The Importance of Organization

Organization assists the audience in processing and retaining information communicated by a speaker. Polished speakers display the desirability of organization in a formal speech. Since audience members do not have the luxury of seeing the speech in written form, or of having the speech played back immediately, a well-organized speech assists understanding the flow of information. Additionally, organization aids in strategic emphasis, as speakers often focus on their strongest points first and last. Organization assures that a speaker displays themselves as credible and in command of the knowledge.

Organizing Introductions

A good introduction has four main components:

  1. Attention-getter
  2. Statement of topic and thesis
  3. Establishment of credibility
  4. Preview of the main points of the speech.

Attention-getters. This is, in many ways, the most important part of the speech. If the audience isn’t convinced of why they should listen to the following speech, then they likely will not. An attention-getter hooks the audience into the narrative being told and makes them thirsty for more information. Successful attention-getters include:

  • Tell a story. An illuminating anecdote often illustrates the stakes that the speech is communicating. Audiences connect to good stories when they resonate with their own experiences.
  • Reveal an astonishing fact. A statistic, quotation from an expert, or interesting finding can wow an audience into wanting to learn more. Quotations in particular can rouse the interest of an audience, especially if it is artfully worded or from someone well-known.
  • Promise something. An audience, once told they can expect some upcoming, and undoubtedly important, kernel of information, will likely pay more attention.
  • Crack a joke. People like to laugh (except, of course, for people who don’t like to “have fun.”) See? That was funny! Now you are paying closer attention to this section. It worked! People that don’t think they have a sense of humor (or “can’t tell a joke to save their lives”) are fooling themselves: they just don’t recognize that their sense of humor is called “dry.” Be careful telling jokes—make sure they are appropriate to the occasion and won’t offend anyone. Self-deprecating jokes (“I was told I should tell a joke to start my speech, but I’m not smart enough to develop a good punch line to Einstein’s theory of relativity.”) are almost always a sure-fired winner.
  • Explain the importance of the topic to the audience. People listen when they hear something of value to them. Expressing why they should listen (without saying “you should listen to me because…”) can hook an audience for the rest of the speech.
  • Attention Getter 'Do Not's'
  • Violate audience expectations. Attention-getters definitely depend a lot on the audience (being the bearer of bad news at an Optimist Club meeting won’t be very successful, just as telling “The Love Story of Two Atoms” might not go over well at a chemists’ convention).
  • Ask a question. Someone once said that this was a good idea—and on its face, asking a question does seem like a good way to ‘feel out’ the audience. Question asking inevitably has one or both of the following: First, the audience nervously looks at each other and tries to collectively decide whether this is a rhetorical question being asked or not. The speaker then tries to convince the audience that they really want an answer, and prods the audience into raising their hands. Second, the audience does not give the expected answer, and the speaker becomes disappointed, then flustered, then embarrassed. A wide spectrum of human emotion is experienced by the speaker in front of a crowd of onlookers. This is not good.
  • Automatically thank the audience. This is appropriate in some instances, after a dignified introduction or at a ceremonial speaking engagement, but is often not needed in more academic settings. Many a novice speaker begins their talk by saying “Thank you for listening” (when they don’t really know the audience is listening) or “Good morning ladies and gentlemen” (which sounds like they are straight from the Vaudeville stage.)
  • Statement of purpose and thesis. Clearly stating the general and specific purpose, as well as the overarching thesis, of a talk is important in establishing the basic framework of the content that follows. The general purpose is usually persuasive, informative, or ceremonial. The specific purpose narrows the topic to something manageable and directed (to persuade about a particular soil fertilizer, to inform about soil fertilizers available, to commemorate soil fertilizer). The thesis statement then makes a clear statement of belief that is supported by the main points in the speech (“manure is the best fertilizer,” “manure, mushroom soil, and compost are the most common fertilizers,” “Let us celebrate soil fertilizer!”). Don't start a speech by saying “My general purpose is to persuade you. My specific purpose is to persuade you about soil fertilizer. I believe that manure is the best soil fertilizer there is.” Alternatively, do not say “I am here to talk to you today about…” Attempt to be smoother at revealing the purpose for the speech.

Credibility. All speakers want to be perceived as credible on the topic they are speaking on. Credibility establishes an authority to speak on an issue, and is largely on issue of perception by the audience. Credibility can come from first hand experience, reading on an issue, interviewing professionals, or an introduction. This is a complex issue that can be developed in many ways, explored more in this section of the web site.

Preview. A speaker should always preview what they are planning on saying. The most famous public speaking adage is “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” This follows the same logic as “third time’s the charm.” After being told three times the main points of the speech are (once in the preview of the speech, once in the body, and once in the conclusion), an audience should have a pretty good idea of what was said. This can often be done by saying “I have three main arguments” or “There are two points I would like to make to support my claim (the thesis)” or “Why do I believe this? For the following three reasons…” Again, integrating the preview smoothly into the introduction can be challenging but will make for a smoother speech then one that says “the following preview has been approved for all audiences: I will talk about …”

Organizing Main Points in the Body

There are numerous ways to organize the main points of the body of a speech or presentation. Some speeches suggest particular organizational schemes, whereas other topics could fit under a number of patterns. For example, a speech on the causes of ultraviolet radiation lends itself to being organized by cause-effect. A speech on addressing the problems of ultraviolet radiation could assume the form of problem-solution or stock issues organizational patterns.

Ways to Organize the Main Points of Body

The following ways to organize a speech include examples (of varying levels of seriousness) of the main points identified. Each of the main points, of course, would require additional support and evidence in a speech and are identified only to aid the conceptualization of the organizational forms.

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.

Example: “Abducted! The Story of My Alien Abduction”

1. The aliens abducted me with an anti-gravity beam.

2. Then the aliens gave me a tour of their ship.

3. Then the aliens performed all manner of medical experiments on me.

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

Example: “My Alien Abduction: Why it Happened”

1. I was smack-talking about the aliens.

2. They decided to abduct me to teach me a lesson.

3. Their diagnostic tests determined that push-ups were the best way to ensure I mended my ways.

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. If following a spatial pattern, be sure to proceed systematically from one place to the next, following a clear order. A size sequence is a variation on spatial organization, describing different artifacts from smallest to largest (or from largest to smallest).

Example: “Welcome to the Mothership: This Ain't George Clinton's Spaceship”

1. My initial experience of the alien ship was their quarantine brig, an antiseptic and padded room.

2. In subsequent days, I visited the technologically advanced navigation bridge to see how they operated the ship.

3. Unfortunately, I spent most of my time in their extensive laboratory for experimenting on different species.

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; into executive, legislative, and judicial branches; and into elected and appointed officials. A speech on basic components of the atom might include a point each on electrons, protons, and neutrons. Categories like these can help divide the subject matter to organize the main points.

Example: “Towards a Typology of Aliens Abducting Earthlings”

1. The Greys, generally pretty nice, concerned very much with the fate of the planet.

2. The Alpha Centauris, a very aggressive species that is plotting to take over the earth.

3. The Martians, who are really just collections of bacteria looking for new hosts.

Importance patterns, a slight variation on the topical scheme, are based on the evaluations or judgments of the main points of a speech. A speech detailing different reasons, ideas, or solutions might utilize this organizational scheme in order to compare the merits of different points.

Example: “Steps to Take Against the Alien Menace”

1. Develop a National Missile Defense to shoot down abducting ships is the most important step to take.

2. Vaccinate all citizens to protect against alien hybridization is a secondary defense.

3. Create support groups for abductees is an important way to show love to those that the missile defense and vaccination programs failed to protect.

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—explaining nuclear fusion by comparing it with the stages of high school romance, for instance. The use of analogies often assists in audience understanding.

Example: “Alien Abductions and Family Vacations: Parallel Experiences?”

1. Both trips are generally not voluntary.

2. Both trips involve long spans of time where you have to be seat-belted in and cannot go to the bathroom.

3. Both trips ensure that coming home is always a relief.

Problem-solution organization involves the identification of a problem followed by a possible solution. These speeches often just have two main points, instead of the normal three points in many organizational formats. The problem-solution format is particularly good for presentations on policy issues.

Example: “Alien Abduction: What We Can--and Must--Do About It”

1. Problem: The alien abduction phenomenon is out of control.

2. Solution: Earthlings should always wear aluminum foil on their heads to prevent detection of brainwaves by aliens.

3. Stock issues format is designed to organize presentations on issues of policy in a more complicated way than simple problem-solution. There are generally four main components to this organizational scheme: a description of the current system (inherency, or the inherent flaws in the current system), explanation of the harms that result from the current system (harms), a program to address those harms (a plan of action), and reasons why the plan would be preferable to keeping the current system (solvency, why the plan would help the problem).

Example: “Alien Abduction: A Plan for Stopping the Newest Scourge”

1. The world community refuses to take the threat of alien abduction seriously.

2. Alien abductions have reached an all time high, and are causing massive problems.

3. The world community must unite for diplomatic--and, if necessary, military--action to stop abductions.

4. Diplomacy with the aliens would enhance mutual understanding and prevent the need for abductions.

Monroe's Motivated Sequence is named after a communications’ theorist who argued that speakers needed to fulfill five functions to encourage audience members to change their behavior. Speakers must gain the audiences attention, display the need for change, present an alternative that would inspire satisfaction, enable listeners to visualize the benefits of change, and call for action. This format is very appropriate for persuasive speeches.

Example: “Alien Abductions: What You Can do to Resist Impending Colonization”

1. Half of the people in this room have had massive amounts of medical experiments performed on them by aliens!

2. This is creating some serious psychological imbalances!

3. We can stop the current mind-melding by banding together a defense force of concerned individuals.

4. Imagine the power that united citizens could utilize to bring attention to the abduction crisis.

5. Please return to your local communities and organize AAPACs—Alien Abduction Political Action Committees.

Tips for Organization of the Body

Have 2-3 points. Most speeches have 2-3 main points. Any less—1 point—is likely to devolve into rambling or could benefit from further subdivision. Any more—4 points or more—and the speaker risks repeating themselves and also losing their audience (since most people have trouble remembering more than three points.)

Outline. Once the main concepts have been generated, outlining the main points in the order they will be given in the speech assists in the development of the speech. The detailed outline will facilitate development of a keyword outline to be used in extemporaneous delivery.

Keep main points separate. There’s a reason they are called main points, and not blurred points. Ensuring that there are clear distinctions between the central arguments being made prevents repetition by the speaker.

Maintain consistency. Do not switch organizational formats in the middle of the speech. Organizational formats—from temporal to spatial—make sense only when unified.

Balance time. Do not devote four minutes to one point, and thirty seconds to another point. Symmetry is attractive. Generally, speakers put their weakest point (which sometimes happens to be their shortest point) in the middle of their speech, where there is less likelihood it will be remembered.

Have evidence. Utilizing evidence fills out the content of the speech. Remember that evidence can be almost anything.

Utilize transitions. Internal previews, summaries, and signposts are all useful in making the speech sound well-organized and smooth.

Organizing Conclusions

Conclusions are fairly easy. After signaling the conclusion of a speech, good speakers reiterate the topic (their thesis), review the main points, and depart with a concluding thought.

Reiterate the topic. Mentioning the topic again centers the thesis in the speech. The audience should leave knowing what the presentation’s central claim was, and repeating it memorably in the conclusion will have more staying power. Avoid saying “Today, I have talked to you about…”, as this should be fairly apparent. Instead, try to articulate the thesis more smoothly by restating it in slightly different words.

Review the main points. This is the third part of “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them,” the famous public speaking adage. The conclusion is, by definition, the last part of the speech and probably the most memorable for the audience. By reviewing the central claims made in the speech, the speaker encourages better retention by the audience.

Depart with a concluding thought. All to often, speakers conclude their presentations with a statement along the lines of “and that’s about all I have to say about that…” or “I think I have said enough.” These are hardly powerful conclusions. Leaving the audience with a memorable quote, a vivid image, a reference to the introduction of the speech, or a call to action is a far superior way to conclude the oration.