How Your Speech Should Be Structured

By Brent Kerrigan |

It’s estimated humans have given speeches for more than 10,000 years. We should be pretty good at it by now—absolute experts. Sadly, that’s not the case. In fact, with the advent of technological crutches such as PowerPoint, speeches and presentations are seemingly worse. It’s mind-boggling. With all the technology at our fingertips offering instant communication—any communication—nothing has replaced the humble speech when it comes to connecting with an audience. Hearing somebody speak touches a primitive nerve and meets a basic human need for interaction. 

What’s going wrong? Why, when faced with the task of delivering a speech, do we revert into grunting Neanderthals armed with stats, slides and strategies? In the next few issues, I’ll tackle some of the ways we can improve both the writing and delivery of speeches.

 Today: speech structure.


Many people, whether Fortune 500 executives, or lone entrepreneurs pitching a product, tend to make the same mistakes when it comes to speeches. They go one of two ways. They either have two minutes to explain their product or idea and the speech suddenly becomes a mad dash to cram in the maximum amount of information possible. Or they get a keynote slot and turn it into an hour-long dissertation of their company’s roots stretching back to the Big Bang. Unfortunately, audiences have a limited capacity for what they can retain in any speech or presentation. We may believe they have an infinite ability to remember our funding analysis and statistics, but they usually remember—at best—one or two items. We must therefore present our information in a way that is not only easy to understand, but helps an audience retain it. That’s what speech structure is all about—how the speech is put together in a way that is logical, interesting, and easy to follow.

It all begins with agreeing upon the most important part of the speech: the point. Not the opening (which should introduce the point), not the conclusion (which summarizes the point), the point. It’s where we begin, what we build upon and what we want people to remember or do when they leave the room. Before strategies, themes or even specific words are discussed, get that point down first. A suggestion? Get it into 140 characters. After all, this is the age of Twitter. The point will (hopefully) be retweeted anyway—help shape it. Can’t find the point? Ask “what’s the one thing I want the audience to know” or “what’s the one reason I’m speaking to them?” Hint: the answer is not “because somebody asked me”.

Once the point is established, we move to the middle part of the speech, many speeches often veer off in a number of different directions. Instead of getting from A to B efficiently, speakers often seem like drivers who can’t remember where they’re going or how to get home. There are a number of speech structure formulas and authors make fortunes essentially selling the same one or two. Here’s one of the easiest and most effective (and it just saved you a lot of money). I call it the 1-3-1 approach. One point, three themes to support it, one conclusion.

Too simple? This is the speech structure I use for clients ranging from top government ministers, the UN, and private businesses. It’s the formula I used this year in a speech that brought me to the European public speaking championships. Why? Because it works. Let’s see how. Let’s imagine we’re dairy farmers tasked with writing a speech about why people should drink milk. In fact, that’s the point of our speech: people need to drink more milk.

The body of our speech should support that point. A suggestion is to support it three ways—three a number considered holy to speechwriters. In other words, we will support the point in three ways.

How? Start by asking yourself the “how” or “why” of your point. As in, “why should people drink more milk?” Come up with the three biggest reasons.

Let’s say our first reason is “you need to drink more milk because it’s good for your health.” But you can’t just state it, you have to support it: you must provide evidence. Providing evidence does not mean giving a long boring list of statistics and numbers, but facts that stick, told in a way that makes them stick. Stories and anecdotes—another future article—are excellent adhesives. Repeating mission statements, visions and policies? Not so much. Summarize your information in a concluding sentence for that first reason.

Perhaps our second reason is: “You need to drink more milk because it supports the economy.” Again, use the same outline as the first theme: state, support and summarize. In fact, our themes are like mini speeches themselves.

About transitions: keep them brief. If they’re not supporting the point, don’t waste time on them. For example: “Let me address,” or “turning now to” works fine.

Finally, let’s say our third reason is: “You need to drink more milk because it makes cows feel good.” Again, state, support, and summarize.

In the conclusion we’re wrapping things up. There are a few ways to do it. If you’re lazy, just link your ending with your beginning. It works, but it’s a cliché. Another way to conclude is by restating our point. This is fine but, let’s face it, underwhelming. Instead, your conclusion should get the audience to do something. Use it as a call to action. After all, you are speaking to the audience for a reason…get them to do something about that point you made!

For our milk speech, perhaps we urge the audience to put down the wine list and instead order a glass of refreshing milk. If we’re pitching a product, we want to remind the investor why they should remove their vice-like grip on their money. It’s the final sell. Remind them why you came.

A final point on structure: it make speakers appear more confident and trustworthy. If you were an investor, who would you trust with your money? The person who is well organized, has a speech that follows a logical path and clearly states what they want? Or the person with 1,000 strategies, but no clear direction or goals?

Whether a speech is 30 seconds or 30 minutes, structure is vital. Before giving your next speech or presentation, map out your 1-3-1 plan. Know your point. Support it well. Ask the audience to do something.

If you provide the right road map, they’ll follow.