Chapter Five – Determining a Topic and Purpose

When you’re preparing to speak, finding an argument, perspective, or topic can feel overwhelming. “Where should I start?” “What do I care about?” “Why should the audience care?” are all questions that you’ll likely encounter.

These are important queries, and we don’t want to downplay the difficulty in selecting an argument and formulating an idea that is worthwhile to the audience. Finding an argument that fits the context, is timely, well-reasoned, and interesting can be difficult. Oftentimes, when we sit down to think about ideas, brainstorm, and jot down some insights, our page feels oddly blank. “What should we talk about?” “Where do we start?” are common questions that race through our minds. You might experience this, too, and feel confused about how to begin selecting an argument or sorting through information to locate an interesting idea.

When you begin searching for an argument, you aren’t alone; you have tons of informational avenues that can direct you to different topics that are relevant in the world.

In fact, you’re experiencing interesting information all the time! You are constantly absorbing, sorting, and curating information and ideas. Think about your social media accounts. If you’re like us, you likely scroll through and click on articles that seem unique or insightful; you “like” or comment in response to posts that draw you in. There’s a constant flow of information (and potential speech topics).

In this chapter, we explore how to select and formulate the main argument for a speech. It’s often uncommon to snap our fingers and know exactly what our argument will be, and that’s OK! This chapter will take you through brainstorming and beginning to write a clear and narrow argument that is specific to your public speaking context. It’s our goal to encourage curiosity, and we hope that you’ll accept the challenge.

By the end of this chapter, you will have deeper critical thinking skills that lead you from broad topic ideas to specific arguments and thesis statements. Before brainstorming a topic can begin, however, you must zero in on the context.

Context is Key

Your context should always guide your preparatory process, including selecting an argument to present. The context defines why you’re there, how long you’re there for, when, and with whom.

By answering the “why” – i.e. “Why am I here?” – you can determine your general purpose for speaking: informing, persuading, or entertaining. While arguments can often be adapted to fit many purposes, it’s always important to begin any project by knowing the parameters and overarching goals – in this case, why am I speaking? For example, are you trying to:

  • Solve a problem
  • Reduce uncertainty
  • Increase awareness
  • Honor someone

Selecting a final topic before considering the context means “placing the cart before the horse,” so to speak. Your context will inform the general purpose which will guide your specific argument.

It’s important, too, to stay appraised of the other contextual factors, particularly the time. How much time you have to speak will influence how broad or narrow your argument can be. If you have 3 minutes, for example, you must have a specific and focused take-away for the audience within that short amount of time. Alternatively, a 20-minute speech provides more flexibility. There may be some ideas or arguments that aren’t feasible within certain time constraints. Additionally, being aware of larger cultural conversations and dialogues can assist in selecting arguments that are timely and relevant for your audience. In other words, it allows you to find information that is having an impact on your community/communities right now, and that information becomes significant to share.

If you aren’t sure how to locate such arguments, stay tuned! Below, we tackle brainstorming as a mechanism to locate potential arguments.


Selecting a Broad Subject Area

Once you know what the basic constraints are for your speech, you can then start thinking about picking a topic. The first aspect to consider is what subject area you are interested in examining. A subject area is a broad area of knowledge. Art, business, history, physical sciences, social sciences, humanities, and education are all examples of subject areas. When selecting a topic, start by casting a broad net because it will help you limit and weed out topics quickly.

Furthermore, each of these broad subject areas has a range of subject areas beneath it. For example, if we take the subject area “art,” we can break it down further into broad categories like art history, art galleries, and how to create art. We can further break down these broad areas into even narrower subject areas (e.g., art history includes prehistoric art, Egyptian art, Grecian art, Roman art, Middle Eastern art, medieval art, Asian art, Renaissance art, modern art). As you can see, topic selection is a narrowing process.


Narrowing Your Topic

Narrowing your topic to something manageable for the constraints of your speech is something that takes time, patience, and experience. One of the biggest mistakes that new public speakers make is not narrowing their topics sufficiently given the constraints. In the previous section, we started demonstrating how the narrowing process works, but even in those examples, we narrowed subject areas down to fairly broad areas of knowledge.

Think of narrowing as a funnel. At the top of the funnel are the broad subject areas, and your goal is to narrow your topic further and further down until just one topic can come out the other end of the funnel. The more focused your topic is, the easier your speech is to research, write, and deliver. So, let’s take one of the broad areas from the art subject area and keep narrowing it down to a manageable speech topic. For this example, let’s say that your general purpose is to inform, you are delivering the speech in class to your peers, and you have five to seven minutes. Now that we have the basic constraints, let’s start narrowing our topic. The broad area we are going to narrow in this example is Middle Eastern art. When examining the category of Middle Eastern art, the first thing you’ll find is that Middle Eastern art is generally grouped into four distinct categories: Anatolian, Arabian, Mesopotamian, and Syro-Palestinian. Again, if you’re like us, until we started doing some research on the topic, we had no idea that the historic art of the Middle East was grouped into these specific categories. We’ll select Anatolian art, or the art of what is now modern Turkey.

You may think that your topic is now sufficiently narrow, but even within the topic of Anatolian art, there are smaller categories: pre-Hittite, Hittite, Uratu, and Phrygian periods of art. Let’s narrow our topic again to the Phrygian period of art (1200–700 BCE). Although we have now selected a specific period of art history in Anatolia, we are still looking at a five-hundred-year period in which a great deal of art was created. One famous Phrygian king was King Midas, who according to myth was given the ears of a donkey and the power of a golden touch by the Greek gods. As such, there is an interesting array of art from the period of Midas and its Greek counterparts representing Midas. At this point, we could create a topic about how Phrygian and Grecian art differed in their portrayals of King Midas. We now have a topic that is unique, interesting, and definitely manageable in five to seven minutes. You may be wondering how we narrowed the topic down; we just started doing a little research using the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website (MET Museum).

Overall, when narrowing your topic, you should start by asking yourself four basic questions based on the constraints discussed earlier in this section:

  1. Does the topic match my intended general purpose?
  2. Is the topic appropriate for my audience?
  3. Is the topic appropriate for the given speaking context?
  4. Can I reasonably hope to inform or persuade my audience in the time frame I have for the speech?
    Brainstorming Ideas. Photo by Alena Darmel. [3]


Brainstorming is the process and practice of searching to find ideas or information. When you brainstorm, you are generating ideas to overcome a barrier or confront a problem. The problem you’re confronting is,

“What can I talk about that will sustain the audience’s attention and have an impact?” For speeches, brainstorming assists in locating and narrowing information to an accurate idea that supports the development of a well-reasoned argument.

Like we mentioned in the introduction, you are already sorting through vast amounts of information daily. We are confronted with so many ideas, research findings, memes, tweets, advertisements, and podcasts (to name a few); we develop personal strategies to find information that is meaningful and worthwhile to us.

Brainstorming is a practice that formalizes that sorting process. It asks you to make those choices more deliberately and consciously. The key to successful brainstorming is openness – you must be open to finding, locating, and narrowing down information.


Arguments are Advocacies

Topic selection and argument construction are key parts of formulating an advocacy. Speeches are meaningful and impactful communication acts. When you speak, you are supporting an idea, cause, or policy. You should approach brainstorming purposefully and intentionally with a framework in mind that “What I select matters.” Because what you select matters.

In addition, your advocacy may begin broadly, but your goal is to tailor that advocacy down to a workable argument. It’s helpful to think about your topics as orbiting an advocacy. For example, you may be interested in environmental advocacy, where environmentalism is a large and broad topic. But “environmentalism” isn’t a workable speech argument – it’s way too big! With research, critical thinking, and expertise, you’ll narrow that broad advocacy umbrella down to a workable argument – a thesis statement – and craft the remainder of your speech with that specific argument in mind.

We suggest two broad brainstorming strategies, and let’s start with the first: exploratory research.

Exploratory Research

Exploratory research encompasses brainstorming strategies that spark curiosity. When you explore, you are going on an adventure, and exploratory research is similar. You are sorting information to find broad topics or ideas (that you’ll narrow down later). Conducting a personal inventory and exploring online are two great exploratory brainstorming strategies.

Personal Inventory

An old adage states, “Write about what you know.”

To write what you know, begin by conducting a personal inventory – a process of tracking ideas, insights, or topics that you have experience with or interest in. Retail stores do regular inventories to know what is actually stocked in the business. You have much more going on in your brain and background than you can be conscious of at any one time. Being asked the right kinds of prompts can help you find ideas. Look over Table 5.1 for some prompting questions when conducting a persona inventory.


Table 5.1 Personal Inventory
What’s your major? What are things that you experience that give you pause?
What are your hobbies? What unique skills do you possess?
What online sites do commonly click through? What social problems interest you?
What goals do you have? What communities do you belong to? What have they been discussing?
What are barriers that you’ve experienced in working toward those goals? What kind of values do you hold dear?
What’s your major? What community problems have caught your attention?
What are your hobbies? What posts do you commonly share?


This may not be an inventory that you complete in one sitting. In fact, it’s worthwhile to jot down a few things that catch your attention throughout the day or for a series of days. Once complete, the inventory may seem long and intrusive, but digging a little deeper may help you find ideas and directions that are unique to you. Generating your list based on these questions and prompts will get you excited about your topic and talking about it to your audience.

Let’s work through a hypothetical application of the personal inventory. Imagine brainstorming for a speech, and you write the following in response to Table 5.1:

Major: Economics (for now)
Goals: Complete my degree with honors; travel to Brazil
Barriers to achieving those goals: Procrastination, assigned class schedules, expensive college and fees, problems with gaining a visa

As you look over these broad ideas, your next step is to highlight topics that pique your interest or are a priority. You might highlight “expensive college” as a barrier that could prohibit you from completing your economics degree on time. After all, if you are unable to afford college (or are worried about loans), you may take a semester break or drop out. Also, as an economics major, you become more interested in exploring college affordability.

As the personal inventory implies, good speech topic ideas often begin with the speaker. After all, if a speaker is intrigued by an idea, that passion is more likely to translate to an audience. But it doesn’t end there. Remember, we are just brainstorming! It’s still necessary to research and read about a topic or problem from multiple viewpoints and sources. If we only begin from ourselves, we often fail to see or learn about different perspectives, other important areas, or problems. Exploring online can help in narrowing your topic and deciding if it’s a relevant argument for your audience and community.


bookshelf full of colorful books
Photo by Pixabay. [5]

Explore Online

A second brainstorming technique is online exploration—searching digital information with an open mind. You can use your personal inventory as guidance or, if you’re stuck, you can read information online for ideas that spark curiosity. There are ample online locations to find an array of information, from Google News to Twitter.

When you search, look far and wide. It’s common to search and seek out information that we’re looking for, but brainstorming isn’t about finding what you already know; It’s about finding what you don’t. Use different search engines and social media platforms for help.

As you search, skim. Remember that this is an exploratory phase (we’ll talk more about in-depth research in Chapter 7), so you don’t need to read every article that pops up on a search engine. Write down words. Write down phrases. Ask yourself questions about those words and phrases to determine how relevant and interesting they could be.

For example, if you continued brainstorming about “expensive college” – an idea on your hypothetical personal inventory—you might find a series of posts, articles, and insights that a) help you learn more and b) help narrow down the topic. You’d learn that, under the broad category of college affordability, there are a range of topics that influence students, including: student loan interest rates, textbook cost, private loans, and the depletion of Pell grants. You could attack any of these issues, of course, but some are more complicated than others. Textbooks seem like they could be a potential topic. Perhaps you recently experienced purchasing expensive college textbooks. Perhaps you loaned a friend money after their textbook bill made it difficult to pay rent. After reflecting, books seem ripe for advocacy.

Whenever you are exploring a topic online, it is important to remember that if you have one good source, you probably have several. The trick is being able to use that one good article to track down multiple sources. For example, a Vox article about textbooks, titled “The High Cost of College Textbooks, Explained,” provides opportunities for more online exploration. Below is a list of ideas or concepts to click on or research in other tabs. Look for these in every article as you brainstorm. Pretty soon, you will probably have a dozen or more tabs open, meaning you will have much more expertise and a deeper understanding of your topic.

  • Hyperlinks: journalists do not cite their sources with footnotes, endnotes, or internal citations like you do for class. Instead, they hyperlink their sources to make it easier for you to track down their evidence.
  • Big Ideas: You can easily Google main topics of an article to see how other people are talking about it. This will allow you to see more than one perspective on a topic and to cross-check your original article against other writers.
  • People: From the author to the people they talked to or about, look up people to read their credentials and determine if they are qualified to write or talk about the relevant topic.
  • Jargon: If you find any words that are unfamiliar, look them up. This will help you understand the argument better and make certain the author actually knows what they are writing about. Plus, it will give you some words to use for mind-mapping.

Before we move further into narrowing and mapping our topic, let’s conclude this section by busting a few myths about online information.

Myth #1: Wikipedia is bad. You’ve likely heard that “you can absolutely not cite Wikipedia [in a formal essay or speech].” While, yes, Wikipedia is a collaborative encyclopedia, meaning that anyone can technically add to its content, its pages can be useful for brainstorming. We recommend using Wikipedia in two ways.

First, search Wikipedia for their internally-cited material. If you’ve used Wikipedia recently, you know that the content includes references to other sources that validate the findings. Use those! The references are helpful in locating (often) credible sources for your own research on a topic.

Second, use Wikipedia to clarify complex ideas. Because Wikipedia is a community-based and collaborative encyclopedia, technical language is commonly translated to allow better comprehension. If you aren’t sure about an idea, search Wikipedia for help (but verify the information through other sources, too).

While we don’t recommend using Wikipedia as the source, their content can direct you toward reputable research and clarify difficult concepts.

Myth #2: Information is neutral. It’s easy to believe that, because something is published online, it’s a neutral and reputable source. Sadly, that’s not the case. In our digital information age, virtually anyone can be an author, and that’s great! But it also reduces the reliability of information that’s being posted.

You’ve likely heard about “fake news,” but we’ll use the term propaganda – biased or misleading information that promotes a particular agenda. Propaganda is junk science, and it can’t be trusted as reliable. For example, you might notice a meme that posts a Harriett Tubman quote in support of strict immigration reform. Digging deeper, you’d likely find that the quote was misrepresented or made up to support an anti-immigrant agenda.

Advertising more subtly influences information. That’s because many information sorting sites, including Google, use an algorithm that’s specific to you. If you and a friend search the same thing, your search results may differ, especially after the first page.

Does that mean you can’t use Google? Of course not. We do! But you should be aware that targeted sites may be rising to the top, and when you search, dig deep and search multiple pages.

Using a Mind Map

After conducting exploratory research to dig a little deeper, a mind map is a second brainstorming strategy to narrow and isolate a topic. A mind map is a visual tool that allows you to chart and expand key topic ideas or concepts.

As you mind map, use the following tips:

  • Start with a big idea.
  • Break this big concept down into smaller ideas until you can’t break them down anymore.
  • Look up synonyms or like words.
  • Write down any words you find during your research to tap into the larger conversation.

Figure 5.2 is an example of a mind map based on “college affordability.” You can see how the topic narrowed from college affordability to textbook costs. The mind map also includes words that were used in the Vox article, such as “open textbooks.” Jotting down ideas and language that are used in source information will provide insight into common wording used by topic experts. Keep in mind, if you do not like mind maps, make a list or develop some alternative method, but make certain to keep track of everything.



Figure 5.2


You can create a mind map using a program like Popplet, Powerpoint, Word, or Google Docs. We usually just grab a blank sheet of paper and a pen, though.

As you expand topics through a mind map, the narrower that your argument becomes. Instead of a broad approach to “college affordability,” you now have options to explore textbook costs, open textbooks, or open educational resources.

We promise this will not be a waste of your time. Writing down your ideas and thoughts will help you identify keywords for further searching, so you won’t have to come up with words on the fly. As you search, you can easily scratch off words that fail to get you any information, mark the words that seem to get you exactly what you need, or jot down new words you stumble across as you search. All of this will save you time in the long run because it won’t leave you searching for just the right word or trying the wrong word over and over.

Formulating a Specific Purpose Statement

After identifying your general purpose (to inform, to persuade, or to entertain) and brainstorming key topic ideas, you can start to move in the direction of the specific purpose.

specific purpose statement builds on your general purpose (such as to inform) and makes it more specific (as the name suggests). So, if you’re giving a persuasive speech, your general purpose will be to persuade your audience about, for example, the rising cost of textbooks. Written together, your specific purpose would read, “to persuade my audience to support campus solutions to rising textbook costs.”

Your general purpose and audience will influence how to write your specific purpose statement (see Table 5.3 below.)



Table 5.3 demonstrates how to move from the general purpose to the specific purpose while keeping your audience in mind.


So far, so good, right? Before moving to your thesis, be aware these common pitfalls for writing specific purpose statements.

Being Too Broad

Specific purpose statements sometimes try to cover far too much and are too broad. You are funneling a broad topic to a specific argument, so don’t stop at the topic. Instead, ask, “am I trying to do too much?”

Consider this specific purpose statement: To explain to my classmates the history of ballet.

This subject could result in a three-hour lecture, maybe even a whole course. You will probably find that your first attempt at a specific purpose statement will need refining.

These examples are much more specific and much more manageable given the limited amount of time you will have:

To explain to my classmates how ballet came to be performed and studied in the U.S.
To explain to my classmates the difference between Russian and French ballet.
To explain to my classmates how ballet originated as an art form in the Renaissance.
To explain to my classmates the origin of the ballet dancers’ clothing.

Often, broadness is signaled by the use of “and,” where a specific statement is making two arguments.

These examples cover two different topics:

To explain to my audience how to swing a golf club and choose the best golf shoes.
To persuade my classmates to be involved in the Special Olympics and vote to fund better classes for the intellectually disabled.

Too Specialized

The second problem with specific purpose statements is the opposite of being too broad, in that some specific purposes statements are so focused that they might only be appropriate for people who are already extremely interested in the topic or experts in a field. For example:

To inform my classmates of the life cycle of a new species of lima bean (botanists, agriculturalists).
To inform my classmates about the Yellow 5 ingredient in Mountain Dew (chemists, nutritionists).
To persuade my classmates that JIF Peanut Butter is better than Peter Pan. (organizational chefs in large institutions).


Speech topics. Photo by Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent. [4]

Formulating a Thesis

While you will not actually say your specific purpose statement during your speech, you will need to clearly state what your focus and main points are going to be. Your specific purpose is still not your main argument. It’s part of the funnel as you move to your main argument, or thesis statement. A thesis statement is a single, declarative statement that outlines the purpose of your speech.

The point of your thesis statement is to reveal and clarify the main argument of your speech.

This part of the process is important because it’s where your topic becomes an argument. Like we mentioned in the introduction, you will funnel your advocacy down to a specific argument that fits the context and goals of your speech.

However, as you are processing your ideas and approach, you may still be working on them. Sometimes those main points will not be clear to you immediately. As much as we would like these writing processes to be straightforward, sometimes we find that we have to revise our original approach. This is why preparing a speech the night before you are giving it is a really, really bad idea. You need lots of time for the preparation and then the practice.

Sometimes you will hear the writing process referred to as “iterative.” This word means, among other things, that a speech or document is not always written in the same order as the audience finally experiences it. You may have noticed that we have not said anything about the introduction of your speech yet. Even though that is the first thing the audience hears, it may be one of the last parts you actually compose. It is best to consider your speech flexible as you work on it, and to be willing to edit and revise. If your instructor asks you to turn the outline in before the speech, you should be clear on how much you can revise after that. Otherwise, it helps to know that you can keep editing your speech until you deliver it, especially while you practice.


Here are some examples that pair the general purpose, specific purpose statements and thesis statements.

General Purpose: To inform
Specific Purpose: To demonstrate to my audience the correct method for cleaning a computer keyboard.
Thesis: Your computer keyboard needs regular cleaning to function well, and you can achieve that in four easy steps.

General Purpose: To persuade
Specific Purpose: To persuade my political science class that labor unions are no longer a vital political force in the U.S.
Thesis: Although for decades in the twentieth century labor unions influenced local and national elections, in this speech I will point to how their influence has declined in the last thirty years.

General Purpose: To persuade
Specific Purpose: To motivate my audience to oppose the policy of drug testing welfare recipients.
Thesis: Many voices are calling for welfare recipients to have to go through mandatory, regular drug testing, but this policy is unjust, impractical, and costly, and fair-minded Americans should actively oppose it.

General PurposeTo inform
Specific Purpose: To explain to my fellow civic club members why I admire Representative John Lewis.
Thesis: John Lewis has my admiration for his sacrifices during the Civil Rights movement and his service to Georgia as a leader and U.S. Representative.


Notice that in all of the above examples that neither the specific purpose nor the central idea ever exceeds one sentence. You may divide your central idea and the preview of main points into two sentences or three sentences, depending on what your instructor directs. If your central idea consists of more than three sentences, then you probably are including too much information and taking up time that is needed for the body of the speech.

For thesis statements, remember the following few guidelines:

  • Do not write the statement as a question.
  • Use concrete language (“I admire Beyoncé for being a talented performer and businesswoman”), and avoid subjective terms (“My speech is about why I think Beyoncé is the bomb”) or jargon and acronyms (“PLA is better than CBE for adult learners.”)

Remember that your thesis statement cements your main argument – it’s the foundation to building the speech. A clear and focused thesis statement define the speech, and we’ll continue building the research and content around your argument.



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