How to Structure a Speech

Vincent Stevenson asked:

Copyright © 2007 The College Of Public Speaking

Why do some speeches and presentations linger in the mind while others pass from one ear, through the brain and then out through the other ear, generally without leaving a trace of … anything?

Well, there are many reasons, but I’d always begin the detective work with the structure.

Over the years I have tried several different speech formats, a number of which I have found effective and I will describe some of the more advanced possibilities in subsequent articles.

However, without a structure, the speech is doomed to become a shambolic ramble of random thoughts.

Have you ever watched the news on TV? Well, of course you have. But have you ever taken time out to observe the structure? It’s really simple and effective.

It starts off with three news headlines:

1) The Bank of England announced interest rates will rise by a ¼ point

2) A large manufacturer in the Midlands has shed 400 people because of falling demand

3) David Beckham is back in the England team following a year in the footballing wilderness

These headlines essentially signpost what is to come. Why do they do this? Well, if you have a mortgage, another interest rate rise could cost you more money than you had budgeted for. Or if you work in the manufacturing industry, what happens in the Midlands usually has an impact on other aspects of industry. Or finally, anything about David Beckham and football is newsworthy…

The idea of the headlines is to give you a taster of what is to come. TV networks are searching for viewer ratings because most of their revenues come through the sponsorship of corporate advertisers. They are trying to hook you because they want you to stay and watch.

And surely, should we not be doing this with the introduction of a speech or presentation? Of course, we want to grab their attention. We tell them what is to come and whet their appetites. It’s designed to keep them listening.

When the headlines end, in comes the main body of the news which builds on the headlines.

It tells us that the Bank of England meeting lasted an hour longer than scheduled because further analytical information was required with regards to interest rate trends in Europe. The British rate trend was discussed with the last two years data described by graphs and so on. The theme is expanded to cover the day’s potential angles and then moves on to job losses in the Midlands. If the presenter is quick on his/her thoughts, they will somehow try to link the first story with the second.

Now we hear about the details of the company and its history of achievement. The decision to axe jobs will have a major impact on other aspects of the local economy. And so the story unfolds with interviews of managers and workers alike. This personalisation of the news has increased viewer ratings because a lot of the comment is from regular people in the street. People like you and me.

So they work their way through the three stories and usually try to end on a high. People like to be informed and entertained and lots of news channels will include a human interest story where for example, a young child demonstrates great character by overcoming a medical or physical problem.

And finally, the news is coming to an end and the presenters recap the main points which unremarkably are the same points as the headlines. But now that the item has been examined there is room for further comment.

We know this as Winston Churchill’s, tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em – tell em – tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em.

With good linking and interesting development of the main themes, anybody can achieve a successful speech structure. Next time you plan a speech or presentation, why don’t you give this advice a try?


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