Informative Speaking: The Public Speaking Misfit

The informative speech isn’t a type of speech at all, it is a mode of speaking or a way of accomplishing the tasks set forth by the three classic genres–argue for a policy, espouse a value, or render judgment on an unknown question of fact–by going through a second object or what we often call a “topic.”

Speeches come in all shapes and sizes, from in-your-face motivational speeches to adorable after-dinner toasts to rabble-rousing protests to all-day filibusters on the floor of Congress. All of these speeches are varieties of two classic speech genres: the deliberative (political speeches about politics–what we should do about an issue) and epideictic (ceremonial speeches about values–what we should believe). These were two of the three genres originally demarcated by Aristotle in the early studies of rhetoric. The third genre was the forensic genre, which dealt with issues of fact usually related to legal trials–essentially,. whether something did or did not happen. So since the beginning of the study of rhetoric there have been three genres: deliberative, epideictic, and forensic. That is it. Those three.

Occasions+For+Argument.jpg
courtesy of Chester Matthews at SlidePlayer

So what is the “informative” speech we see popping up all of the time in public speaking assignments, TED Talks, and YouTube videos?

The informative speech is a relatively modern invention and it is a mistake to think of the informative speech as some kind of new fourth genre. The reason is that an informative speech that does not, in subtle ways, take up one of the concerns of another genre–what to do, what to believe, or what happened–then it lacks coherence. In other words, it becomes a catalogue of facts or a series of disconnected statements that are meant to “inform” the audience but wind up simply overwhelming them.

It is impossible to inform the audience.

Audiences are not empty boxes, waiting for you to put knowledge into their brain. They have pre-conceived beliefs, expectations, values, assumptions, and distractions that they bring with them to speeches. Audiences will connect with and invest in your speech only so far as it makes sense to them and connects with something they already value or understand.

In other words, the informative speech isn’t a type of speech at all, it is a mode of speaking or a way of accomplishing the tasks set forth by the three classic genres–argue for a policy, espouse a value, or render judgment on an unknown question of fact–by going through a second object or what we often call a “topic.” We can look at it this way:

Epideictic speech thesis: we should value tradition

Informative mode thesis: organic farming upholds the value of tradition

Deliberative speech thesis: we should require grade schools to teach cursive writing

Informative mode thesis: cursive writing teaches children to be thoughtful people

Forensic speech thesis: there were two shooters at the JFK Assassination

Informative mode thesis: The on-going debate over the JFK Assassination reflects America’s obsession with conspiracy theory

Notice what has happened in the previous examples. First, the original thesis written in one of the three classic genres has been rewritten to remove the call to action. This is important: informative speeches should not, unless it is unusually appropriate for the occasion, have a call to action, especially if that call to action is controversial. Second, the re-written thesis in the informative mode has now said something interesting or insightful about the informative object or topic (bolded). A speech about organic farming takes on new perspective when paired with the angle of traditional values. A speech about cursive writing (currently disappearing from the K12 curriculum) links up with an area of audience investment: thoughtfulness, especially in people. And a speech about the JFK Assassination, rather than trying to prove something to be definitively true (not really the purpose of an informative speech) takes a different approach by considering why we even care about the two shooter theory in the first place.

In sales, the epideictic genre can be especially useful for inspiring informative speeches about new products that, once linked to a particular value or belief, more strongly resonate with the audience. This is precisely why the infamous “Carousel” pitch from Mad Men is so effective.

So there you have it. The informative speech is NOT a genre unto itself but rather a particular mode or hybrid that can be combined with any one of the three classic genres for a great speech. Just remember: attacking the informative on its own as just a series of information (facts, statements, quotes, details, etc.) is a recipe for disaster and will violate all of the great rules of public speaking: do more with less, focus on one central idea, translate don’t transmit, and most of all, be interesting.

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