Narration is a method of informing that focuses on similarities and differences

Methods of Informing

In the first part of this chapter, we presented fundamental principles of informative speaking. In this part, we consider the informative skills of narrating, describing, defining, explaining processes or demonstrating and exposition. Each of these represents both an informative skill and a type of informative speech. At times, you may use some or all of these skills in a single speech. At other times, you may prepare an informative speech based primarily on one of the skills.


Recall from that a narrative is a story, a tale or an account (often humorous) that has a point or climax. A joke has a punch line; a fable has a moral; other narratives have climactic endings that make the stories interesting. Thus, the primary goal of a narrative is to make a point in such a unique or interesting way that the audience will remember it because of the way it was presented. In a speech about the costs of faulty listening, suppose you exemplified your point with this narrative:

Abraham suffered great personal cost by working all day to finish a report for the five o’clock deadline, only to find as he turned it in that he was a day early.

This one sentence narrative about Abraham can then be developed to be both more interesting and more memorable. Let’s consider three major elements of narration and how they can increase the power of this particular narrative statement.
1. Narratives are built with supporting details. Narratives can be long or short depending on the number and degree of development of supporting details used to build the story to maximize its effect. For instance, in the narrative of Abraham’s report, you could introduce details such as how Abraham got to work at 6 A.M., more than two hours earlier than usual, to find the time to work on the report and how Abraham had to turn down a lunch invitation from a man he had been trying to see for three weeks about an important issue of company policy.
2. Narratives usually maintain suspense. Part of the power of the narrative can be increased by withholding the punch line until the end. If you can tease the audience, you will hold their attention. The audience will be trying to see whether they can anticipate what you are going to say. Vocally, a slight pause before delivering the punch line will heighten the effect:

Abraham worked all day to finish his report for the five o’clock deadline, only to discover when he turned it in [pause] it was one full day early!

3. Narratives include dialogue when possible. A story will be much more enjoyable to an audience if they can hear it unfold through dialogue. For instance, notice how our one line story improves with this presentation:

As Abraham burst into his boss’s office with his report in hand, his boss’s secretary stared at him, dumbfounded. When he said breathlessly, “Here’s the report, right on the dot!” she exclaimed, “Abraham, the report isn’t due until tomorrow!”


Informative speeches can be made more vivid by describing, telling what it looks like. To describe effectively requires you to observe particular descriptive characteristics and to create vivid ways to communicate those observations. Let’s consider the characteristics of description and the means of revising creatively.

Characteristics of description Description is based on observation of size, shape, weight, color, composition, age and condition and the relationship among various parts. How large is the place or object? If it’s an object, how heavy is it? Both size and weight are most descriptive when they are presented comparatively: “The book is the same length and width as your text, but a bout twice as thick.” “The suitcase weighed 70 pounds, about twice the weight of a normally packed suitcase. ” What is the object’s shape? What color is it? Simple shapes are easily described by words such as round, triangular, oblong, spherical, conical, cylindrical and rectangular. Complex objects are best described as a series of simple shapes. Color, an obvious component of description, is difficult to describe accurately. Although most people can visualize black and white, the primary colors (red, yellow and blue) and their complements (green, purple and orange), very few objects are exactly these colors. Perhaps the best way to describe a color is to couple it with a common referent. For instance, “lemon yellow,” “brick red,” “green as a grape” or “sky blue” give rather accurate approximations. What is the object made of? What is its age or condition? A ball of aluminum does not look the same as a ball of yarn. A pile of rocks gives a different impression than a pile of straw. A brick building looks different from a steel, wood or glass building. Whether an object is new or old can make a difference in its appearance. Because age by itself may not be descriptive, an object is often discussed in terms of condition. Well read books become tattered, older buildings become dilapidated, land becomes eroded. Age and condition together often prove valuable in developing informative descriptions.

How does an object fit together? If the object you want to describe is complex, its parts must be fitted into their proper relationship before a mental picture emerges. Remember the story of the blind men who described an elephant in terms of what each felt? The one who felt the trunk said the elephant was like a snake; the one who felt a leg said the elephant was like a tree and the one who felt the body said the elephant was like a wall. When it is relevant to your description, be sure audiences understand how the parts fit together.

Revising descriptions Description is improved with careful revision. For most people, vivid description does not come easily we are not used to describing vividly in ordinary conversation. In practicing a speech, the speaker has the opportunity to work on the language, revising general and bland statements to make them more specific and vivid. We can work with a single, simple idea to illustrate the revision process. Consider this sentence:

Several pencils were on Jamal’s desk.

This statement of fact tells us that pencils (plural) were on a desk, but it gives no real description.
Revising this description begins by asking questions that relate to the essentials of description we discussed. By asking “How many pencils? What color were they?” specific descriptive details come to mind. This revision answers those questions:

Five yellow pencils decorated Jamal’s desk.

“Five” is more descriptive than “several” because it is more specific; “yellow” begins a description of how they looked; “decorated” is more descriptive than “on” because it carries a mental picture.
Now ask the questions “What condition were the pencils in? How were they arranged?” In the following two sentences, we get completely different descriptions of the pencils based on the answers to these questions:

Five stubby, well chewed pencils of different colors, all badly in need of sharpening, were scattered about Jamal’s desk.

These examples begin to show the different pictures that can be created depending on how you use the observed details.
Continued revision may lead to your trying to memorize the speech. As you practice, try to keep the essentials in mind but use slightly different wordings each time to express your descriptions. By making minor changes each time, you will avoid memorizing the speech.


Because of its importance in solving problems, learning and understanding, defining explaining what a word means is essential for effective communication because it helps audiences understand and relate to key concepts (Weaver, 1970, p. 212). In your informative speeches, you are likely to use both short and extended definitions.

Short definitions Short definitions are used to clarify concepts in as few words as possible. Effective speakers learn to define by synonym and antonym, classification and differentiation, use or function and etymological reference.
1. Synonyms and antonyms. Using a synonym or an antonym is the quickest way to define a word because you are able to indicate an approximate, if not exact, meaning in a single sentence. Synonyms are words that have the same or nearly the same meanings; antonyms are words that have opposite meanings. Defining by synonym is defining by comparison for a word that does not bring up an immediate concrete meaning, we provide one that does. Synonyms for prolix include long, wordy and verbose. Its antonyms are short and concise. Synonyms are not duplicates for the word being defined, bur they do give a good idea of what the word means. Of course, the synonym or antonym must be familiar to the audience or its use defeats its purpose.
2. Classification and differentiation. When you define by classification, you give the boundaries of the particular word and focus on the single feature that differentiates that word from words with similar meanings. Most dictionary definitions are of the classification differentiation variety. For instance, a dog may be defined as a carnivorous, domesticated mammal of the family Canidae. “Carnivorous,” “mammal” and “family Canidae” limit the boundaries to dogs, jackals, faxes and wolves. “Domesticated” differentiates dogs from the other three.
3. Use or function. A third short way to define is by explaining the use or function of the object represented by a particular word. Thus, when you say, “A plane is a hand powered tool used to smooth the edges of boards” or “A scythe is a piece of steel shaped in a half circle with a handle attached that is used to cur weeds or high grass,” you are defining tools by indicating their use. Because the use or function of an object may be more important than its classification, often this is an excellent method of definition.
4. Etymology. Etymology is the derivation or history of a particular word. Because meanings of words change over time, origin may reveal very little about modern meaning. In some instances, however, the history of a word lends additional insight that will help the audience not only better remember the meaning but also bring the meaning to life. For instance, a “censor” originally was one of two Roman magistrates appointed to take the census and later, to supervise public morals. The best source of word derivation is the Oxford English Dictionary.

Example and comparison Regardless of which short definition form you use, most statements need to be supplemented with examples, comparisons or both to make them understandable. That is especially true when you define abstract words. Consider the word “just” in the following sentence: “You are being just in your dealings with another when you deal honorably and fairly.” Although just has been defined by synonym, listeners still may be unsure of the meaning. If we add, “If Paul and Mary do the same amount of work and we reward them by giving them an equal amount of money, our dealings will be just; if, on the other hand, we give Paul more money because he’s a man, our dealings will be unjust.” In this case, the definition is clarified with both an example and a comparison.
For some words, a single example or comparison will be enough. For other words or in communicating with certain audiences, you may need several examples and comparisons.

Extended definitions Often a word is so important to a speech that an extended definition is warranted. An extended definition is one that serves as an entire main point in a speech or at times, an entire speech. Thus, an entire speech can be built around an extended definition of a term such as freedom, equality, justice, love or impressionistic painting. An extended definition begins with a single sentence dictionary definition or stipulated definition. For example, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines jazz as “American music characterized by improvisation, syncopated rhythms, contrapuntal ensemble playing and special melodic features peculiar to the individual interpretation of the player.” This definition suggests four topics (“improvisation,” “syncopation,” “ensemble” and “special melodies”) that could be used as a basis for a topical order for a speech.

The key to the effectiveness of the speech would be how well you explain each topic. Your selection and use of examples, illustrations, comparisons, personal experiences and observations will give the speech its original and distinctive flavor.

Explaining Processes or Demonstrating

Many informative speeches involve explaining processes telling how to do something, how to make something or how something works. For instance, the boss might explain the process of going through various stages in order to be promoted, an engineer can explain how a turbojet works, an author might explain how to get a book published or a student in class might explain the process of producing a nightly edition of ESPN’s Sports Center. A demonstration involves going through the complete process that you are explaining, for example, on how to get more power on a forehand table tennis shot, on how to make fettuccine noodles or on how to purify water When the task is relatively simple, such as how to get more power on a forehand table tennis shot, you may want to try a complete demonstration, going through the complete process in front of the audience. If so, practice until you can do it smoothly and easily under the pressure of facing an actual audience. Because the actual demonstration is likely to take longer than in practice (you are likely to have to make some modifications during the speech to enable everyone in the room to see the demonstration), you may want to make sure that the final practice is somewhat shorter than the maximum time limit you will have for the speech. For a relatively complicated process, you may want to consider the modified demonstration, in which you complete various stages of the demonstration at home and do only part of the actual work in front of the audience. Suppose you were going to demonstrate construction of a floral display. Actually performing the construction from scratch is too complex and time consuming for a speech length presentation. Instead, you could prepare a complete set of materials to begin the demonstration, a mock up of the basic floral triangle and a completed floral display. During the speech, you would describe the materials needed and then begin demonstrating how to make the basic floral triangle. Rather than trying to get everything together perfectly in a few seconds, you could remove, from a bag or some concealed place, a partially completed arrangement illustrating the floral triangle. You would then use this in your demonstration, adding flowers as if you were planning to complete it. Then, from another bag, you could remove the completed arrangement to illustrate one of the effects you were discussing. Conducting a modified demonstration of this type is often easier than trying to complete an entire demonstration in a limited time. Throughout a demonstration, speak slowly and repeat key ideas often. We learn best by doing, so if you can include audience participation, you may be even more successful. In a speech on origami or Japanese paper folding, you could explain the principles, then pass out paper and have audience members each make a figure. Actual participation will increase interest and ensure recall. Finally, through other visual aids, you could show how these principles are used in more elaborate projects.

Although your audience may be able to visualize a process through vivid word pictures (in fact, in your impromptu explanations in ordinary conversation, it is the only way you can proceed), you will probably want to make full use of visual aids in a demonstration speech. Perhaps more than with any other kind of informative speech, carefully prepared visual material may be essential to listeners understanding.


Throughout history, people have had an insatiable need to know. Unanswered questions stimulate research; research yields facts and facts, when properly ordered and developed, yield understanding. Oral communication of the understanding of these questions is made through expository speaking. Although any speech of explanation is in a sense an expository speech, in this section an expository speech is defined as one that places emphasis on understanding an idea and that requires outside source material to give the speech depth. For example, “the causes of teen violence,” “the practice of Islamic religion,” “the origin and classifications of nursery rhymes” are all examples of topics for expository speaking.

An expository speech embodies all of the principles discussed in the first part of the chapter. Thus, it is an excellent assignment for a major informative speech.

Criteria for Evaluating Informative Speeches

In this chapter, we have been looking at the principles of informative speaking. In this section, we will draw together the criteria for evaluating informative speaking and then look at a sample informative speech outline and speech.
The criteria for evaluating an informative speech differ somewhat from the general criteria for evaluating public speaking, but many of the general criteria still apply. A checklist for critical evaluation of an informative speech. The primary criteria include specific elements that must be met in an informative speech. The general criteria section highlights elements necessary for any effective speech.

Sample Speech: Who Was Shakespeare? by Hillary Carter Liggett(1)

This section contains a sample speech outline, speech plan and speech that is designed to inform the audience on who wrote Shakespeare’s works.

Speech Outline

Specific goal: I want my audience to understand the Stratfordian and Oxfordian claims for the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and how they compare.

I. Have you ever experienced writer’s block?
II. So did Shakespeare as portrayed in the Academy Award winning picture Shakespeare in Love, a movie that has rekindled the controversy over who wrote “Shakespeare’s” works.

Thesis statement: Two schools of thought on authorship of Shakespearean works are the Stratfordian (Shakespeare, the actor, is the author) and the Oxfordian (Edward de Vere is the author) and their comparison on the basis of the education, life experience and parallels between lives and literature of the two men.

I. The Stratfordian’s claim is that it is possible that a man of humble origins could be the author.
A. Although few sources are available to document Shakespeare’s early life, they do verify his existence. 1. He became an actor in 1594. 2. After he died, the first folio of Shakespeare’s work was published.

B. Evidence exists that he did or could have written the works.

1. His name was on the plays when they were published. 2. Ben Johnson, a contemporary playwright worked with Shakespeare and never mentioned his not being the author.

(Now that we’ve considered the Stratfordian school, let’s consider the Oxfordian.)

II. The Oxfordian’s claim is that enough indirect evidence is available to support Edward de Vere as the true author. A. First, de Vere’s Bible marks 43 % of the Biblical references in Shakespeare’s writings. B. Second, the subject of most of the sonnets is Henry Wriothsley, a man that de Vere was known to have had an affair with. C. Third, de Vere was known to have secretly written plays.

(Now let’s compare the evidence.)

III. The two claims can be further compared on the basis of three criteria. A. The first criterion is education. 1. Shakespeare is believed to have had the equivalent of a high school education. 2. De Vere entered Cambridge at age nine, earned a Master’s degree from Oxford and studied law at Gray’s Inn. B. The second criterion is life experiences. 1. Shakespeare never traveled abroad, but was an actor who was very familiar with the theatre. 2. De Vere spent a great deal of time abroad in Italy and France. C. The third criterion is parallels between life and literature. 1. Shakespeare had a son named Hamlet.

2. De Vere was captured by pirates, provided 3,000 pounds for an excursion of three merchant ships owned by a man named Lock who was shady (called “shy”).

Plan for Adapting to Audience

1. Getting and maintaining interest. I plan to begin the speech by referring to Shakespeare in Love, a movie that nearly everyone in the audience is likely to have seen. During the speech, I believe that my quotations and examples as well as my clear and vivid language will help maintain interest. Likewise, I believe that the quality of the information itself will hold audience interest.
2. Facilitating understanding. First, I believe my listeners will appreciate the clarity of the information that I present. Second, I will present information clearly and concisely and use visual aids in appropriate places.
3. Increasing retention. My primary means of increasing attention will be emphasis through repetition and transitions. I will preview the three main points in the introduction, state each clearly as main points and then repeat them again in the conclusion. I also believe that through the contrasts I make, students will remember them.

Speech and Analysis

Read the following speech aloud at least once. Then analyze it on the basis of the primary criteria in the checklist: creative, credible, intellectually stimulating, relevant and emphatic. Most important, assess the speech for its informative value. This is an edited version of the speech as it was originally given. Listen to the speech as it was originally given and compare it with this revised version by clicking on Speech Interactive for Communicate! on your Communicate! CD-ROM.


Have you ever experienced writer’s block? Maybe even as you were preparing your speech, you prayed for a muse. Such was the premise of the Academy Award winning Best Picture Shakespeare in Love, a movie Americans spent over 100 million dollars to see, but also one that rekindled the flame of controversy over the question, Who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works? Was it the man called Shakespeare? Or someone else? Why should we care? “Shakespeare” is one of the most respected authors in the world. His honeyed words wove a web that continues to move us to laughter and tears today, hundreds of years after his death. As a result, Shakespeare’s works are integral to education at almost every level. So for all who have enjoyed his works, we like to see what is being argued by the scholars. So, today we’ll look first at the traditional, or what has been called the Stratfordian, school of thought, second at the challenger, which has been called the Oxfordian school of thought and third, at comparisons of education, life experience and parallels between lives and the literature. The Stratfordian’s claim is that it is possible that a man of humble origins came into the world a pauper and left it a literary prince. What do we know about Shakespeare’s background? Joseph Sabran, author of Alias Shakespeare, observes that a handful of wedding and birth announcements are the only written records we have of the first half of Shakespeare’s life. Legal documents indicate that, sometime after he turned twenty, Shakespeare left his family and went to London in order to avoid being prosecuted for a deer poaching incident. In London, Shakespeare became an actor and in 1594 became involved with the Chamberlain’s Men. This is when Shakespeare was supposed to have turned out most of his material. After 1604, he went home to Stratford, where he died in 1616. In 1623, the first folio of Shakespeare’s work was published. So, now let’s consider the Oxfordian school of thought. The Oxfordians argue that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, is the rightful author of the works we ascribe to Shakespeare. Why de Vere? Roger Smitmatter in his article in the 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education looks to the de Vere Bible for proof. Smitmatter discovered that in the Geneva Bible that de Vere purchased in 1570, a remarkable 43% of Biblical references in Shakespeare’s writings are specifically annotated or underlined. Second, the sonnets also testify to de Vere as their author. Why? As Sabran explains, the subject of most of the sonnets is the young Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothsley a man that de Vere was known to have had a homosexual affair with. Third, in Oxford at the time it was considered undignified to submit one’s writing to the public and it would have been especially scandalous for a nobleman such as de Vere. Moreover, the book The Art of English Poesi, published in 1589, lists de Vere as a nobleman who was known to have secretly written plays.

Now let’s review the evidence of the two on the basis of their education, life experiences and parallels between life and literature.

First, education. Shakespeare is believed to have had the equivalent of a high school education from the Stratford Free School, but we have no more specific information to show any depth of education. De Vere, on the other hand, entered Cambridge at the age of nine, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and then went on to earn a master’s degree from Oxford, followed by his study of the law (a common theme in Shakespearean plays) at Gray’s Inn. Second, life experiences. Shakespeare lived most of his life in Stratford and London and there is no record of his having traveled abroad. However, he was an actor, very familiar with the theater. De Vere spent a great deal of time abroad, particularly in Italy and France, the setting for many of the plays. Third, the parallels between life and literature. Shakespeare had a son named Hamlet: De Vere, like Hamlet, was captured by pirates. His father in law was Lord Burghley the man his contemporaries believed was the basis for the character Polonius and his mother, like Hamlet’s mother, remarried, shortly after her husband’s death, a man of much lower social standing. The play Merchant of Venice focuses on money lending and we know that Shakespeare was often in debt. Shylock lent the sum of 3,000 ducats to Antonio for an excursion made by three merchant ships, but the ships are lost at sea. De Vere provided 3,000 pounds for an excursion of three merchant ships looking for gold are. The ships came back empty and declared bankruptcy. Ironically, the ships were owned by a man named Lock, while the prefix “shy” means disreputable or shady and experts can find no precedent for the name “Shylock” anywhere else in history.

Without a doubt, we have only scratched the surface of the arguments on this issue today. Certainly there are some interesting facts in support of the Oxfordian school and de Vere. On the other hand, over the years we have no proof that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. Perhaps, as time goes by, another candidate’s name will come up or perhaps scholars will uncover solid evidence to prove the case for Shakespeare, de Vere or someone else. Meanwhile we are left to wonder whether the plays, written by another author, would still “sound as sweet.”


She uses her thesis statement as a transition leading into the body of the speech. Throughout the speech, Hillary cites information from numerous sources and documents each. Here Hillary outlines what we do know about Shakespeare the man. This sketch provides information about his life, but offers no proof that he wrote the works under his name. Here, Hillary displays a timeline visual aid that helps the audience follow her sketch of his life. After showing that “could have written the plays” is an important bit of support, she goes on to present these two specific bits of information that provide indirect support of Shakespeare’s authorship. Her second main point announces the claim of the Oxfordian school. Her question here sets up the key statements that follow. Notice that this material shows de Vere’s familiarity with material in Shakespeare’s works. She enumerates the second piece of Oxfordian support and provides information that suggests that de Vere had experience with the material of the sonnets. Notice that each of these three points provides information that shows us why de Vere is even considered as the prospective author. Now she leads into the final part of the speech, a comparison of information on three important criteria that are useful in determining authorship. At this point Hillary displays a chart showing criteria for comparison that is covered with three cardboard sections. As she speaks about each criterion, she removes the section of cardboard covering that criterion. This process of unveiling helps keep the audience focused on the appropriate section. Here she shows why we question “Shakespeare’s” preparedness for writing and exemplifies de Vere’s strong educational base. Here she explore’s life experiences another sound criterion and gives evidence to support each of the views. This section shows that scholars have uncovered parallels in the life of de Vere and Shakespearean works. These sound impressive in light of lack of material to support such parallels in Shakespeare’s life. Here she relates a particularly interesting parallel. Again, the information is provocative but doesn’t prove authorship. Hillary finishes her brief analysis of the positions. Her point? No significant proof for either, but enough speculative information to kindle further analysis.

Overall good sources, information, organization and idea development. Moreover, the language of the speech is clear, vivid and engaging.

Summary (Informative Speaking)

Informative speeches are those in which the primary goal is to create understanding. As an informative speaker, your rhetorical challenge is to present information in a way that facilitates attending, understanding and remembering. To accomplish these goals, speakers can learn to incorporate several principles. Audiences are more likely to show interest in, understand and remember information (1) if it is presented creatively, (2) if they like, trust and have confidence in the speaker, (3) if they perceive it to be new, (4) if they perceive it to be relevant, and (5) if it is emphasized. Creativity involves using material in an imaginative way. Speakers are perceived to be credible if they are competent, have good intentions, are of good character and have a pleasant personality. New information has even greater impact when it is perceived as being novel. Information is perceived as relevant if it is vital or important. Information is likely to be remembered if it is repeated, if it is introduced with external transitions, if it is associated or if it is presented humorously.

Methods of informing include narrating, describing, demonstrating and defining. Narrating is telling a story, usually one with a point or climax related to the theme of the speech. Describing means creating a verbal picture through vivid descriptions of size, shape, weight, color, composition, age and condition and the relationship among pans. Demonstrating involves showing how to do something, how to make something, or how something works. Both full and modified demonstrations often are enhanced by visual aids. Defining is giving the meaning of a word or concept through classification and differentiation, synonym and antonym, use and function or etymology. Defining can be enhanced with the use of examples and comparisons.