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SpeechList Issue #4: Speech structure 101

Issue 4 - November 14, 2005
by Rob Cottingham

(c) Rob Cottingham 2005


  1. Opening words
  2. Feature article: Speech structure 101
  3. Catch Rob at the Ragan Speechwriting Conference, February 8-10
  4. Your turn
  5. Subscribing, unsubscribing and passing along the news

1. Opening words

SpeechList is back after our late-summer early-fall break. And whether you're mulling over launching your campaign for the upcoming Canadian federal election, eyeing a U.S. Congressional seat in the 2006 cycle, or wondering how to write that speech your Grade 10 history teacher just assigned you, we're here to help.

This issue, we'll get down to the very basics: structure. We aren't the first; the ancient Greeks dissected speeches into parts with names like proem and peroration. If your ears pricked up during that last sentence, good on you. (And let's sit down sometime for coffee, and bore the daylights out of everyone within earshot.) But if your eyes glazed over, never fear; the secrets of speechwriting structure are as simple as, well, telling a story.

Finally, a big welcome to the subscribers who've signed up since the last issue. The list has nearly doubled since August, and shows no signs of letting up. The more the merrier: feel free to pass this issue on to anyone you think would be interested. And as always, drop me a line with any questions, comments or suggestions you might have.

2. Speech structure 101

Want to know the one word that can solve most of your speechwriting problems before they ever arise?


A good, solid structure can help you hold your audience's attention, amplify your core message and give you (or your speaker) a new sense of confidence. A weak structure - well, that can have your audience scratching their heads, checking their watches or heading for the doors.

What makes structure so important?

Put yourself in your audience's position (never a bad idea when you're approaching a speech). They're surrounded by distractions -- clinking teaspoons, other audience members whispering, the limits of their own attention spans.

And if those attentions happen to wander, there's no way an audience member can rewind your speech or flip back through the text until they pick up the thread of your argument again. If they lose their way, they stay lost.

Chances are when that happens, they won't be paying attention to the rest of your speech, either. And whatever they remember about those 20 minutes, it won't be your message.

A clear, simple structure can give your audience a roadmap -- something that can keep them from losing track in the first place, or help them find their way back if they do. It can let them focus on your message, instead of wondering what it i.s

It can do you a big favour, too. Structure lets you know when you're going off the rails -- when you're reinforcing your central argument, and when you're straying from the topic, wasting time and weakening your speech.

So what is good structure?

There's no great mystery to structure; it's just the way you organize information in a speech.

Really compelling, memorable structure, though, relies on a certain kind of internal logic. And the kind of internal logic that human beings keep coming back to again and again -- across time and across cultures -- is story.

Aristotle set out the basics of story about 2,300 years ago, in a work he titled "Poetics". He divided dramatic narrative into three acts: Act One, the beginning; Act Two, the middle; and Act Three, the end.

Those terms have survived to this day; if you listen to a Hollywood executive talk about what went wrong (or right) about a movie, you'll often hear them talk about "the first act turning point" or "a second act slump".

So in drama,

  • Act One sets up the main character's dilemma, and commits them to resolving it.
  • Act Two develops the underlying conflict between the main character and whatever forces stand between her or him and the resolution.
  • Act Three resolves the conflict and shows us how the character has changed along the way, often hinting at the character's ultimate destiny.

One of the things that dramatists learn early on is that the closer they keep to the main character's central dilemma, the more unified, seamless and compelling the resulting story.

You can do the same in a speech. The beginning establishes the theme of your speech and the central idea. The middle explores the idea, and walks the audience through a logical chain that proves it. And the end restates the idea and considers its implications -- including a possible call to action.

Let's look at how that works.


No part of your speech does more work per second than the opening few minutes. You have to:

  • Engage your audience and find common ground
  • Set out your central theme, and point the speech toward your key idea
  • Tell your audience what they can expect -- and at least hint at the structure

Many speechwriters will tell you that once they have the beginning, they have the speech -- because the seeds for the second and third acts are sown in the first.

Entire books have been written on how you engage an audience, especially the art of the opening joke. (SpeechList looked at opening jokes in our second issue.) We'll be taking a look at other techniques you can use, including anecdotes, statistics and quotations. Suffice to say that great speeches almost always relate any opening ice-breakers to the theme of their speech.

Speakers are often very explicit in how they tell an audience what's in store, putting all their cards on the table. "I want to talk to you today about the future of public transportation in our city. And I want to touch on the three improvements essential to making that a healthy future: wider reach, higher density, and better infrastructure."

In about 20 seconds, this speaker has told the audience to expect a general discussion of public transit's future, then an in-depth examination of three areas. And there's now an implicit promise that, once the speaker has finished talking about better transportation infrastructure, it won't be long until the speech ends.

Sometimes an opening is a little more playful, and the speaker uses tools like suspense and curiosity to keep the audience engaged. "Let's take a ride, then, into the future of public transportation. And along the way, we're going to stop at three stations that we have to pass if we're to reach our destination.... Our first stop is Expansion Station. Let's have a look around."

Similar to the first opening we looked at, this one establishes a slightly more whimsical tone, and while it deals three cards on the table, it leaves them face-down for now.

You don't always have to tell the audience to expect a set number of points. Although it's an easy, effective way of establishing a structure, you sacrifice a sense of spontaneity. (I was at a speech once where the speaker promised to enumerate the five key elements of hope. By the time he got to tenet number eight, hope seemed like an awfully distant prospect.) Especially with shorter, less formal speeches, you can often get away with a more general statement: "So what's it going to take to keep public transit alive and well for decades to come? Well, a few answers come to mind."


The middle of your speech is where you develop your argument, and tell the core of your story.

Sound simple? The fact is, this is the most dangerous part of the speech. By definition, an audience knows when a speech has begun; and if you give them even a hint, they'll know when it's wrapping up. But the middle of a speech is the place where they can't see either shore. And unless you give them an occasional glimpse of the map, their inner children will spend much of your speech asking "Are we there yet?"

That applies even to the most entertaining speakers. You can have your audience rolling in the aisles or moved to tears -- and some little part of them will be wondering how long before they can stretch their legs.

So give them a reminder now and then, especially when you move from one section of your speech to another: "But even if we widen the reach of our transportation network to every neighbourhood in the area, all we'll have done is stretch ourselves too thin... unless we address density. And that's the second key improvement I want to address this morning."

Note, too, that the speaker is drawing a logical connection between those two issues. There's an underlying logic to this speech, and that's far more powerful than a simple shopping list. A story beats a list any day.

The power comes, too, because sticking to the underlying logic of your argument prevents you from bringing in extraneous material that distracts from your central point. Remember that "second act slump" screenwriters sometimes talk about? That's when they lose track of the story in a tangle of subplots and scenes that seem just too clever to cut. Speechwriters have the same problem, with the same solution: go back to just telling your story.

In a longer speech, take pity on your audience. At about the three-quarters mark, give them an indication of how far they are from the end: "That brings me to my last two points."

Your final point should link explicitly to your theme. Unlike a news release, where you put the most important information as close to the beginning as possible, you should feel free to make the final point of a speech the most dramatic and significant one. Often, that can be your springboard to a stirring, effective conclusion.


Tell them what you're going to say, say it, and tell them what you've said: that's the conventional wisdom about speeches. So close, but so terribly far from what works.

If all you do in a conclusion is recap everything the audience has already heard, you may help them remember your argument when they leave. If you're a good enough writer, you may even dull the pain of repetition. But you'll lose out on much of the power that a good speech can give you.

By all means, sketch out the argument you've just made for them. Bring it all together. But then, take it to the next step, and tell your audience what it means. What are the implications of your argument? And what action does it demand of them?
This -- the call to action -- is what your speech has been building to. You may be calling for the defeat of a particular piece of legislation: "Let's get out there and call every legislator we can reach, change every mind that's open to listening, and send this bill back to the scrapheap." You may be asking an audience for money: "These are all good ideas -- but good ideas won't happen, good ideas can't happen, if good people don't back them up when the need is greatest. Tonight, I'm pledging a thousand dollars. Who will join me?" Or you may simply be asking them to remember a great person or an important event.

Passion goes hand in hand with action, and the conclusion of a speech is a natural habitat for strong emotion. Don't be afraid to express how you feel. Leave your audience feeling the emotion you want them to feel whenever they think of this issue.

At which point... end it. I've seen more speeches ruined by speakers who bring the crowd to the feet... and then ramble on for three or four minutes about some minor point they wanted to cover off. Dramatists call it anti-climax; I call it poison. Hit the emotional high point, thank your audience, and get out of Dodge.

And in that spirit --

3. Catch Rob at the Speechwriter's Conference in Washington, DC

Exciting news: I'll be presenting at the 2006 Speechwriter's Conference in Washington, DC from February 8-10, 2006. It's put on by Lawrence Ragan Communications, giants in the corporate communications field. And David Murray, the conference organizer, has assembled a terrific program with some truly impressive speakers.

I'll have more details in the next issue. In the meantime, you can find out more at http://tinyurl.com/bsy7q .

If you want to kick-start your speechwriting career, this could be a great way to start. And if you register before December 9, you can save $100 on registration -- visit http://tinyurl.com/bzx84

4. Your turn

If you've enjoyed what you've read here, if you've disagreed with something, or if you have something to add or an idea for an upcoming issue, please drop me an e-mail at feedback@robcottingham.ca. I'll include a sample of the feedback I get in every edition.

5. Subscribing, unsubscribing and passing along the news

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