Narrowing Your Topic

The first step in preparing an oral presentation is selecting and narrowing the topic based on careful analysis of the audience and the situation.

Consider the audience.

An effective speaker carefully considers the audience when preparing a speech. Ask yourself these questions:

1. What is the audience's attitude toward me? Have I established my credibility as an ethical, responsible speaker? If not, you will have to work harder to earn the respect of your audience.
2. Is the audience interested in my topic? If not, you will have to show them why the information you are sharing has relevance in their lives.
3. How much does the audience know about the topic? If little, start with the basics. If they have extensive knowledge, you can explore more complex issues.
4. Who are the members of my audience? Try to find out as much as you can about the individuals that comprise your audience. Consider the following characteristics of the group: age, sex, occupation, level of education, religious affiliation, racial or ethnic background, reasons for attending your presentation, political affiliation. Note points of similarity with your audience members and acknowledge and respect your differences.

Consider the situation.

If your presentation is part of a college course requirement, your professor will probably guide you in your topic choice and specific purpose (to inform or persuade, for example). As you narrow your topic,also consider the following:

1. Allotted time for preparing the presentation
2. Time required for the presentation itself
3. Requirement for audio-visual aids
4. Financial constraints -- Can you afford to make slides or transparencies to use in your presentation, for example?
5. Formality of the presentation-- Informal talk or Honors Project presentation, for example

Get to the point.

Now that you have considered the audience and occasion, you are ready to narrow your topic and decide upon your thesis -- What do you want to accomplish in your presentation? The more specific you are in stating your presentation goal, the more likely you are to succeed in communicating with your audience.

First, state the Specific Purpose, a declaration of what you as a speaker want to accomplish for your presentation.

Second, decide on the Thesis Statement, a single statement that elaborates on your Specific Purpose as it previews your main points.

Here's an example:

Topic: Goethe's Approach to Criticism

Specific Purpose: To teach my audience Goethe's methods of criticizing a work of art

Thesis Statement: Students wishing to utilize Goethe's method of criticism will ask three vital questions: "What is the artist trying to do?" "How well did he or she do it?" and "Was it worth doing?"

One more example:

Specific Purpose: To persuade my audience to vote for Candidate X.

Thesis Statement: Candidate X is clearly the stronger candidate based on the following criteria -- voting record on the issues, education, and experience as a public servant.

Once you've narrowed your topic, you are ready for Step Two: Researching Your Topic.

Uh-oh. Stuck without an idea for a topic? Read on.

Audiences are likely to be interested in topics that fall into one of the following categories:

the new or unusual
the relevant
the vivid
humor
the startling or shocking
conflict (a controversial topic)
suspense (using a demonstration, for ex.)
the visual
movement (speaker is active)
involvement (involve the audience)

The broad categories below may help you in finding a topic:

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
jobs you've had, places you've been, military service, your home town and state,schools,friends and enemies, relatives, hobbies and pastimes

FOREIGN AFFAIRS
foreign policy aims, implementation of aims, ethics of foreign policy, history of US foreign policy

DOMESTIC AFFAIRS
crime, the family -- marriage/divorce, problems of cities, problems of rural areas, problems of races and ethnic groups, problems of juveniles or the aged, child abuse, abortion, adoption, drug culture, sexual mores, pollution, fiscal problems, taxes,inflation, unemployment, energy, campaigns and nominating procedures, the jury system,Congress vs. the president, careers in government

THE ARTS
painting, music, sculpture, literature and criticism, theatre, cinema, dance, government support of the arts, the artist as a person, history of an art form, censorship of the arts,folk arts, careers in arts

EDUCATION
proper aims of education, teaching materials, federal gov't and education, grades and grading, athletics, extracurricular activities, meeting the demand for education, fraternities, sororities, student marriages, students' role in educational decision making, alternatives to college, single-sex vs. coeducation

MASS MEDIA
radio, television, film, censorship of mass media, employment opportunities, cable t.v.,effects on children

SCIENCE
advances in a particular branch of science, science as method, pure versus applied research, government support of science, history of science, science and religion, careers in science, Genome project, ethics

HEALTH
sports and fitness, the "wellness" craze, holistic healing, self defense, Title 9, intramurals, varsity sports, coaching as a career, vegetarianism, eating disorders

PERSISTENT CONCERNS
"the good life," humanity and God, beauty, the ideal society, life-style--what it is and how to develop it, parents and children, the tests of truth, love, discovering one's self, ethical decision making