Organizing the Idea

Photo of Adam Savage.
“Mostly I make lists for projects. This can be daunting. Breaking something big into its constituent parts will help you organize your thoughts, but it can also force you to confront the depth of your ignorance and the hugeness of the task. That’s okay. The project may be the lion, but the list is your whip.” —Adam Savage, Mythbuster

By this point a speaker has chosen a topic, analyzed the audience, and gathered research on the subject. Now he or she must organize the information. Remember, public speakers should not try to memorize their speeches or improvise what they say, but speak extemporaneously. Compose a plan for what to say, then learn that plan, creating notes to keep on track, and then speak conversationally according to the plan.

To illustrate this point, take a look at the following example. Estimate much time it would take to memorize and repeat the following 41 letters:


Without a photographic memory, memorizing this seemingly random string of letters may prove nearly impossible. But what if the dashes got eliminated and letters reorganized as follows:

jumbled letters reveal hidden words

Notice that none of the letters changed; nothing got added or deleted. By arranging the letters into meaningful and manageable chunks, the message became more focused. The same holds true for information within a speech, whether speaking for 5 or 50 minutes. Besides the benefit associated with recalling information at will, a well-organized speech makes it easier for an audience to understand and recall the information shared, which is, of course, the end goal for an effective communicator.

Audiences can quickly tell the difference between an organized and a disorganized speaker. Disorganized speakers often bounce between unrelated points, detour into irrelevant stories, lose their connection to the audience, and generally seem unprepared. Such disorganization, at best, turns away an audience’s collective attention span, and at worst, can create a hostile, irritated, or insulted group of listeners. This does not suggest that a little disorganization will lead to failure, however. When a speaker can still engage, entertain, and inform effectively, a hint of disorganization may almost seem welcome, as it makes the speaker seem more fluid and conversational. On the whole though, audiences perceive organized speakers as more knowledgeable, articulate, and believable, ultimately gaining the their trust and respect.

To organize information efficiently, use the process of outlining to arrange the ideas for the speech. Outlines help speakers arrange the larger ideas into a manageable order, but then also help them fill in those larger ideas with supporting information to help expand and refine the major talking points. Outlines also help to ensure that both the introduction and conclusion effectively frame those larger ideas into a memorable format for the audience. The remainder of this chapter will present the recommended outline format needed to create effective speeches. First this chapter will cover the importance of introductions, followed by instructions on how to create the body of the speech, and end with a discussion on how to compose memorable conclusions.

Note to Self

You will find several helpful sample outlines that will serve as models for future work at the end of this chapter.

Why Not Memorize?

picture of actress performing

Most novice speakers operate under the assumption that they should memorize their speeches, word-for-word, but that could not be further from the truth. The best speakers do not memorize, but rather learn their speeches in a process similar to learning directions from home to somewhere unfamiliar. Rather that obtaining a map and memorizing step-by-step, turn-by-turn directions, individuals pull up a map and learn the major milestones they need to note. They figure out where to turn, roughly how far to go between turns, and what to look for along the way. As such, an outline acts as a roadmap that focuses on the highlights that provide just enough detail to get from start to finish. Save the memorization for theatrical or cinematic performances.


Note To Self

picture of child riding bikeIn another analogy, think of a familiar story from your past, like when you learned to ride a bike. Could you tell the story without creating an outline and note cards? Of course you could, since you know the story. You might tell it differently from one retelling to the next, but the highlights of the story (the main points, central idea, etc.) remain the same.

Similar to a written essay or composition, speakers should utilize three main sections in an informative speech: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. Each section serves an important purpose in crafting a memorable speech.

These three sections align perfectly with a saying often credited to Dale Carnegie: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”  Though some question whether or not he coined the phrase, no such rift exists on the message it espouses, as a broad consensus among communication professionals and educators believe these three things represent all a person needs to know to craft a memorable speech or presentation regardless of length and complexity.

Tell Them What You Are Going  to Tell Them

This portion serves as the introduction of the speech—the opening component that serves to engage the audience and capture their attention. The introduction has several specific roles to fill and generally should not consist of more than 10–15% of the speech. The introduction not only includes “coming attractions” for the audience, but it also grabs their attention and gives them a reason to sit up and pay attention.

Tell Them

This portion represents the substance or content of the speech. Organize this section into the most important points that will most clearly and effectively deliver the message to the audience. Provide the details of the speech, which should include researched information supported by evidence. This section of the speech should consume 70–80% of the speaking time.

Tell Them W hat You Told Them

Reiterate, summarize, and add punctuation during the speech’s conclusion. Like the introduction, the conclusion of the speech should only last 10–15% of the total time of delivery, but it serves as a critical role in achieving highly effective results. Reminding the audience about the most important points detailed in the body and ending the speech with a memorable closing statement solidifies the message in the minds of the audience. Abruptly ending a speech will nearly guarantee that the audience will remember less of it and for a shorter period of time—if at all.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Messages that Matter: Public Speaking in the Information Age - Third Edition Copyright © 2023 by North Idaho College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book