Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

The Shape of Things – How to Structure a Speech

I often read that speeches need a beginning, a middle and an end. Well thanks for the news. But, much as an architect must decide  where to put the rooms, and how a house will work  in its landscape, a speaker needs to decide  exactly what goes where.

The way you assemble  your material is crucial for making the right impact. There are some basic components which any speech must have. Like my grandmother’s ‘foundation garments’, these elements are hidden , but they give a speech the shape and support it needs.

1. You must develop an arresting opening. The audience’s attention is highest at the start so get it then, it and keep it. Here is where you can use key  facts, rhetorical questions, unexpected information (‘Hey Ma – wait’ll you hear THIS!’) an anecdote, joke, or story.

Depending on the nature of the presentation you might need to cut to the chase right here, in the first sentence. Especially when presenting to decision makers, get the  essence up front.  “By the time I finish talking to you eight  cars will have been stolen. We need $1 million in the budget to combat this”.

Because it is so important, the opening may well be one of the last things you decide on and polish up.

2. Introduction. This makes the audience listen, establishes a connection,  gives them an idea of your approach and tone, and foreshadows what you’ll be covering.

3. Background: this gives them any information they need to understand the issue, explains why it’s important and for whom, and it states your position. You can use reflection, observation or discussion. What’s the significance? Why does this matter? What does it tell us? What should we do?

4. Development. Here is where you can let rip. Explore the issue as much as you need to, and illustrate it using examples and evidence. This is where you prove your case. An audience visibly sits up and pays attention when they here the words ‘for example…’ so make sure you use plenty of them. People LOVE stories. If you are persuading the audience or arguing for or against something you should include some pre-emptive rebuttal of what your opposition might say.

5. Conclusion. This draws everything together in a summary and finalises it in a simple, memorable way. It’s the ‘call to action’ point, where you can state what you want them to do.

Now let’s get sophisticated. A ‘pattern of arrangement’ is a way of ordering the contents of your speech. It provides the listener with a sense of shape and direction, and in this way it assists people to pay attention and stay engaged.

Choosing the right pattern is a strategic decision. Your strategy will be influenced by what you want to achieve, the audience’s expectations, the occasion, how much time you have, and your own personal preferences.

Believe it or not, you already know many of these patterns without even realising it.

Screenwriters talk about ‘the story arc’. It’s the plot architecture, and it’s why you know that the chase scene means the end of the movie is near, or that if the hero is in a cave with his enemy, the rescue party is just about to turn up. If a car salesperson has taken you for a test drive and you’re back in the showroom you know you’ll be asked to buy. If it’s the end of the lesson and you’re a school student you can be sure that ‘Homework’ will be the last thing your teacher mentions. A candidate for election may have knocked your door and had a chat but you know that ‘Vote for Me’ is part of the script. And It doesn’t surprise us that a 30 second TV ad can move us through a cycle of excitement, engagement and interest, to the point where we might actually spend money.

In all these cases there’s a familiar framework underlying the presentation. We sense the tension building and releasing, driving toward a climax or conclusion which we unconsciously know to be there. We recognise the pattern of arrangement.

A speech must do the same thing. A logical, coherent structure , linked by transitional phrases and signposts takes the listener easily from one section the next, maintaining sense and interest as it does so.

There are lots of different patterns available. Always choose what suits your material and the audience best.
Some options include:

  • Chronological (past/present/future)
  • Cause /effect (or the reverse, – effect/cause)
  • Problem/solution
  • ‘On the one hand…on the other hand…. My view is….
  • “Lessons learned “ Often using a narrative or story followed by a personal reflection or parable.

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This entry was posted on 09/02/2012 by in Preparing a speech, Public speaking and tagged .

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