The Basics of Writing and Structuring a Speech

You need to catch the audience attention early, very early. Deliver a memorable beginning, a clear middle and structured ending.

Attention Span of your Audience

Research shows that attention span is greatest at the beginning of a speech, reduces considerably during the middle of your presentation and picks up again towards the end when your audience know you about to finish.

Attention span graph of audience in a conference or presentation

These two articles explain audience attention span in more detail, and how you can try and extend it:

Reduce Presentation Structure to 5 Sections

Opening

Main Point

  • Explanation 1
  • Explanation 2
  • Explanation 3

Secondary Point (supports main)

  • Explanation 1
  • Explanation 2
  • Explanation 3

Tertiary Point (supports secondary and main)

  • Explanation 1
  • Explanation 2
  • Explanation 3

Closing


Don’t Forget Initial Planning

You should invest time strategically considering the presentation or speech. This will help you decide on the key message and content about your topic. Here are some points to consider.

Why?

  • What do I want to achieve?
  • When I achieve this, what will that do for me?
  • Why am I presenting?
  • What is the purpose of this presentation?

Who?

  • Who are the audience and who do they represent?
  • Who do I represent?
  • What do I know about them? (culture, language, level of expertise)
  • How much influence do they have?

What?

  • What is the main message and key points?
  • What specific action is implied?
  • What level of information should I include?
  • What is important to them?

Don’t forget to plan! Initial planning will save you time down the line.


Beginning

Make sure your opening few seconds are memorable as this is when your audience will make up their minds about you. Use a bold sentence to grab their attention, works best with numbers reinforcing your point. An example sentence might be – “After this presentation, I’m confident 50% of you will go out and buy a virtual reality headset.”

Remember the INTRO model

This is more focused on presentations but sections can be applied broadly to other general speeches.

Interest

You: Introduce yourself confidently and clearly
Audience: Why should I listen to you?

Needs

You: Remind the audience the reasons for this presentation
Audience: What’s in it for me?

Timing

You: State length of presentation at beginning, “Over the next 15 minutes”
Audience: How long until I can get a coffee?

Routemap

You: State the main points, “Today I’m going to cover 4 main points”
Audience: Which sections of the presentation are important to me?

Objectives

You: Clearly state the objective, “By the end of this speech, I would like to…”
Audience: So that’s what you want from me today…

Great Speech Opening

“Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead through the food that they eat.

My name’s Jamie Oliver. I’m 34 years old. I’m from Essex in England and for the last seven years I’ve worked fairly tirelessly to save lives in my own way. I’m not a doctor; I’m a chef, I don’t have expensive equipment or medicine. I use information, education.

I profoundly believe that the power of food has a primal place in our homes that binds us to the best bits of life. We have an awful, awful reality right now. America, you’re at the top of your game. This is one of the most unhealthy countries in the world.”

Jamie Oliver


Obama spent hours preparing for his speeches

How Not to Open your Speech

Avoid the following opening comments:

  • “Apologies, I’m a little nervous about speaking” – no need to make the audience aware of this, it will make them focus on how nervous you are instead of what you are saying
  • “I’ve got the graveyard shift” – you are telling people not to expect much
  • “I’m what stands between you and lunch” – even if people weren’t thinking it, after this comment, all they are thinking of is when will you finish so they can eat
  • “We are running late, so I’ll do my best to explain…” – instead of this, state how long your presentation will take so that people know when they will be leaving

Obama and his Speeches

Obama’s speeches are well prepared with a focus on powerful words “A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things“. His speeches use simple language and quotes from famous speeches his listeners can relate to.

For additional trademark Obama techniques, check out How Barack Obama prepares his speeches.


Include colourful slides with minimal text, plenty of images and graphs and an indication of how far through the presentation you are. For additional help on slides design, see the Presentation Skills & Tips page.

Middle

The body of your speech is where the majority of the information is. The audience has been introduced to the subject and reasons for the speech. Now you need to present your arguments and examples, data, illustrations backing up your key message.

The best way to build this section is to write down three points you are trying to convey in your speech, your main, secondary and tertiary points. Then write down three descriptions clarifying each of these points. The descriptions should be simple, memorable and meaningful.

The middle of your speech is where the audience start losing attention. Keep this in mind and ensure your message is clear. Use images, jokes and rhetoric questions to keep the audience engaged.

Don’t overwhelm your audience with many points. It is much more valuable to make a small number of points well, than to have too many points which aren’t made satisfactorily.


End

Similar to the opening, your closing statements should be impactful, re-stating the key message of your speech. We advise learning your ending few lines word for word. The ending is an opportunity to:

  • Leave the audience with a lasting impression of your speech
  • Summarise the main points
  • Provide further ideas and discussion points for the audience to take away with them
  • Thank the audience for taking the time to listen

Ways to End your Speech

Quotation Close – use a famous quote to get the audience’s attention and create a link to your speech.

Bookend Close – refer back to an opening statement and repeat it or add a few extra words to elaborate on it.

Open Question – ask the audience a provocative question or a call to action to perform some task on the back of your speech.

For additional ways to close your speech, read:

How to end your Presentation or Speech

  1. Key message
  2. Refer to opening impact statement
  3. Tie up
  4. Objectives met
  5. Call to action
  6. Q&A
  7. End on an Up
  8. Thank You