Chapter 7: Organizing and Outlining Your Speech

7.1 – Why We Need Organization in Speeches

As we listen, we have limits as to how many categories of information we can keep in mind. You have probably heard that this number of items or categories is seven, or as one source says, “seven plus or minus two” (Miller, 1956; Gabriel and Mayzner, 1963; Cowan, Chen, & Rouder, 2004). In public speaking, to be on the safe side, the “minus two” is advised: in other words, you should avoid having more than five main points in a speech and that would only be for a speech of greater length where you could actually support, explain, or provide sufficient evidence for five points.

For most speeches that you would give in class, where you have about 5-7 minutes, three points is probably safe territory, although there could be exceptions, of course. Short speeches could have only two main points, if doing so supports your specific purpose. Ultimately, your organization is going to depend on your specific purpose.

Secondly, the categories of information should be distinct, different, and clear. You might think about organization in public speaking as having three steps. These steps are grouping, labeling, and ordering (putting into a good order).

Finally, because your audience will understand you better and perceive you as organized, you will gain more credibility as a speaker if you are organized, assuming you also have credible information and acceptable delivery (Slagell, 2013; Sharp & McClung, 1966). Yun, Costantini, and Billingsley (2012) also found a learning side benefit to being an organized public speaker: your writing skills will improve, specifically your organization and sentence structure. Students often comment that they were able to organize their essays and papers for other classes much better after learning good organization principles for public speaking.


Let’s back up just a moment to lead in with this: there are a few steps that need to happen, some in order and some not. You’ll determine the general purpose, specific purpose, and probably the central idea statement of your speech. This might involve extensive brainstorming or that may be next. However, once you have done your brainstorming and have the big picture of your speech figured out, you need to group all of the various ideas into groups that will make sense for your listener.

One great method for this process is to use cue cards or small note-sized paper so that you can write one idea on each card or slip and then physically move them around to see where they are best put together.

For a short speech, you’ll probably group your ideas into two or three groups that work for your specific purpose. You may want to keep one extra “discard” pile for ideas that you decide not to use after all. Keep these for later; you never know when an idea might be worth bringing back into a speech.

There is no “right” way to group ideas. A famous example (or is it apocryphal?) of how interpretations of grouping comes from kindergarten classrooms. Children are given toys such as eagles, alligators, mountains, lakes, goats, and trees and asked to group them. Some children put the animals in one pile and the landforms in another. Some children put the eagle with the tree, the alligator with the lake, and the goat with the mountain. Neither grouping is “right” or “wrong,” but the best grouping choice might depend on your specific purpose for the speech, though.

Researchers have found that “chunking” information, that is, the way it is grouped, is vital to audience understanding, learning, and retention of information (Beighly, 1954; Bodeia, Powers, & Fitch-Hauser, 2006; Whitman & Timmis, 1975; Daniels & Whitman, 1981). How does this work in practice? When you are doing your research, you look at the articles and websites you read and say, “That information relates to what I read over here” and “That statistic fits under the idea of….” You are looking for similarities and patterns.

That is exactly what you do when you group anything. If a piece of information you found doesn’t fit into a group as you do your research, it may just not belong in the speech.

7.2 – Patterns of Organization

Your audience needs organization and, as you do research, you will group together similar pieces of information from different sources in your research. As you group your research information, you will want to make sure that your content is adhering to your specific purpose statement and will look for ways that your information can be grouped together into categories.

At this point, we will address the third step of organization, ordering, and return to labeling later. However, in actually composing your speech, you would want to be sure that you name or label your groups of ideas and content clearly for yourself and then even more clearly for your audience. Labeling is an iterative process, which means you may “tweak” how you label your main points for clarity as you progress in the speech.

Interestingly, there are some standard ways of organizing these categories, which are called “patterns of organization.” In each of the examples below, you will see how the specific purpose gives shape to the organization of the speech and how each one exemplifies one of the six main organizational patterns.


Specific Purpose: To describe to my classmates the four stages of rehabilitation in addiction recovery.

  1. The first stage is acknowledging the problem and entering treatment.
  2. The second stage is early abstinence, a difficult period in the rehabilitation facility.
  3. The third stage is maintaining abstinence after release from the rehab facility.
  4. The fourth stage is advanced recovery after a period of several years.

The example above uses what is termed the chronological pattern of organization. Chronological speeches can be given for two reasons. First, they can be for understanding. The speech about recovery is to explain what happens in the addiction recovery process, but the actual process may never really happen to the audience members. That understanding may also lead them to more empathy for someone in recovery. Second, chronological (or “process”) speeches can be for action and instruction.

You can see that chronological organization is a highly-used structure, since one of the ways our minds work is through time-orientation: past, present, future. One of the problems with chronological speeches is, as mentioned before, that you would not want just a list of activities.


Another common thought process is movement in space or direction, which is called the spatial pattern. Here is an example:

Specific Purpose: To explain to my classmates the three regional cooking styles of Italy.

  1. In the mountainous region of the North, the food emphasizes cheese and meat.
  2. In the middle region of Tuscany, the cuisine emphasizes grains and olives.
  3. In the southern region and Sicily, the diet is based on fish and seafood.

In this example, the content is moving from northern to southern Italy, as the word “regional” would indicate. Here is a good place to note that grouping or “chunking” in a speech helps simplicity and to meet the principle of KIS (Keep It Simple). If you were to actually study Italian cooking in depth, you would learn that there are 20 regions. But covering 20 regions in a speech is not practical and, while the regions would be distinct for a “foodie” or connoisseur of Italian cooking, for a beginner or general audience, three is a good place to start. You could, at the end of the speech, note that more in-depth study would show the 20 regions, but that in your speech you have used three regions to show the similarities of the 20 regions rather than the small differences.

Topical/Parts of the Whole

The topical organizational pattern is probably the most all-purpose in that many speech topics could use it. Many subjects will have main points that naturally divide into “types of” or “categories of.” Other subjects naturally divide into “parts of the whole.” However, as mentioned previously, you want to keep your categories simple, clear, distinct, and at five or fewer.

Specific Purpose: To explain to my college students the concept of SMART goals.

  1. SMART goals are specific and clear.
  2. SMART goals are measurable.
  3. SMART goals are achievable.
  4. SMART goals are relevant and worth doing.
  5. SMART goals are time-bound and doable within a time period.

You might look at the example about the chambers of the heart and say, “those could be presented in any order.” Yes, they could, but the rhetorical mnemonic of “SMART” is being used and “AMRST” simply isn’t as memorable.

Another principle of organization to think about when using topical organization is “climax” organization. That means putting your strongest argument or most important point last when applicable (and often the second strongest first).

Cause/Effect Pattern

If the specific purpose mentions words such as “causes,” “origins,” “roots of,” “foundations,” “basis,” “grounds,” or “source,” it is a causal order; if it mentions words such as “effects,” “results,” “outcomes,” “consequences,” or “products,” it is effect order. If it mentions both, it would of course be cause/effect order. This example shows a cause/effect pattern:

Specific Purpose: To explain to my classmates the causes and effects of schizophrenia.

  1. Schizophrenia has genetic, social, and environmental causes.
  2. Schizophrenia has educational, relational, and medical effects.

A specific purpose like this example is very broad and probably not practical for your in-class speeches; it would be better to focus on either causes or effects, or even just one type of cause (such as genetic causes of schizophrenia) or one type of effect (relational or social). These two examples show a speech that deals with causes only and effects only, respectively.

Problem-Solution Pattern

The principle behind problem-solution pattern is that, if you explain a problem to an audience, you should not leave them hanging without solutions. Problems are discussed for understanding and to do something about them.

Additionally, when you want to persuade someone to act, the first reason is usually that something is wrong! In a real-life example, let’s say you want the members of the school board to provide more funds for music at the three local high schools in your area. What is missing because music or arts are not funded? What is the problem?

Specific Purpose: To persuade the members of the school board to take action to support the music program at the school.

  1. There is a problem with eliminating extracurricular music programs in high schools.
    1. Students who do not have extracurricular music in their lives have lower SAT scores.
    2. Schools that do not have extracurricular music programs have more gang violence and juvenile delinquency.
  2. The solution is to provide $200,000 in the budget to sustain extracurricular music in our high schools.
    1. $120,000 would go to bands.
    2. $80,000 would go to choral programs.

Of course, this is a simple outline and you would need to provide evidence to support the arguments, but it shows how problem-solution works. Psychologically, it makes more sense to use problem-solution rather than solution-problem. The audience will be more motivated to listen if you address needs, deficiencies, or problems in their lives, rather than giving them solutions first.

Problem-Cause-Solution Pattern

A variation of the problem-solution pattern, and one that sometimes requires more in-depth exploration of an issue, is the “problem-cause-solution” pattern. Here’s an example:

Specific Purpose: To persuade my audience that the age to obtain a driver’s license in British Columbia should be raised to 18.

  1. There is a problem in this country with young drivers getting into serious automobile accidents leading to many preventable deaths.
  2. One of the primary causes of this is younger drivers’ inability to remain focused and make good decisions due to incomplete brain development.
  3. One solution that will help reduce the number of young drivers involved in accidents would be to raise the age for obtaining a driver’s license to 18.

Some Additional Principles of Organization

You may use more than one of these organizational patterns within a single speech. For example, the main points of your speech could be one organizational pattern and the subpoints a different one.

Earlier in the chapter, we said that organizing a speech involves grouping, labeling, and ordering. Let’s address labeling here. You will also notice that, in most of the examples so far, the main points are phrased using a similar sentence structure. This simple repetition of sentence structure is called parallelism, a technique useful for speakers and helpful for the audience in remembering information. It is not absolutely necessary in a speech outline, but parallelism should be used unless there is a reason not to.

Finally, in the way you phrase the main points, be sure to adequate label and clearly explain your content. Students are often tempted to write main points as directions to themselves, “Talking about the health department” or “Mention the solution.” This is not helpful for you, nor will your instructor be able to tell what you mean by those phrases. “The health department provides many services for low-income residents” says something we can all understand.

7.3 – Connective Statements

At this point, you may be thinking that preparing for public speaking does not always follow a completely linear process. And you would be correct. In writing the specific purpose statement, you might already have a predetermined structure and, if so, the central idea flows simply from the specific purpose statement and structure. In other instances, the process may not be as direct and you will need to think more deeply about the best way to organize your speech and write your central idea. Some of the examples shown above fall into the “easy-to-follow” category, but others would be harder to follow.

Note that this chapter doesn’t cover introductions; you cannot write an introduction if you do not know what you are introducing. For that reason, even if you are tempted to write your introduction first, you should probably wait until the “core” or “body” of your speech is fairly solid in your mind.

However, there is one aspect beyond the introduction and conclusion that you should prepare and not leave to chance or “ad lib” during the speech. (In fact, you really should not leave anything to chance or “ad lib” in this stage of your development as a public speaker.) That aspect is the connective statements.

Connectives or “connective statements” are broad terms 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 that add to the planned redundancy and they are methods for helping the audience listen, retain information, and follow your structure.

Connectives in general 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?
  • 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

Connectives can include “internal summaries,” “signposting,” “internal previews” or “bridging statements.” Each of these terms help connect the main ideas of your speech for the audience, but they have different emphases and are useful for different types of speeches.

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 parts of 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.

“After looking at how the the invention of the steamship spread dangerous vermin to the world’s vineyards, we can compare the impacts of climate change on wine production today.”

At a bare minimum your transition is saying, “Now that we have looked at X, let’s look at Y.”

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 it is generally meant to be a brief way to let your audience know where they are in the speech. Think of these like the mile markers you see along major highways that tell you where you are or like signs letting you know how much further until you reach your destination.

“The second aspect of baking chocolate chip cookies is to combine your ingredients in the recommended way.”

Bridging statements emphasize moving the audience psychologically to the next step.

“I have mentioned two huge disadvantages to students who don’t have extracurricular music programs. Let me ask: Is that what we want for your students? If not, what can we do about it?”

There is no standard format for connectives. In any speech, there would be multiple ways to help the audience move with you, understand your logic, keep their attention, and remind them of where they have been and where they are going. However, there are a few pieces of advice to keep in mind about connectives.

First, connectives are for connecting. They are not for providing evidence. Save statistics, stories, examples, or new factual information for the supporting points of the main ideas of the speech. Use the connectives for the purposes listed above, not to provide new examples, facts, or support.

Second, remember that connectives in writing can be relatively short—a word or phrase. In public speaking, connectives need to be a sentence or two. When you first start preparing and practicing connectives, you may feel that you are being too obvious with them and they are “clunky.” Some connectives may seem to be hitting the audience over the head with them like a hammer. While you can overdo connectives, and we have heard speakers do so, it is less likely than you would think. The audience will appreciate them and, as you listen to your classmates’ speeches, you will become aware of when they are present and when they are absent. A lack of connectives results in hard-to-follow speeches where the information seems to come up unexpectedly or the speaker seems to jump to something new without warning or clarification.

Third, you will also want to vary your connectives and not use the same one all the time. Avoid using the words “so” and “then” too much or repeatedly (as in, “and then…and then…and then…so…so…so…”).

7.4 – Outlining

For the purposes of a public speaking course, there are two primary types of outlines that we will discuss: preparation outlines and speaking outlines.

Preparation Outlines

Preparation outlines are comprehensive outlines that include all of the information in your speech. This is also most likely the outline that you will be required to turn in to your instructor on the days you give your speeches or, in some cases, several days before you give the speech in class. Each instructor of public speaking has a slightly different method for approaching outlining. The examples given here are variations, so please attend to the exact specifications that your instructor may require.

Some instructors require students to label parts of the introduction, for example with “Attention getter” and “Credibility,” and some like the introduction to have Roman numeral points. Some may want the central idea statement underlined. Some versions of outlines consider the introduction “Main Point I” and the conclusion the last main point. Some will expect all units to be full sentences and some will require full sentences in the main points only. However, there are some parts of an extemporaneous speech outline that are always present: the specific purpose, the introduction, the central idea statement and preview, the speech body with clearly labeled units, the connectives, and the conclusion. Otherwise, the form should serve the speech, not the other way around.

You may wonder, “What’s the deal with outlines in speech class? Why can’t I just write out my speech in essay form?” The outline requires you to clearly designated each part of the speech and use a system where the “big ideas” are distinct from the supporting or “smaller ideas.” Usually, this is done with indentation to the left and certain symbols for each unit. If you have to edit the speech for time or for a particular audience, it’s much easier to subtract or add when you know the relative importance of the idea. If you’re running short on time, you’ll know where you can cut a few points on the fly; a good speaker also has a few “bonus points” they can add if the speech is moving along faster than they expected.

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 it just as the blueprint guides the building of the house. You do not live on a blueprint, but in a home built from a blueprint.

Speaking Outlines

The preparation outline is something you will move away from as you practice your speech and get ready for the delivery. You must give yourself adequate time to practice the delivery of your speech—which is why procrastination is one of a public speaker’s worst enemies. As you practice, you will be able to summarize the full preparation outline down to more usable notes. You should create a set of abbreviated notes for the actual delivery. The more materials you take up with you to the lectern, the more you will be tempted to look at them, rather than have eye contact with the audience, and that will affect your connection with the audience. More materials also means more chance to get lost in them, looking around for where you left off.

Your speaking notes should be in far fewer words than the preparation, in key phrases, and in larger letters than the preparation outline. Your speaking outline should provide cues to yourself to “slow down,” “pause,” or “change slide.” You may want to use a single sheet of paper with large bullet points or a set of cue cards, but again, keep them to a minimum.


The organization 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. Even more, good connectives will ensure your audience can follow you and understand the logical connections you are making with your main ideas.

Something to Think About

With a friend or fellow student, listen to a speech by a professional speaker, such as a TED Talk, and see if you can detect their structure and use of transitions. Then have a discussion about how the structure and transitions help (or don’t) your understanding and retention of what was said.


This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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Public Speaking for Today's Audiences Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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