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Research Basics

Before you begin researching your chosen speech topic, consider the following:

  • Who is my audience?
  • Is my speech more informative or more persuasive in style?

Who is my audience?

This question is addressed more fully in the Getting Ready to Speak section of this website, but it is important to consider as you put together the ingredients of your speech. Make a list of the subtopics, claims or examples you can provide on your topic, and choose which ones will fit your audience’s interests or draw the most attention.

For example, if my topic is “UFOs Are Real,” a persuasive speech, I might make a list like this:

  • The Roswell crash
  • Alien sightings and abduction stories
  • UFO sightings in the USA
  • UFO sightings in other countries
  • UFOs in ancient history
  • The alien autopsy hoax
  • Hoax UFO photography
  • UFOs in popular culture
  • UFOs and cult behavior

From this short list, I would make decisions based on what I perceive are my audience’s needs. If, for example, my audience comprised young children, I would probably not include the more disturbing autopsy or cult items, and I might focus more on sightings or popular culture. If my audience were a group of scientists, however, I would focus more on items that could yield plenty of concrete, academically supported information. If my audience comprised citizens of Roswell, New Mexico, which is famous for its connection to UFO lore, I might need to scrap all of these items and work hard to find an element of the topic that they had not seen before.

Once you have decided which elements of your topic to emphasize (or simply narrowed your topic down), gather the ingredients of your speech.

For both informative and persuasive speeches: You need tangible, relevant examples from authoritative sources.

  • Tangible: examples that can be measured and visualized; easy to understand and put into a story.
  • Relevant: examples that build on the audience’s background knowledge and respect their needs and point of view.
  • Authoritative sources: people or places from whom you can get reliable information, i.e. people who have expert degrees in your subject, or who live with your topic and have experienced it, or speakers, websites, books, magazines, or journals that are widely respected by experts. If your topic is disputed or controversial, look for diverse opinions.

How do you know if it’s a good source?
Good judgement for sources is a skill everyone must develop over time, but here are some clues that you have a good source:

  • They are close to the subject, not just quoting someone else.
  • They admit when they are uncertain or have made mistakes.
  • They address others who disagree with them and treat them with respect.
  • They specifically reference experts, academic/scientific research, or directly-involved people.
  • They have been referenced by other respected speakers or writers.
  • Their motivation appears to be to tell the truth more than to support a political or commercial interest.

For both informative and persuasive speeches, consider the types of information you need:

  • Definitions
    (Clear explanations for terms or concepts that your audience might not understand.)
  • Statistics
    (Data answering how much, what percentage, what probability.)
  • Diagrams and/or tables
  • Physical descriptions
  • Procedures (“how to”)
  • Anecdotes
    (Stories or illustrations from a source’s experience.)
  • Correlations and causes
    (Expert findings on what occurrences happen together, and what may be the cause.)
  • Projections
    (Expert opinions about what might happen in the future.)
  • Quotes
  • Photos

For persuasive speeches, your claim needs to be supported by concrete, credible information of the types mentioned above. However, you also need to include legitimate or common arguments against your own claim. You can find examples of different patterns of argumentation here.

For access to sources on your topic and its elements, you can consult web search engines, but try to find websites that serve your topic specifically, and never cite a search engine as a source. Our Web Resource List should point you in some good directions for finding your speech ingredients.

For authoritative sources and academic publications, specifically, your best resource is a librarian. Consider running through the Research Exercise at your local public or academic library to build your source list.

Also, make sure you credit or cite the sources of material you use. Mention, either in your words or on your presentation slides (easily visible), where you got your information, especially when:

  • The information, photo, or art is another person’s creative work.
  • The information is someone else’s opinion.
  • The information is someone else’s scientific conclusions.
  • The information is subject to change (e.g. plans, statistics).
  • The information is disputed or controversial.
  • The information is not common knowledge.
  • The information is a quote.

You do not have to cite the source when describing your own personal experience or when the information is widely known and accepted by your audience (e.g. “George Washington was the first president of the United States”).