if there is one. Ask the hosts or organizers how close your mouth should ideally be to the microphone and proceed accordingly. People get embarrassed about speaking loudly, but the reality is that if you’re not speaking clearly, half the audience won’t hear you, and an audience not hearing you is an audience that tunes out, gets distracted and makes you lose your mojo. Keep them engaged by speaking authoritatively.
Getting Better at Speaking
From books like Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” through to organizations like Toastmasters, there are all sorts of resources out there for helping you to improve your speech making. The big misconception is that you need to be an outgoing person to be a successful speaker. All kinds of introverts excel at public speaking, as exemplified by the compelling speaker Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.”
If you understand your topic and speak confidently and persuasively, it’s amazing how much it can help you in your career. From breaking the ice at networking events to not losing your nerve when all eyes are on you, public speaking can transform your sense of self and the presence you have with others. It can win you jobs too.
The Toastmasters motto is "where leaders are made," and it's a worldwide organization with low-cost membership that helps people conquer public speaking, and its success rate is phenomenal. Many cities of all sizes have events like “philosopher cafes” that you might find on Meetup.com, at which participants are posited ideas they then debate with others. The philosopher cafes may not be public speaking per se, but they help you to learn the art of making an argument and defending a stance, which are valuable tools in any speaker’s toolkit.
- Study.com: How to Write & Present an Expository Speech
- CollegeVine: How to Write a Winning Expository Speech
- Entrepreneur: 5 Expert Tips for Giving the Speech of Your Life
- Witt Communications: How to Develop Confidence Speaking
- Verywell Mind: 20 Public Speaking Tips for Students
- Toastmasters International: Find a Club Near You
Steffani Cameron is a nomad, writer, photographer, from Vancouver, Canada, who is slow-travelling the world for five years. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Vox Media, Kitchn, About, and more.
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