How do you structure a great speech? Here’s a quick way to think about a speech structure that works in many situations. 

A great speech puts the occasion, the audience, and the speaker together in an unforgettable way. All three pieces of the rhetorical puzzle are important.

Begin by considering the audience’s needs. Ultimately a great speech is only partially about you. It’s also about the audience and the moment in history when you’re speaking.

So ask yourself, who is this audience? What does it want? Why has it invited me to speak to it? What aspect of my message is relevant to it?

And then ponder the occasion. What’s happening right now that will be on the minds of everyone in the room? What does that audience need to hear?

Now get as much of that as you can into the first three minutes of the talk in a compelling story.  You need to find a way to encapsulate your talk vividly and quickly, so that you get the audience’s attention, and hold it long enough to get started, in an era when attention is a scarce commodity.

That’s the opening. How do you keep the audience’s attention for the next 15 – 20 minutes or so?

Ask yourself one simple question: What’s the problem the audience has for which the information I’m ready to talk about is the answer?

Let’s say you’re a world-class expert on yaks and llamas. You’re ready to go crazy on the subject. All you need is a problem.  What about those yaks can you relate to the audience in front of you?  It might be global warming, or the need for comfort animals, or the opportunity to make money by raising yaks or llamas – your call, but pick one. 

Next comes the solution of the problem you’ve just talked about.

This is the fun part for most people – it’s where you get to jump into your expertise. The audience will be thrilled to hear about it, because they want a solution to the problem just described. And because you’ve tailored the problem to the audience and to your expertise, you’re the exact right person to give the audience what it wants.

You get roughly as long as you spent on the problem to present your solution – in this case, fifteen to twenty minutes. It’s important to understand that just as you can’t skimp on the problem (or else the audience won’t be emotionally ready to hear a solution), you can’t skimp on the solution either.

Problem – solution. It’s an ancient formula for persuading somebody of something. Unless you don’t want to be persuasive, it’s the best structure for a speech. The Greeks invented it, more than 2,000 years ago, and it worked well for them. It will work well for you today.

Now, you’re close to the finish line. The best way to end is to give your audience something to do.

What should that look like? Ask them to do something that is the next (tiny) step toward buying into your message. If you’re a consultant, for example, and you’ve just been talking up the advantages of your 5-point system for transforming customer service, then get them to take a quick diagnostic (that you hand out) that will let them know how much work their own customer service needs.

Or, if you’re saving the environment, ask people in the audience for a pledge to change one habit tomorrow that will improve their carbon footprints.

Find something relevant and connected closely to your message. Ask yourself, what’s the next thing I would want my audience to do, after the speech is over, say, back at the office on the next working day? Then, get them to do that, or a step toward that. The point is that what people do they believe. So if you get them to act, that will reinforce their belief in your message.

Finally, you get to close by reminding the audience, in a stirring and powerful way, of the central theme of the talk. Great closes are inspirational, and aspirational. Remind the audience of the big reason they’re all there, or point the way up the path to greatness.

Keep it short (under 3 minutes, closer to 1 minute is better), keep it inspirational, and then don’t forget to say ‘thank you’. That’s the universally understood signal that a speech is done and the audience should applaud. If you’ve done well, they’ll leap to their feet.

By the way, if you’re going to take questions, then save this ending segment until the very end. If you finish with Q and A, then you’re at the mercy of the last question. Often, the last question is not the best one, and it may even be asked by a crank who has been waiting, and fuming, for some time. So deal with the questions, but then close with your own statement. Audiences tend to remember best the last thing they hear, so make it yours.

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