Topic Selection and Purpose

Edward R. Murrow
“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end, the communicator will be confronted with the old problem of what to say and how to say it.” —Edward R. Murrow

Picture a student entering a college public speaking course for the first time (probably not terribly difficult when reading this text), faced with the prospect of having to deliver a speech to a classroom full of other students. Immediately, the anxiety of the unknown starts to build, as discussed in Chapter 2. It builds slowly at first, but eventually the speaker becomes faced with the same problem as everyone else in the room, as well as anyone else in the history of a college speech course: the choice of topic. What points should get covered? Many, if not most, students lament this same question year after year, and as they should, because topic selection often serves as one of the single greatest predictors of success for novice speakers as they practice and refine their craft.

Photo of a person delivering a speech.Anxiety peaks when speakers have to deliver a presentation on a topic in which they have zero interest or knowledge. For example, a communication professor discussing public speaking anxiety, mass media studies, or interpersonal interaction between men and women might seem as though it comes naturally, partly because of that person’s interest in the topic, in addition to a high level of training and experience. Ask the same professor to discuss the ins and outs of health care administration or quantum physics, and this same person quickly falls victim to quivering nerves in anticipatory anxiety. Talking about unfamiliar or uninteresting topics rarely delights those involved.

Speakers can reduce their anxiety levels by choosing to discuss topics that genuinely interest them, primarily because it naturally shifts focus away from nervous symptoms. For example, take a look at time spent on most social media. When people come across a scintillating story or fascinating article, their natural inclination is to share that information with their entire social network, and many do so without giving it a second thought. They do this because they naturally take pleasure sharing information that fascinates, excites, and engages with others. However, before settling on a topic, first consider the purpose of the speech.


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Messages that Matter: Public Speaking in the Information Age - Third Edition Copyright © 2023 by North Idaho College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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