Using Research in a Speech

Photo of man delivering a speech.When writing, an author who uses outside information has specific rules guiding how one cites someone else’s work. Whether utilizing MLA, APA, Chicago, or any other formalized set of citation and referencing rules, the guidelines clearly lay out the process for an author. In verbal communication, such as a public speaking context, however, rules do not seem as readily apparent, if they exist at all. Regardless, speakers still have the ethical responsibility to let listeners know where certain outside information originated, so how can they accomplish this?

As mentioned, the rules for writing citations are clear. While styles like MLA and Chicago may have differing rules to format these citations, they all perform the function of letting the reader know specifically where to go look for more information should something resonate with the reader. The in-text citations point to reference materials, usually listed at the end of a paper, chapter, or book, so that the reader can go look up the reference if they choose. In a speech, the responsibility to let listeners know where information came from works a bit differently.

As speakers deliver the message to the audience, they will need to support a claim by using an outside source. At those moments, the speaker has an ethical responsibility to let the audience know where the information came from, just as in writing, but with a subtle difference. A speaker also has the responsibility of letting the audience know why they should perceive the source as credible. Unlike a writer, the speaker does not have the luxury of providing an instantaneous way for the audience to pause the act of communication and look up the source in question.

This begs the question: How much information does a speaker need to share with the audience to demonstrate credibility? The answer, of course, depends on the audience, which provides yet another justification for the speaker to get to know the audience as much as possible prior to the presentation. While this presents some difficulty in assuming how much information provides enough context, typically speakers find it best to err on the side of caution and present more information, but not so much as to become distracting. Take a look at the following two examples:

Oral citation 1: “According to Dr. Shann Ferch, touch is an integral component in acts of forgiveness.”

In this first sample, the citation provides too little information. All audience members unfamiliar with this expert would know is that this person has earned a doctorate, but they would not know his area of specialty. For all they know, Dr. Ferch could work as a chiropractor, which does not suggest he would not know anything about the topic, but the audience definitely needs more information. However, if the audience knew of Dr. Ferch and his work, then this first oral citation would provide the right amount of information.

Oral citation 2: “According to Dr. Shann Ferch, author of the 2011 book Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity, published by Lexington Books, as well as professor of forgiveness and leadership studies at Gonzaga University, touch is an integral component in acts of forgiveness.”

In this second sample, the citation runs too long. While it does provide ample information (in fact, it provides nearly all the information listed in a bibliography’s citation), by the time the speaker finishes relaying all of Dr. Ferch’s information, the audience has forgotten the topic of discussion.

Oral citation 3: “According to Dr. Shann Ferch, a leadership professor and forgiveness researcher at Gonzaga University, touch is an integral component in acts of forgiveness.”

This third sample provides the perfect amount of information for the average audience unfamiliar with the source. The claim gets effectively supported by providing the audience with just enough information to establish the source’s credibility. Commonly known and understood sources do not need much in the way of credibility, however. For example, a mainstream and well-known publication like the New York Times needs no initial explanation as to the credibility of the author, so the best rule to follow remains to include only as much information as necessary to make the case for a source’s credibility.

But where should the speaker insert bibliographic information? Follow one of the two general approaches to accomplish this: front loading and back loading. Take a look at the following samples:

Back loading: “More than 90% of our communication is sent through nonverbal channels, such as facial expressions, eye contact, vocal tone, posture, and gestures. Marketers are keenly aware of this fact and often manipulate actors in commercials to provide maximum persuasive effects. I found my information on nonverbal percentages from a book on public speaking by Hamilton Gregory, and I found the information on marketing in an article in Time Magazine.”

Front loading: “According to a book on public speaking by Hamilton Gregory, more than 90% of our communication is sent through nonverbal channels, such as facial expressions, eye contact, vocal tone, posture, and gestures. A recent article in Time Magazine suggests that marketers are keenly aware of this fact and often manipulate actors in commercials to provide maximum persuasive effects.”

In the back-loading example, the researched information gets provided up front, and the source for that information comes later. With this type of citation, the audience may initially assume that the speaker created the factual information, but after the speaker reveals the source, the audience comes to realize that it comes from an outside source. In the front-loading example, the audience gets immediately cued to hear that the information that follows comes from an outside source, but done in 11 fewer words, allowing a more conversational tone to develop.

Constructing an oral citation seems quite simple, but how do speakers know when and where to insert them? Generally speaking, any time they relay information to the audience gathered from an outside source, they should want to give credit to the original source. Follow this rule the vast majority of the time. In addition, note these more specific instances where a citation becomes absolutely necessary:

  • Any time using numbers: dates, statistics, total counts, etc. Never leave a number hanging without stating who provided the data.
  • Any time stating a testable, observable, verifiable fact. Use a source citation to provide support for that fact. For example, “According to recent reports by NASA, evidence suggests that a planet lies beyond the orbit Pluto.”
  • Any time the speaker share information that the audience could deem questionable. Use a credible source to back up the claim. Example: “Cleopatra lived closer to the invention of the iPhone than she did to the building of the Great Pyramid.” According to whom?

While these guidelines provide a starting point for where, when, and how to cite outside research, keep in mind that one of the goals of a public speaker is to remain conversational and engaging. If the speech begins to sound like a book report and subsequent bibliography, the audience may very well tune the speaker out. Be sure to find ways to insert this information as support material, but remember to do so as conversationally as possible.


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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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