23May 2023

Top Tips for structuring a speech


Top tips for structuring a speech

1. Start at the end

As the old, wise saying goes:
If you don’t know where you are going, how can you tell when you have arrived?
Therefore, think of a speech in terms a journey: there is the journey itself and there is the destination.
So as you start planning, you have two choices.
You can either start with the journey:
What sights do I want to see?  What ground do I need to cover?
Nevertheless, you will still need to have a destination, an endpoint.
Otherwise, you will find yourself wandering around aimlessly.

Or you can start with the destination.
You have already decided what the purpose of the speech is going to be (to encourage, inspire, admonish, reassure) and now you just have to find the content that convincingly leads to that conclusion.

So if you are a sales manager and you need to present the monthly sales figures – that is your journey.
But what is your destination?
Is it:
Targets achieved: message - ‘Brilliant job everyone.’
Or is it
Targets achieved: message - ‘That was too easy – we need to push ourselves harder!’
Is it:
Targets missed: message - ‘But encouraging progress made.’
Or is it
Targets missed: message – ‘Poor performance.  We need to try harder!’

Clearly how we choose to present the material will depend on which message we want to convey.
So as you start planning the structure of your presentation, you will always have these two choices.
Either, you know what you want to talk about and have to decide what the final message is going to be,
or you know what your message is going to be and now you just have to plan how to get there.

Whenever I am working with individuals on their presentations I am inclined to drive them to distraction by constantly asking them two questions:
                ‘What is your story?’ (journey) and
                ‘What is your point?’ (destination)
The annoying part is when I keep asking:
                ‘…but what is your point!?’
and they give me an answer and I still reply:
                ‘…but that is still part of the story – what is the point?’
If you intend to travel to London, you can take a number of routes to get there. 
However, London is a rather general destination, so it might not be immediately clear which is the best way to get there.  If you knew your destination was 35 Green Lanes, Richmond, that precise destination will help you decide which route would be the best to get there.
If you knew not only your destination but also at what time of day you need to be there, then you can decide the exact way to get there (the train connection may not be very good at that time of day) and also at what time you would need to leave and even whether you could stop off on the way.

Therefore the first step in planning and structuring a presentation is to start with the end in mind.

2.  Back to the beginning

So you know your destination and that has helped you plan the best way to get there, which means you can now work out exactly when and how you need to leave.
The simplest speeches are simply made up of ‘the beginning’, ‘the middle’ and ‘the end’
We have just considered the middle and the end.
Now we can think about how to start.
Often speakers will call the opening line of their speech ‘the hook’, because the main purpose of your first words is to win the audience’s attention.
Presentations that open with:
                ‘Hi, my name is..’... don’t really interest anyone!
There are many ways to start a speech, but they mostly come down to one of three forms:
(i)             a rhetorical question
(ii)            a strong statement
(iii)           setting the scene

(i)            a rhetorical question is simply any form of question, direct or indirect
‘How many of you here…?’ is a direct question and is probably calculated to get an answer from the audience
‘Have you ever wondered…?’ is question aimed at getting the audience thinking and is probably not looking for a direct response.
‘I wonder how many of us…?’ is no longer phrased as a direct question, but achieves the same purpose of making the audience think and respond in their own minds.

(ii)            a strong statement could be an impressive or famous quote.
It could be a controversial or shocking statement to stun the audience into attention
It could be a mysterious or leading statement that would require further explanation.

(iii)           setting the scene is the most gentle and the most comfortable way of starting
It could be: ‘The other day, I was talking to a friend who said…’
It could be: ‘Over the last twenty years more and more of us…’
It could be: ‘On August 28th, 1963 Martin Luther King stood up at the Lincoln Memorial…’

And sometimes you can mix them all together.
On a personal note, in a speech that won a National Public Speaking contest, I opened with:
                     ‘How do you cook a frog?’
That is clearly a question.  It is also quite an arresting statement and happens to be an easy way to set the scene for the speech.

You do need to prepare your opening line carefully.  It has to withstand a lot of pressure.
All your nerves before you start speaking and all the audience’s focused attention are on those first words.
That is quite intense and if you have not prepared your opening words precisely, you will probably find yourself starting with:
‘Hi, my name is..’
or more likely:
‘So….’ or ‘Yeah…’ or ‘Erm…’
The opening moments of a presentation set the tone and make a lasting impression on your audience, so don’t leave them to chance.

3.  The middle

Every speech has a beginning and an ending.  That is where you make the greatest impact.
So start well and end well.
The shape and length of the middle may vary.
The simplest structure is:
‘Tell a story; make a point.’
And when you listen to most TED talks you will realise that is how most of them work.
I remember working with a group of ten-year-olds.
Public speaking is easy with ten-year-olds. 
They do not overcomplicate matters.  Adults? That is another story.
Year 6 children will simply ask
‘What do we have to do, sir?’
‘Tell a story; make a point.’
‘OK!  I want to tell the story of going to an adventure park with Mum, Dad, sister and Granddad.’
Message – ‘family time is special.’
We have a simple story with a universal message.  It works wonderfully.
So I then say to them:
‘How do we want to start this?’
(i)             a rhetorical question
‘Have you ever been to an adventure park and wished the day would never end?...’
(ii)            a strong statement
‘It was the best day of my life!...’
(iii)           setting the scene
‘A few weeks ago, me, my Mum, my Dad, my sister and Granddad went on an adventure together..’

For a slightly more involved speech, we might be looking at
Beginning – 3 examples / sections / ideas in the middle – and then End
For those of you who may have to deliver a ‘best man’ speech (or for that matter – ‘a best woman speech’), it is best to work on the same principles:
What is your destination?
(Hopefully for the guests to realise what a great bloke the groom is and how lucky the bride and groom are to have each other.  Your job is not to be a comedian – even though that might be an important part of the journey. 
Instead, if you are clear about the destination, you will easily find a few stories and anecdotes that are both amusing and make a good point.
Therefore try to limit yourself to three good examples that each highlight a positive message.
So that when you tell the hilarious time when you and he got so drunk that you could not get home and how he sat by you when you passed out on a park bench, the point is that it shows what a true, dependable friend he is.).

And for a big presentation!
This might be:
Beginning – state your position – prove your case (and if required disprove the opposition’s) – big ending!
But still try to build around three key images or themes.

So for instance:
Opening line                                      ‘Have you ever wondered…?
State position                                    ‘Today more and more people….’
State more precisely                      ‘This evening I would like to specifically focus on how…’
Proof                                                     ‘Examples 1 – 3’
Deny                                                     ‘Other people claim…but not true..’
Conclusion                                          ‘Therefore ladies and gentlemen, if we all ..…better world for all!

4.  Rehearse

Rehearsal means any form of preparation that might be valuable
- Think and talk through the presentation regularly.
- Go to the room or venue to confirm the layout?
- If a big presentation, consider what objections there might be and how you can handle them as part of the presentation.
- Pay special attention to the joins in the presentation:
                how do you transition from example 1 to example 2?
                how do you lead into the conclusion?
(the strength of a presentation has more to do with how it joins together than the individual sections of content, just as the strength of a wooden chair has more to do with its joints than the wood it is made from.)

In conclusion:

Begin with the end in mind
Prepare your opening carefully
Try to limit the body of the speech to three parts
Rehearse – particularly the transitions.

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.