Preparing Your First Speech Essay

Since this is a public speaking class, it means that you will indeed have to present speeches! Since many people become nervous at this prospect, I like to get the first one done early in the semester. It’s like ripping off a band-aid: rip it off fast to feel less pain. Your Introductory Speech is your first baby step into this field. This assignment is meant to be easy. It’s meant to be a way to get you up in front of the group and doing something for 2-4 minutes, not to be a heavy, taxing assignment.

Therefore, if you find that it’s really hard, you’re doing it wrong! Take a deep breath, remember it’s supposed to be simple, and start over again. Because I want this assignment to be easy and I want everyone to be on about the same level, this is the one speech in the semester where I’m going to give you topics to choose from rather than just letting you pick something on your own.

Don’t worry, after this one you can talk about any appropriate subjects you want, but for now, your choices are limited to five.


Your first topic option is called a “coat of arms” speech. A coat of arms is also often called a family crest. In Medieval heraldry, pictures were emblazoned on a knight’s shield or armor which represented that person’s character or ancestry. A family crest has pictures that tell about a family’s history. Don’t worry; I’m not going to ask you to research your genealogy! Instead, for this topic, I want you to create your own personal coat of arms. To do this, you should choose between 2 and 4 objects that represent something about you. For instance, if I were to create a coat of arms for myself, I would choose a golf club, a suitcase, and a roller coaster because those represent three of my favorite hobbies. I love to play golf (though I’m not very good at it), I seek any opportunity to travel, and I’m a huge roller coaster nut who will go anywhere to ride the latest and greatest ride. You could choose hobbies, as I have done, or you may choose a person or people, a pet, something related to your future career, etc. You can choose anything that tells us a little bit about you, who you are, and what you like.

You don’t have to get deep and personal, just tell us some basic, surface-level things about yourself. Since some people don’t like to talk about themselves, you have other options as well. Your second topic to choice is: if you could invite any three people to dinner, living or dead, fictional or non-fictional, who would they be and why? Who would you most like to meet and talk to, either from the past or the present? What would you like to learn from them? Since they don’t have to be living, I could choose Adolph Hitler if I wanted to. Since they can be fictional, I can choose Bugs Bunny if I want to. They don’t have to be famous people or characters, either. I know someone who would be at the top of my invitation list would be my grandmother, who died 25 years ago, and I’d just like to sit down and talk with her again. You might also address what that combination of people would be like at dinner. Are Hitler and Bugs Bunny going to get along, or will there be trouble? Will my grandmother be able to put Hitler in his place? Your third topic option is: if you were going to be stranded on a deserted island, what three books would you want to have with you? Do you want to entertain yourself with fiction? Would you prefer a survival or spiritual guide?

Would you pick “A thousand and one ways to prepare coconuts” or “How to build a raft and get off a deserted island”?  When I bring up this topic option in a live class, students often groan that they don’t read or like a lot of books, so I’m not completely hung up on your choosing them, but I would like you pick some form of media such as magazines, music, movies, newspapers, journals, etc. We’ll just pretend you have a lifetime supply of batteries so you can watch those movies or listen to that music! Your first three choices have all been “informative”-type speeches, because you’d just be telling us about yourself, the people you’d like to meet, or the books you’d like to have. Your fourth topic option is a persuasive one: a sales speech. You can sell us any product or service. It can be a real product, or you can make up a fake one (and yes, it can be funny and creative). I know that many students I have in class work in sales, and if that’s the case with you, you can sell us the product you sell at work. The bottom line is: if you choose this option, your goal is to make us want the product by the end of your speech.

Keep in mind that it isn’t meant to be a TV commercial; it should still be a proper speech in proper speech format. Your final option could be either informative or persuasive, depending on how you approach it. It is a speech about your pet peeves. What are the little nit-picky things other people do that really get on your nerves? Is it people who chew with their mouth open or fail to replace the toilet paper roll when it runs out? Is it all the bad drivers in Columbia? You could approach this topic option in a couple of different ways. You could pick out two or three different pet peeves and talk about each, or you could give two or three reasons why one thing is a big pet peeve of yours.

For instance, I once had a woman in class who talked about the three things she found most irritating at Wal-Mart. Keep in mind that pet peeves are supposed to be minor irritations. Something like domestic abuse, for instance, isn’t a pet peeve, but a major social issue! Hopefully, you find at least one of those topic options appealing. Remember the assignment is supposed to be easy, so choose the one where ideas come to you most easily. Sometimes, upon first hearing the topic choices one stands out as “THE one” you’re going to do, but when you sit down to write it you can’t think of anything to say. If that’s the case, try another one to see if the ideas come to you more easily.

You want the writing part of this to be easy so that you’ll have plenty of time to practice your speech before it’s due. You may also consider using a visual aid with this presentation. It’s not a requirement, but if you’re particularly nervous about speaking, you might consider it for a couple of reasons. First, having a visual aid may make you less nervous because it gives the audience something else to look at for a moment rather than you! Second, the visual aid will help you remember what you want to say in your speech. If I have a golf club lying on the table, I’m not likely to forget that I want to talk about golf! The visual aid could be an actual object, a picture, a power point slide show, or whatever may be appropriate for the subject you’re discussing.

Writing and Organizing the Speech

Regardless of which topic option you choose, your speech should contain certain basic elements that are present in all speeches that you will present in this class. First, the speech should begin with an introduction to lead the audience in to the main content of the speech. You should spend 10-15% of your speaking time setting up the speech in the introduction and it should include at least these two elements: an attention-getter, and a thesis that previews the main points. When a speaker first stands up to speak, the audience is doing a hundred other things rather than listening. They’re talking to each other, daydreaming, reading, doodling, and who knows what else? So, your first goal as a speaker is to get the audience to stop doing those things and to want to listen to what you have to say. You can accomplish this by having an effective attention device as the opening of your speech. There are several techniques you can use to draw the audience in.

Attention Getters

1. You could ask the audience a question, which forces them to participate in some way. You could ask a rhetorical question that makes the audience wonder where you’re going with the speech, or you could ask for a show of hands in response to your question, which forces them to physically participate. In order for this to be an effective device, though, you have to make sure it’s a good question! If the question has an obvious answer, instead of drawing the audience in, you’ll turn them off! For instance, I once had a student who started his speech with “How many of you have ever watched television?” The audience laughed and nobody raised their hands. The speaker then timidly said, “No, really. Raise your hand if you’ve ever watched TV.” The audiences sighed and grudgingly held up their hands. The audience felt that it was obvious that they had all seen TV before, and resented having to actually answer that question, so the speaker’s attention getter backfired.

2. You could tell a joke. Humor is actually a wonderful way to begin a presentation. It lightens the mood and makes the audience want to hear more. Most speakers report feeling the most nervous right before starting their speech, so if you can tell a good joke and get the audience laughing, it will help you feel like they’re with you and you’ll start to relax. There are a couple of catches to this technique, though. First, the audience may expect you to continue to be funny throughout your speech. Second, you want to make sure it’s a good joke! If you tell a joke, you’ve got “wait for laughter” written in your notes, no one laughs, and you can hear the crickets chirping, it will make you more nervous! 3. You could use a quotation. If you’re choosing the people you would invite to dinner or the books you’d take to a deserted island, this could be a good attention device for you. Choose a powerful quotation from one of the people or a dramatic passage from one of your books, and it can help to set the mood of your speech.

4. You could make a shocking statement or give a surprising fact or statistic to begin the speech. A surprising fact about the subject can make the audience want to hear more about your subject and your research. 5. You could use a visual aid or physical demonstration to draw the audience in. For instance, if one of the objects you’ve chosen to represent yourself is something unusual, it may make the audience curious about what you’ll be discussing. I once had a student that opened his speech in a way that scared me to death. He stood up and started talking, when suddenly; another man burst in the door and attacked him! I was panicked! I thought, “Oh no, a fight! They’re going to kill each other!” Just as I was getting ready to call security, it became clear that this was a pre-planned “skit” for a speech about self-defense. The speaker was showing how to get out of a hold by an attacker. It was frightening, but it definitely got our attention! Not everyone is comfortable with being quite that dramatic, though, so feel free to use one of the other techniques.

6. A more subtle approach might be to tell a story. A story can gently draw the audience into your speech and topic. For instance, if I were doing my coat of arms speech, I might tell a story about a day at the amusement park. These are the main techniques speakers use to start a speech. You might also reference a historical event or a previous speaker. The main thing I want to get across to you is that you should NOT start a speech by stating the topic. Saying, “My name is Cindy and today I’m going to tell you about my coat of arms” is boring and not likely to make the audience interested. Don’t say, “My speech is on…” or “My topic is…” Use a good, well thought-out attention getter. Keep in mind as well that the attention getter MUST be related to the content of the speech in some way. Don’t tell a random joke, for instance, tell a joke that’s related to something you’re actually going to talk about in your speech. I feel that the attention getter is one of the hardest parts of the speech to write, and I would save it as one of the last things I write. You want to know what your main content is going to be before you decide how to start the speech.

These with Preview of Main Points

The second part of the introduction is to have a clear thesis that previews the main points you’ll discuss in the body of the speech. Just like a paper has a central thesis it’s trying to get across to the reader, a speech has a central thesis it’s trying to get across to the listeners. The thesis takes your entire speech and summarizes it in one sentence. It is THE thing you want the audience to remember, even if they remember nothing else about your speech. The thesis includes a preview of the main points that will be discussed in the body of the speech as well. This means that I’m literally going to state my main points in my introduction, as part of that thesis. For instance, a potential thesis for my coat of arms speech might be something like, “You’ll get to know me better once you see how much I like golf, travel, and roller coasters.”

Now the audience knows that I’ll be discussing those three specific topics in my speech. One thing you’ll learn in this class is that most people aren’t particularly strong listeners, so you have to keep reminding them of what you want them to know. A general rule of speech making is “tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em. Tell ‘em. Then tell ‘em what you just told ‘em.” The preview is telling them what you’re going to tell them. I’ve had some students in the past that really hated the idea of doing a preview.

They were afraid it would make the speech boring and repetitive or that it was giving away all the potential suspense in their speech. Well, it might be a bit repetitive, but that’s a necessary evil when dealing with oral communication. It’s also still possible to leave people in suspense while still previewing the body. For instance, in my “three people I’d invite to dinner speech” I could have the thesis of: “The three people I’d most like to have to dinner include a relative, a historical figure, and a cartoon character.” I’ve still previewed, but the audience won’t know which relative, historical figure, or cartoon character I’ve chosen until I talk about them in the body.

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