Most speeches fit into one of the six categories in the list that follows. Each requires a different tone, different types of stories, different examples, even a different choice of words. Of course, a speech can have more than one purpose, but there should be one overriding purpose that is absolutely clear to you and to your audience. The six main purposes are:
To Inform. When NASA scientists show us photos of a comet hitting Jupiter and explain its effect, they don't want us to do anything as a result (such as evacuate planet Earth). Their purpose is to inform. You may not be called upon to discuss such planet-shattering topics, but you may be asked to announce a colleague's promotion or retirement, to let employees know that the company has adopted a new insurance policy, or that a specific sales goal has been reached. Millions of talks are made specifically to inform people—to tell them something they will find beneficial to know. This kind of speech is usually fairly short and to the point and concentrates on the facts of the situation. The information presented should not be too complicated; your audience should be able to fully comprehend the subject matter just by listening to you speak about it. Some topics for informative speeches might be: The History of Our Company, Our Products and Services, or Introducing the New Package Design.
Most speeches in business fall into this category. If I were giving a one-hour talk on how to become a more effective speaker, I would be informing, but if I were to deliver a two-day workshop with six to eight people who would be videotaped, my purpose would fall under the next category, to instruct.
To Instruct. Suppose, once again, you are asked to give a presentation about the company's new insurance policy. This time, instead of just being asked to announce that a new policy exists, you're asked to let employees know exactly how the plan works: how to fill out the forms, where to send them, how long to wait for reimbursement. Now your purpose is to instruct, to teach, to give specific directions or orders. This type of presentation is usually longer than an informational speech, but not necessarily. It must cover your topic thoroughly, so that your listeners absorb your instructions and come away with a new skill. Some sample topics include: Ten Steps to Being a Better Manager, What To Do in a Fire Emergency, and How to Use Your New Computerized Appointment Calendar.
Whenever you are providing opportunities to hear, understand, practice, or apply, that is instructing. Instructing and informing are often joined together.
To Entertain. Unless you're a professional stand-up comic, you probably won't be making speeches solely to entertain. For most business speakers this is a rarity, and a very difficult type of speech to deliver. However, you do want to deliver your subject and message in an entertaining, interesting way. So if you're delivering a talk on reducing stress in the workplace, you can add an entertaining slant to it, and a funny title, like "Tickle Your Funny Bone and Live Longer." A topic like that would lend itself to funny props and stories. Even a more serious topic, such as safety, can benefit from amusing cartoons. The basic features of this type of speech are vivid language, sincerity, and enthusiasm.
To Inspire/Motivate. There are many ways to inspire and/or motivate people. Some people inspire others by talking about how they have personally triumphed over hardships, such as Gerald Coffee, who spent seven years in solitary confinement in a prison camp; or Lance Armstrong, who overcame cancer to reclaim his championship at the Tour de France. They share their stories to let others know that no matter what tragedies may happen in life, it is possible to get beyond them successfully.
Motivational speeches do not necessarily focus in on personal hardships. Susan B. Anthony motivated many in her generation to stand up for a woman's right to vote. Martin Luther King spoke to us all about his dreams of a glorious future and motivated many to become involved in the civil rights movement. These kinds of speakers desire to pull the best out of their listeners.
To Activate/Stimulate. Maybe you don't just want to inspire people, but you want to stimulate them to take action. A speech designed to activate presents ideas, suggestions, and arguments in such a way that the audience will believe so strongly what you tell them that they will actually carry out your suggestions. A fundraising speech is a perfect example: Your purpose is to get people to open their wallets and make a contribution. Other sample topics might be: Vote for Proposition 21! Save the Whales! and Follow the New Safety Regulations!
To get people to act on your ideas, you must tell them what to do and stress that this action should be taken. You might point out what will happen if they do take this action, and what will happen if they don't. In order for this speech to be effective, you yourself must be firmly convinced that the course of action you are urging is the right one.
To Persuade. Capitol Punishment Should Be Abolished! Multi-culturalism Is Good for Our Business! Sex Education Should Be Taught Early! These are all topics for presentations whose purpose is to persuade. This type of speech causes your audience to willingly accept your proposal through logic, evidence, and emotion. A persuasive speech offers a solution to a controversial problem, presenting sufficient logic, evidence, and emotion to sway the audience to your belief.
Once you know your general purpose, you need to develop a more specific, related purpose. In seminars, my general purpose is to inform or instruct based on the length of the presentation. My specific purpose is to give people tools and techniques so that they can be more interesting and powerful communicators. The more specific your purpose, the more powerful your presentation will be.
So how do you state your purpose? The first step is to figure out which type of purpose yours is. Will you be speaking to entertain or to impart information? Or do you need to go beyond informing and actually persuade, or even rouse your audience to action? It's quite possible your purpose will involve a combination of these goals. If it does, which one is paramount?
A good purpose is a specific one. Your general purpose may be to inform, but you must focus on exactly what you are going to get across. Do you get loads of mail on executive seminars? Look at the descriptions of courses offered: Each objective is spelled out clearly. Speaking of this resource, I could say my purpose is to teach you about public speaking, but that's vague. It would be more specific to say that I want to teach you how to be a powerful speaker by avoiding the six major speaking faults.