Guide on the Side – How to Organize the Body of a Speech

Previous Articles by Marie Wallace

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

The “meat” of a speech is the body, sandwiched between the opening and the ending. Although each of the three parts has a unique function and is important, the body is the biggest and requires some imagination to organize effectively. Organizers are over-arching concepts or themes, such as characters, place, size or time, which aggregate and characterize subtopics. They also lend another dimension to a speech.

The time to consider the way to organize the body of your speech is after you brainstorm, sort and select the points you want to make. The best organizers act as a prism (with a result much like a rainbow) for the audience to grasp and remember what you say. Organizers make it easier to align your opening, body structure and ending as a cohesive unit. They provide familiar pegs to hang your ideas on, help you connect with the audience quickly and deliver the speech with minimum use of notes.

You have many organizational options and the commonly-used “three points” (or its companion “three reasons”) is only one. To illustrate how organization makes a difference, “We should adopt the XYZ facilities plan for three reasons” can be made more compelling and relevant with “We should adopt the XYZ facilities plan because it supports the three basic values of this firm’s culture.” The content in both may be similar but the first is organized around “reasons” and the second around the “values of the firm’s culture.”

In addition to considering different ways to organize the body of the speech, remember ideally the speech body has three, and five at the most, parts. (Even stories should be told in parts.) Audiences can take in a limited amount of verbal information at a time. Unlike the written word, which is designed for future reference, speeches are transitory and need to exploit human’s natural gift for making associations.

Provide the audience with an overview of your organization, along with your objectives, in your opening. The overview is the first part of the seasoned formula “tell ’em what you are going to tell ’em, “tell ’em” and “tell them what you told em.” To illustrate, “What can be done about L.A. traffic congestion? The real problem is funding, not lack of plans. As bankers, you need to understand the dominance of capital funding issues. Today I am going to identify three so you can help your clients resolve them.” In this example “capital funding issues” is the body organizer (what you “tell ’em.”)

The arrangement principle for the following list of organizing ideas is alphabetical. No one concept is superior to any other and the list is far from definitive. Start your own. My objectives are to start you building a personal repertoire of organizers and to help you recognize that simple organizational structures give life to ideas.

1. Acronyms

Organize an informational speech about a support program for parents of children born with flat feet around the acronym, A.R.C.H. with the individual letters representing a component of your presentation. Similarly, a persuasive presentation about relieving stress could be organized around R.E.L.A.X.

2. Cast of characters

Trainer Jane Holcomb uses three fictional employees to illustrate her points in seminars based on her book, Developing Charlie:How to Grow Great Employees.

Characters can be actual, mythical, historical, political, or stereotypical.

Don’t overlook well-known characters from literature, movies or TV shows.

Characters make great entertaining speeches deriving humor from human frailties.

Use in training where trainees make different applications depending on their responsibilities.

3. Color

This is one of my favorite organizers. It can be used to organize the presentation and then tie in with the props and handouts.

It livens abstract topics.

Color is often a component of the topic such as art, gardening, apparel, interior design, textiles, architecture and food presentation.

4. Cultures

Organizing by culture, in the XYZ example above, is similar to organizing by a cast of characters but I see it as more generic, related to group behaviors and value-driven. It can include work cultures as portrayed in TV such as detectives, cowboys, hospitals or mini-cultures defined by life roles – child or parent. L.A. Law hinged on a small law office culture.

5. Issues

Issues can be financial, aesthetic, philosophical or political.

Issues simplify complex topics such as the War on Drugs.

Issues can de-sensitize topics where the audience has strong opinions or high emotions.

Consider combining Issues with Characters or Cultures for imaginative storytelling.

6. Places and spaces

People have a strong sense of place and often make generic associations with specific types of geography – mountains, seashore, desert.

Many topics are place-specific such as industries, travel and history.

Speech making has spatial dimensions such as why people sit near the exits and why they tend to return to the same seat after the break.

7. Plots, scenarios and stories

Use a universal plot from literature, mythology or nursery rhymes for a technical briefing, especially if there are non-technical people in the audience.

Organize a presentation on the applications of e-learning software around three movie scenarios: Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot and The Misfits.

Real stories and life experiences make powerful narratives.

8. Points of view

Excellent for political topics (conservative, middle of the road, liberal)

Use for different aspects of an industry (consumer, retailer, provider, regulator) or for different professional outlooks on new legislation.

Consider other generic views such as gate-keeper, decision-maker or spokesperson.

Many topics have distinct vantage points by age group or generation.

9. Problem and solution

Good all-purpose organization, especially for persuasive speeches.

Is flexible in that you can have three problems with three solutions or one problem with three solutions. You can even do the solution first and have an interactive exercise after with the audience to identify the problem.

Good choice for emerging topics, such as Cross-border Transfer of Knowledge.

10. Shapes and patterns

Use shapes, such as circles, squares, or triangles for identification, to show relationships and how things work.

Shapes convey thematic unity–everything from quilts, toys, architecture to faces.

Patterns can be used for speeches about music, “Where did Blip-Pop come from?”

Augment shapes and patterns with slides so the audience can imagine and see.

11. Size

Use with quantitative topics such as trends, market share or budgets.

Visualize via charts, graphs or photographs.

Define comparative size – big, medium, large – with visuals or a demonstration.

12. Time

Chose past, present and future for topics that change over time.

Use calendar units (month, decade, fiscal year) with project timelines.

Approach cumulative time via generations (MTV, X, Y and Z).

Characterize past and future events by specific key dates.

Combine reality and whimsy to compare historic ages (Bronze Age, Industrial Age and Bronze in a Bottle Age).

Combine several of the above and you may get When, Where, Why, What, Who and How – another favorite. Consider the organization of the body of your speech as a cognitive tool for the audience (and you) to navigate your presentation. Pick an organizer that connects with what the audience knows and cares about. It doesn’t matter whether your speech is to inform, persuade, entertain or train, organization of the body will make the difference between a “ho-hum” and a “wow” presentation.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills