Chapter 33: Speech Structure

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Create a preparation outline and speaking outline for your extemporaneous speech
  • Use keywords from your outline to develop a 3×5 cue card

Key Terms and Concepts

  • outline
  • preparation outline
  • speaking outline
  • connective statements

As you saw in the last chapter, we want you to use an extemporaneous style for your speech delivery. Many of you may feel a bit uncomfortable with this idea if you are used to using a manuscript or memorized style. However, we want to stress that you are not going to go into your presentation unprepared. This chapter will show you how to outline your speech and give you several different elements you can use while designing it.

Outlining Your Speech

An outline provides a visual structure where you can compile information into a well-organized document. The amount of information you include will depend on your needs. For our course, we want you to use a preparation outline, which is a comprehensive form of outline that includes all of the information in your speech. If someone were to read your preparation outline, there should be enough depth to provide a general idea of what will be accomplished.

Generally, we recommend starting from this outline format:

Sample Speech Outline 

I. Introduction

a. Attention Getter / Hook
b. Credibility Statement
c. Exigence
d. Action
e. Survey: Forecast of Speech Points

II. Main body
    1. First Main Point
      a. Evidence
    2. Second Main Point
      a. Evidence
    3. Third main Point
      a. Evidence
III. Conclusion    

a. Summary: Review of Main Points
b. Restate Thesis
c. Clincher 

This is just a start as you will need to make adjustments to fit your needs. For example, each main point may have more than one piece of evidence. In preparation for your extemporaneous speech, you will need to complete a preparation outline for your Speech Strategy Report assignment.

You should think of the outline as the blueprint for your speech. It is not the speech—that is what comes out of your mouth in front of the audience. The outline helps you prepare and, as such, they are a living document that you can adjust, add, and delete. We recommend beginning to add information right away. However, keep in mind that you will not have the whole document with you during your speech.  Instead, you’ll use a speaking outline that you write on your 3×5 index card.

A speaking outline is a keyword outline used to deliver an extemporaneous speech. The notes you use to speak can aid or hinder in an effective delivery. A keyword outline on your 3×5 card—which you’ll use to rehearse and deliver—will allow greater embodiment and engagement with the audience. As you practice, you will be able to summarize the full preparation outline down to more usable notes. In those notes, create a set of abbreviated notes for the actual delivery. The more materials you take up with you to speak, the more you will be tempted to look at them rather than have eye contact with the audience, reducing your overall engagement.

Your speaking notes should be in far fewer words than the preparation, arranged in key phrases, and readable for you. Your speaking outline should provide cues to yourself to “slow down,” “pause,” or “change slide.” Our biggest suggestion is to make the notes workable for you. More information on structuring your cue card is included in the next section.

Using Cue Cards

An extemporaneous speech is a presentation that is carefully planned and practiced ahead of time. A tool that can help you in your speech is to use a 3.5×5 card effectively.  Your card is meant to help prompt you as you give your speech, and to keep you on track.  It is NOT meant to be a transcript where you write out your speech.

Exercise: Evaluate Cue Cards

Below are images of three cue cards. Look at Image #1. Do you think this person’s speech was successful according to the constraints of an extemporaneous speech? Why or why not?

Image #1


Obviously, Image #1 is an example of what not to do when using a cue card. Keep in mind that your card is a tool for you to consult while you speak. You do not need to write everything on it that you would like to say.

Now let’s look at two more cue cards (Images #2 and #3). What is it that makes these two cards better? How are they different from Image #1?

Image #2
Image #3

Your card is meant to be recognized by you (the speaker), and you alone—so you can use abbreviations (similar to the ‘SHR’ used in Image #2 above) or have shorthand notes that will help to jog your memory. Recognize that you probably will NOT need to write as much on your cue card as you may think you need to.

As you practice, make sure to practice using the same card.

Setting Up Your Speech

Introductions and conclusions serve to frame the speech and give it a clearly defined beginning and end. They help the audience see what is to come in the speech, and then let them mentally prepare for the end. In doing this, introductions and conclusions provide a “preview/review” of your speech as a means to reiterate to your audience what you are talking about. Because speeches are auditory and live, you need to make sure that audiences remember what you are saying.

The general rule is that the introduction and conclusion should each be about 10% of your total speech, leaving 80% for the body section. It can be tempting to have longer introductions, but that often leaves less time to introduce key research and warrant your ideas through the main points. Since your speech for this course is five minutes long, that means your introduction and conclusion should each be about 30 seconds. 

Structuring the Introduction

Many speakers struggle with how to start their speech because they’re often worried that their words won’t be memorable, attention-capturing, and clever enough to get their audience interested. This is a problem for many of us because the first words you say, in many ways, set the tone for the rest of your speech. There may not be any one “best” way to start a speech, but we can provide some helpful guidelines that will make starting a speech much easier.
Common Errors to Avoid in Introductions 
  • rambling and meandering; not getting to the point;
  • starting with a vocalized pause;
  • saying the specific purpose statement first;
  • beginning to talk as you approach the platform;.
  • reading your introduction directly from your notes;
  • talking too fast.

With that in mind, there are five basic elements that you will want to incorporate into your introduction and speech outline.

Element 1: Get the Audience’s Attention—the Hook

The first major purpose of an introduction is to gain your audience’s attention and make them interested in what you have to say. The first words of a speech should be something that will perk up the audience’s ears. Starting a speech with “Hey everybody. I’m going to talk to you today about soccer” has not tried to engage the individuals in the audience who don’t care about soccer.

To create interest, the key is selecting an option that’s appropriate and relevant to your specific audience. You will also want to choose an attention-getting device appropriate for your speech topic. Ideally, your attention-getting device should have a relevant connection to your speech. Below are a number of possibilities for crafting an attention getter.

Anecdotes and Narratives

An anecdote is a brief account or story of an interesting or humorous event. Notice the emphasis here is on the word “brief.” An example of an anecdote used in a speech about the pervasiveness of technology might look something like this:

In July 2009, a high school girl named Miranda Becker was walking along a main boulevard near her home on Staten Island, New York, typing in a message on her cell phone. Not paying attention to the world around her, she took a step and fell right into an open construction hole.

Notice that the anecdote is short and has a clear point. From here the speaker can begin to make their point about how technology is controlling our lives.

A personal story is another option here. You may consider starting your speech with a story about yourself that is relevant to your topic. Some of the best speeches are ones that come from personal knowledge and experience. If you are an expert or have firsthand experience related to your topic, sharing this information with the audience is a great way to show that you are credible during your attention getter.

Startling Statement/Statistic/Fact

Another way to start your speech is to surprise your audience with startling information about your topic. Often, startling statements come in the form of statistics and strange facts. The goal of a good startling statistic is that it surprises the audience and gets them engaged in your topic. For example, if you’re giving a speech about oil conservation, you could start by saying:

A Boeing 747 airliner holds 57,285 gallons of fuel.

You could start a speech on the psychology of dreams by noting:

The average person has over 1,460 dreams a year.

A strange fact, on the other hand, is a statement that does not involve numbers but is equally surprising to most audiences. For example, you could start a speech on the gambling industry by saying:

There are no clocks in any Las Vegas casino.

Although startling statements are fun, it is important to use them ethically. First, make sure that your startling statement is factual. Second, make sure that your startling statement is relevant to your speech and not just thrown in for shock value.

A Rhetorical Question

A rhetorical question is a question to which no actual reply is expected. For example, a speaker talking about the history of Mother’s Day could start by asking the audience:

Do you remember the last time you told your mom you loved her?

In this case, the speaker does not expect the audience to shout out an answer, but rather to think about the questions as the speech goes on.


Another way to capture your listeners’ attention is to use the words of another person that relate directly to your topic. Maybe you’ve found a really great quotation in one of the articles or books you read while researching your speech. If not, you can also use a number of Internet or library sources that compile useful quotations from noted individuals. Quotations are a great way to start a speech, so let’s look at an example that could be used during the opening of a commencement address:

The late actress, fashion icon, and social activist Audrey Hepburn once noted that, “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible’!”

Element 2: Establish or Enhance Your Credibility

Whether you are informing, persuading, or entertaining an audience, they will expect you to know what you’re talking about. The second element, then, is to let your audience know that you are a knowledgeable and credible source for this information, in other words, you must establish your ethos. To do this, you will need to explain how you know what you know about your topic.

For some people, this will be simple. If you are informing your audience about a topic that you’ve researched or experienced for years, that makes you a fairly credible source. You probably know what you are talking about. Let the audience know! For example:

I’ve been serving with Big Brothers Big Sisters for the last two years.

However, you may be speaking on a subject with which you have no history of credibility. If you are just curious about when streetlights were installed at intersections and why they are red, yellow, and green, you can do that. But you will still need to give your audience some sort of reason to trust your knowledge. Since you were required to do research for this assignment, you are at least more knowledgeable on the subject that anyone else in the class.

Element 3: Establish Relevance through Rapport

Next, you must establish rapport with your audience. Rapport is basically a relationship or connection you make with your audience, similar to incorporating pathos appeals in your speech. In everyday life, we say that two people have a rapport when they get along really well and are good friends. In your introduction, you will want to explain to your audience why you are giving them this information and why it is important or relevant to them. You will be making a connection through this shared information and explaining to them how it will benefit them.

Element 4: State your Thesis

After you get the audience’s attention, you must reveal the purpose of your speech to your audience. Have you ever sat through a speech wondering what the basic point was? Have you ever come away after a speech and had no idea what the speaker was talking about? An introduction should make the topic, purpose, and central idea clear. Remember rhetorical exigence from previous chapters? This is essentially what your thesis is doing: you are addressing a problem that your audience has and showing them you have the answer.

When stating your topic in the introduction, be explicit with regard to exactly what your topic is. Spell it out for them if you have to. If an audience is unable to remember all your information, they should at least be able to walk away knowing that the purpose of your presentation was. Make sure your logos appeals are solid.

Element 5: Preview Your Main Points—the Survey

Just like previewing your topic, previewing your main points helps your audience know what to expect throughout the course of your speech. In RCM 200, we call this part of your speech the speech’s survey. Your preview of main points should be clear and easy to follow so that there is no question in your audience’s minds what they are. Long, complicated, or verbose main points can get confusing.

Be succinct and simple in your survey:

Today, in our discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s life, we will look at his birth, his role a president, and his assassination.

From that there is little question as to what specific aspects of Lincoln’s life the speech will cover. However, if you want to be extra sure they get it, you can always enumerate them:

In discussing how to make chocolate chip cookies, first we will cover what ingredients you need, second we will talk about how to mix them, and third we will look at baking them.

What these five elements do is prepare your audience for the bulk of the speech (i.e. the body section) by letting them know what they can expect, why they should listen, and why they can trust you as a speaker. Having all five elements starts your speech off on much more solid ground that you would get without having them.

The Body: Connecting Your Points Using Signposts

At this point, you may be realizing that preparing for public speaking does not always follow a completely linear process. In writing your speech, you might begin outlining with one organizational pattern in mind, only to re-craft the main points into a new pattern after more research has been conducted. These are all okay options.

Wherever your process takes you, however, you will need to make sure that each section of your speech outline uses connective statements or signposts.  A Connective statement—also called “signpost”—is a broad term that encompass several types of statements or phrases. They are generally designed to help “connect” parts of your speech to make it easier for audience members to follow. Connectives are tools for helping the audience listen, retain information, and follow your structure.

Signposts perform a number of functions:

  • Remind the audience of what has come before
  • Remind the audience of the central focus or purpose of the speech
  • Forecast what is coming next
  • Help the audience have a sense of context in the speech—where are we? (this is especially useful in a longer speech of twenty minutes or so)
  • Explain the logical connection between the previous main idea(s) and next one, or previous subpoints and the next one
  • Explain your own mental processes in arranging the material as you have
  • Keep the audience’s attention through repetition and a sense of movement

Signposts can include internal summaries, numbering or internal previews. Each of these terms all help connect the main ideas of your speech for the audience, but they have different emphases and are useful for different types of speeches.

Types of connectives and examples

Signposts emphasize the physical movement through the speech content and let the audience know exactly where they are. Signposting can be as simple as “First,” “Next,” “Lastly” or using numbers such as “First,” “Second,” Third,” and “Fourth.” Signposts can also be lengthier, but in general signposting is meant to be a brief way to let your audience know where they are in the speech. It may help to think of these like the mile markers you see along interstates that tell you where you are or like signs letting you know how many more miles until you reach your destination.

Internal summaries emphasize what has come before and remind the audience of what has been covered.

So far I have shown how the designers of King Tut’s burial tomb used the antechamber to scare away intruders and the second chamber to prepare royal visitors for the experience of seeing the sarcophagus.

Internal previews let your audience know what is coming up next in the speech and what to expect with regard to the content of your speech.

In this next part of the presentation I will share with you what the truly secret and valuable part of the King Tut’s pyramid: his burial chamber and the treasury.

Transitions serve as bridges between seemingly disconnected (but related) material, most commonly between your main points. At a bare minimum your transition is saying,

Now that we have looked at (talked about, etc.) X, let’s look at Y.

Connectives are an important way to assist the audience in understanding a) where you’re going, b) where you are, and c) where you’ve been. We recommend labeling them directly in your outline to make sure that they’re integrated and clear.

Wrapping up: The Summary

Similar to the introduction, the conclusion has three specific elements that you will want to incorporate in order to make it as strong as possible.

Common Errors to Avoid in Conclusions 
  • signal the end multiple times. In other words, no “multiple conclusions” or saying “As I close” more than once;
  • ramble; if you signal the end, end;
  • talk as you leave the platform or lectern;
  • indicate with facial expression or body language that you were not happy with the speech.
  • conclude with an abrupt “thank you.

Given the nature of these elements and what they do, these should generally be incorporated into your conclusion in the order they are presented below.

Element 1: Review Main Points

Remember, introductions preview your main points; the conclusion provides a review. One of the biggest differences between written and oral communication is the necessity of repetition in oral communication. Your audience only has one opportunity to catch and remember the points you are trying to get across in your speech, so the review assists in repeating key ideas that support your thesis statement.

Because you are trying to remind the audience of your main points, you want to be sure not to bring up any new material or ideas. For example, if you said, “There are several other issues related to this topic, such as…but I don’t have time for them,” that would make the audience confused and perhaps wonder why you did not address those in the body section. The hardcore facts and content are in the body.

Element 2: Restate the Thesis

Make sure to restate your thesis because this is the main argument that you’re leaving the audience with. While this may come before or after the review of your main points, it’s important because it often directs the audience and reminds them why they’re present. Concluding without reiterating your thesis statement requires the audience to remember an idea from the introduction—which can feel like a long time ago.

Element 3: Clincher

The third element of your conclusion is the clincher, or something memorable with which to conclude your speech. The clincher is sometimes referred to as a concluding thought. These are the very last words you will say in your speech, so you need to make them count.

In many ways the clincher is the inverse of the attention-getter. You want to start the speech off with something strong, and you want to end the speech with something strong. To that end, similar to what we discussed above with attention getters, there are a number of ways you can make your clincher strong and memorable.

Strategies for Effective Concluding Thoughts
Conclude with a Challenge A challenge is a call to engage in some kind of activity that requires
Conclude with a Quotation Select a quotation that’s related to your topic
Visualize the Future Help your audience imagine the future you believe can occur.
Conclude by Inspiration Use inspiration to stir someone’s emotions in a specific manner.
Conclude with a Question Ask a rhetorical question that forces the audience to ponder an idea.
Refer to the Introduction Come full circle by referencing an idea, statistic, or insight from the attention getter
Conclude with a Story Select a brief story aimed at a strong emotional appeal

For the conclusion, make sure your purpose—informative, persuasive, entertaining—is honored.

Key Takeaways

  • The organization and outlining of your speech may not be the most interesting part to think about, but without it, great ideas will seem jumbled and confusing to your audience. To help you prepare for your presentation, you will need to create a preparation outline.
  • Use keywords from your speaking outline to create a cue card. This piece of paper will help guide you through your speech; however, it should serve as more of a reminder of your points instead of a resource you keep going back to.
  • Your introduction is what gets your audience interested in your topic. You can do this by getting their attention with a hook, establishing your credibility, establishing rapport, stating your thesis, and survey your main points.
  • In your body, good signposts or connective statements will ensure your audience can follow you and understand the logical connections you are making with your main ideas, introduction, and conclusion.
  • The conclusion provides a review of what you just talked about. Ideally, the conclusion should remind your audience what you talked about and why it matters to them. You can do this in your summary by reviewing the main ideas, restating the thesis, and ending the speech in a memorable way with a clincher.


This chapter is adapted from “Speak Out, Call In: Public Speaking as Advocacy” by Meggie Mapes (on Pressbooks). It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach Copyright © 2021 by Rebekah Bennetch; Corey Owen; and Zachary Keesey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book