How to Structure Speeches
A speech can take myriad forms. Based on the ideas and emotions you want to convey, a speech can be deadly serious or hysterically funny... or both or neither. Mapping out every type of structure of speeches is a near impossible task.
So instead, I will share a few principles on speechwriting, and will then condense it to a process.
The best speeches make one point. Most speeches in Toastmasters give you 5-7 minutes to speak. In this time, you can only do justice to one central idea.
A lot of beginners tend to cram their speeches with details about their lives. Remember, you will not give only one speech in your life! Make sure that your speech can be boiled down to a single statement.
In professional writing terminology, that single statement is called a through-line, which means a connecting theme, plot, or idea that unifies your work (whether that's a book or a speech or a movie or a blog post).
Have a through-line.
Now if a speech can be boiled down to a single statement, then why do we need 5-7 minutes to make it? Because convincing people takes time and effort.
You wouldn't listen to just anything I say, would you?
So keeping your through-line in mind, create 2-4 sub-points that support your statement and build to it.
The audience is not as attentive as you think. If your speech isn't sufficiently interesting, you will find very quickly that people are starting to look down at their phones.
Each of your 2-4 sub-points serves as a pitstop in your speech, and you should use them as opportunities to recapture attention.
You can use repetition, which is very effective because our brains are adept at detecting patterns. The moment you repeat a statement, especially with the same stress and intonation, people take notice. Your sub-points can be the same as your through-line, and that creates effective repetition.
You can also use a change in voice - volume, pitch, or speed, to recapture attention.
One of the easiest ways to recapture attention though, is to pause. Don't be afraid to take a deep pause, even up to 5 seconds! Especially pause after you make a sub-point.
If your speech topic is a contentious one i.e. it can be debated, you would benefit from anticipating counter-arguments. Don't be afraid to address the downsides of your stance, and make statements that highlight the positives instead.
If you address counter-arguments, your speech feels much more honest and the audience will be more willing to listen to you.
The worst sentences I've ever heard in a speech is "...At least that is my opinion. You may think something different."
What the audience already thinks about your topic doesn't matter in the few minutes you're speaking. You're here to make YOUR case, share YOUR opinion, and stake YOUR claim. Sentences or sentence fragments that justify your stance make you appear less confident.
- "I think the government needs to do a better job, but I'm not trying to hurt anybody's sentiments here."
- "It is only my opinion, but wine is a con industry."
- "Life sucks and then you die. At least I think so."
I call these qualifiers - fragments of text that make your sentence become longer, thereby qualifying them to somehow be more important. They don't.
While you may think that you're being fair and polite by using such terms, what you're doing is anticipating and avoiding conflict. But avoiding conflict only makes you appear AND feel weak. These statements are also a reflection of your own lack of self-esteem.
Don't intentionally provoke people, but don't try to placate everybody either. It doesn't help you at all.
Based on the above principles, my favorite method of speechwriting is to reverse engineer it.
- 1.Start with your conclusion.
- 2.Come up with at least 6 sub-points - 3 positive and 3 negative.
- 3.Decide the tone of your speech. How do you want the audience to feel?
- 4.Based on your tone, choose 2-4 points from your list and list them above your conclusion.
- 5.Create a hook for the start of the speech that captures attention.
- 6.Start filling out the spaces between your introduction, points, and conclusion.
- 7.Practice your speech and repeat steps 2-6 till you're happy with your speech.
If this feels like too much work, there is an easier method.
The simplest, and sometimes most effective, method of speechwriting is storytelling. Right from our collective childhoods, we've been told fables - stories that have a moral lesson at the end.
The advantage of that knowledge is that you know EVERYBODY ELSE is also familiar with fables. So why not use that method?
Your main point is the lesson you're trying to teach the audience. Either create an original story that demonstrates that lesson, or pick up one of the millions of stories from our history - real or fictional.
If you have a particularly strong sub-point to make, you can tell 2 stories, or 2 parts of a story, to demonstrate the sub-point and your main point.
This is a variation on story-point-story-point. Think of it as story-story-point-point. For topics that require the audience to weigh pros and cons, tell 2 stories, and then highlight the pros and cons of each stance.
For this type of speech, it is important that you make a choice at the end of your speech. You could leave it open-ended for the audience to come to their own conclusion, but in my opinion, that isn't very effective. Instead, remember that as the speaker, it is your job to basically tell the audience what to think - don't be afraid to take a stance!
These are just some methods out of many. Remember that speechwriting is an infinitely creative art. If you have an idea that doesn't fit into these methods, create your own. Speechwriting can be incredibly fun if you choose to enjoy it!