Structuring the Speech

Organizing speeches serves two important functions. First, organization helps improve clarity of thought in a systematic way. Second, organization increases the likelihood that the speech will be effective

Audiences are unlikely to understand disorganized speeches and even less likely to think that disorganized speakers are reliable or credible. Speeches are organized into three main parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.


The introduction of the speech establishes the first, crucial contact between the speaker and the audience. For most classroom speeches, the introduction should last less than a minute. The introduction needs to accomplish three things:

Focus your audience's attention. Speakers must have an “attention grabber” to interest the audience—a joke, astonishing fact, or anecdote. (Rhetorical questions like “Haven’t you ever wondered how…” are notoriously ineffective.) The introduction is the place where the main claim or idea should be stated very clearly to give the audience a sense of the purpose of the speech. Speakers need to orient the audience and make connections between what they know or are already interested in and the speech topic.

Establish goodwill and credibility. Many people believe the most important part of persuasion was ethos, or the character the speaker exhibited to the audience. The audience needs to see the speaker as someone to listen to attentively and sympathetically. Ethos is generated by both delivery style and content of the speech. Making eye contact with the audience and displaying confidence in voice and body are two important ways to establish ethos. In addition, if you express ideas that are original and intelligent, you will show what “intellectual character.” Audiences pay attention to habits of thought that are interesting and worth listening to.

Give a preview. Mentioning the main points to be covered in the body prepares the audience to listen for them. Repetition is an important aspect of public speaking, for listening is an imperfect art, and audience members nearly always tune out in parts--sometimes to think about previous parts of the speech, sometimes for other reasons. The preview should end with a transition, a brief phrase or a pause to signal to the audience that the speech is moving out of the introduction and into the body.

The body follows and is itself structured by a mode of organization, a logical or culturally specific pattern of thinking about ideas, events, objects, and processes. Having a mode of organization means grouping similar material together and linking the component parts together with transitions. Good transitions show the relation between parts of a speech. They display the logic of the speech. Common transition phrases include: in addition to, furthermore, even more, next, after that, then, as a result, beyond that, in contrast, however, and on the other hand. One special type of transition is called the internal summary, a brief restatement of the main point being completed.


In the body, the fewer the main points the better. For short classroom speeches, under 10 minutes, speeches should not have more than three main points. For longer speeches, more than five main points ensures that audiences will have trouble following and remembering the speech. In the speech, main points should be clearly stated and "signposted," marked off as distinct and important to the audience. Transitions often serve to signpost new points, as do pauses before an important idea. Additionally, speakers might number main points—first, second, third or first, next, finally. Always make it easy for the audience to recognize and follow key ideas.

There are several common modes of organizing the information in the body of your speech:

Temporal organization groups information according to when it happened or will happen. Types of temporal patterns include chronological (in the sequence it occurred) and reverse chronological (from ending back to start). Inquiry order is one special mode of temporal organization useful in presenting some kinds of research: here you organize the body in accord with the unfolding processes of thinking and gathering data, taking the audience from the initial curiosity and questions to final results.

Cause-effect is a related mode of organization, showing how one event brings about another. Cause-effect, like other temporal modes, may be used for past, present, or future events and processes. Cause-effect can also be reversed, from effect back to cause.

Spatial patterns group and organize your speech based on physical arrangement of its parts. If a speech is describing a place, a physical object, or a process of movement--downtown Mercer, a plant cell, or the Battle of Shiloh--spatial patterns can be useful.

Topical designs are appropriate when the subject matter has clear categories of division. Government in the United States, for instance, falls into federal, state, and local categories; or into executive, legislative, and judicial branches; into elected and appointed officials. Categories like these can help divide the subject matter to organize the main points.

Compare/contrast takes two or more entities and draws attention to their differences and/or similarities. Sometimes speakers explain a difficult subject by comparing it with an easier, more accessible one--to explain nuclear fusion with the stages of high school romance, for instance. The use of analogies often assists in audience understanding.


Following a transition from the body of the speech, the conclusion follows. The conclusion should be somewhat shorter than the introduction and accomplishes two purposes: summarize main ideas and give the speech a sense of closure and completion. Good conclusions might refer back to the introduction, offer an analogy or metaphor that captures the main idea, or leave the audience with a question or a challenge of some type. Brief quotations can also make effective conclusions (just as they can make effective openings for introductions).