59 Why We Need Organization in Speeches

Learning Objectives

After studying this chapter, the student will be able to:

  1. Explain why organization is necessary and valuable to public speaking.
  2. Differentiate the different types of organizational patterns.
  3. Choose an organizational pattern that is most logical to the speech’s specific purpose.
  4. Construct an outline for an extemporaneous speech.
  5. Create connective statements that will help the audience understand the logic and structure of a speech.

Why We Need Organization in Speeches

Have you had this experience? You have an instructor who is easy to take notes from because he or she helps you know the main ideas and gives you cues as to what is most important to write down and study for the test. And then you might have an instructor who tells interesting stories, says provocative things, and leads engaging discussions, but you have a really hard time following where the instruction is going. If so, you already know that structure makes a difference for your own listening. In this chapter we will examine why that is true and how you can translate that type of structure to your own speeches.

Significant psychological and communication research has been done about how an audience needs and desires clear organization in a speech as they listen. Those sources are listed in the references at the end of the book, but they are summarized here.

First, 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 some 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. It is also acceptable for short speeches to just have two main points, if doing so supports your specific purpose. That last phrase is bolded for emphasis because 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). Before you can label your main points clearly or put them in the right order, you have to group your information.


Here we might use the analogy of having a yard sale at your home, something you might have done or helped a family member to do. The first step, before putting up signs or pricing items, is to go through your closets and garage and creating “piles” of items: what you want to sell, what should probably just be discarded, what you want to keep but store elsewhere, what you might want to give away. Then you take the “sell” pile and separate it into categories such as children’s items, tools, kitchen items, furniture, etc. This second phase of sorting items is so you can put them outside on your lawn or driveway in a way people expect to see items and would be more likely to buy. You would probably not sort items by color or size, although you could. It’s just that your customers are not looking for “blue” items or “big” items as much as they are looking for kitchen items, baby clothes, or furniture.

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, such as the items at a yard sale, where you group according to customer interest and purpose of the items. Finally, 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. It’s what we would call “extraneous.”

A good example of this principle is if you are doing a demonstration speech. It may or may not be required in your class but is the kind of speech you may be called upon to do in your future work. For example, a nurse may be teaching patients how to do self-care for diabetes, or a computer trainer may be showing how to use software. The temptation is to treat the procedure as a list of steps, which may number as many as twenty or thirty steps.

There are very few times we can remember a list of twenty or thirty items. Yes, you learned the alphabet of 26 letters when you were a child, or all the state capitals, but you have probably forgotten how long it took. Plus, you probably learned a song to help with the alphabet, and you also did not understand the point of the alphabet; it was just something you did with other children or to please your parents. In the case of the state capitals, you probably used flashcards or memory aids.

Adult learning and listening is different. We need information “chunked” or grouped into manageable categories. So, instead of listing twenty or thirty discrete steps in the process you are demonstrating or explaining, you would want to group the steps into three to five logical categories to help the audience’s reception and retention of the message, using the separate minor steps as “subpoints.”

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 side benefit to learning to be an organized public speaker: your writing skills will improve, specifically your organization and sentence structure. This was no surprise to one of the authors, whose students often comment that they were able to organize their essays and papers for other classes much better after learning good organization principles for speaking.


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Exploring Communication in the Real World Copyright © 2020 by Chris Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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