Article Category: Speechwriting

Speech Preparation #3: Don’t Skip the Speech Outline


Speech OutlineThe previous article in the Speech Preparation Series described how to select your speech topic and your core message.

This article describes how to support your core message with a speech outline, and provides numerous examples. This is the second step in the six-step speech preparation process.

Writing an outline is, unfortunately, a step that many skip. The most common excuse is simply “No time.” This is unfortunate because time spent on an outline is time well spent. It is necessary to ensure that you craft a coherent and focussed presentation.

Speech Preparation Series

Contents

Writing a Speech Outline

An outline is a blueprint for your presentation.

  • It highlights the key logical elements. i.e. what points are being made to logically support the core message?
  • It highlights the key structural elements. e.g. introduction, body, conclusion, stories, high-level concepts
  • It links these elements together in a sequence, perhaps allocating very rough timings.
  • It can also map out the transitions between elements, although this may be deferred to a later stage of preparation.

Basic Speech Outlines

An outline is a blueprint for your presentation.

The basic speech outline template for structural elements is:

  1. Introduction
  2. Body
  3. Conclusion

Similarly, the basic speech outline template for logical elements is the familiar advice:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to say
  2. Tell them
  3. Tell them what you’ve said

Put these together, and you have the start of a generic speech outline:

  1. Introduction — Establish topic and core message; list supporting points
  2. Body
    1. Supporting Point One
    2. Supporting Point Two
    3. Supporting Point Three
  3. Conclusion — Recap main points; summarize core message; call-to-action

It is surprising how well this simple 3-part outline template works for a wide range of speech topics. Incidentally, this same basic formula can be seen in novels, short stories, movies, plays, reports, business briefings, emails, memos, and many other forms of communication.

For many more examples, check out Why Successful Speech Outlines follow the Rule of Three.

Variants or Examples of Speech Outlines

Example: Story-based Outline

Some people believe that stories are the best building blocks for speeches. For example, in The Story Factor (Annette Simmons), the author claims that storytelling is the key to business communications.

  1. Attention grabbing opening which introduces the topic and core message
  2. Tell a story.
    • Make a point
  3. Tell another story.
    • Make another point.
  4. Tell another story.
    • Make another point
  5. Memorable conclusion which ties together all three stories to support the core message.

Example: Scientific Conference Talk Outline

The outline for many scientific talks mirrors the scientific method:

  1. Define the problem needing a solution
  2. Describe the hypothesis which will explore one aspect of the problem
  3. Describe the experiment performed to test the hypothesis
    1. Detail 1 — schematic
    2. Detail 2 — photograph
    3. Detail 3 — description
  4. Show the data collected and subsequent data analysis
    1. Data analysis 1 — chart
    2. Data analysis 2 — chart
    3. Data analysis 3 — table
  5. Draw conclusions relating back to the hypothesis
  6. Suggest future actions

Example: Community Association Meeting Speech Outline

  1. Story to introduce the symptom (e.g. vandalism)
  2. Use facts and evidence to trace back to the core problem (e.g. lack of “safe” activities for youth)
    1. Statistics
    2. Reports
    3. Interviews
  3. Suggest a solution
    1. Budget
    2. Volunteers
    3. Stakeholders
  4. A strong call-to-action motivating the audience to join the cause

Example: Business Proposal to Investors

  1. Be direct: “Invest $___ for %___ of the shares”
  2. Story to illustrate the need for the product XYZ
  3. Story to describe the vision of how product XYZ improves lives
  4. Demo of product XYZ
    1. Benefit #1 (focus on benefits, not features)
    2. Benefit #2
    3. Benefit #3
  5. Invest now and make product XYZ possible
    1. Story illustrating strength of the team
    2. Market analysis
    3. Financial projections
  6. Repeat call-to-action: “Invest $___ for %___ of the shares”

Other Speech Outline Writing Tips

When sequencing your outline points, try to avoid random order. Seek and extract the meaningful relationship.

Note that all of these speech outline examples are appropriate for a short six to ten minute speech. Longer time windows will obviously allow for more detailed outlines.

You may be able to customize one of the generic speech outline formats for your speech; more likely, you will need to craft your own to fit your situation. A few other things to consider:

  • The granularity of your outline should be roughly one outline point per minute of speaking time, perhaps less for lengthy presentations.
  • For presentations which are complemented with slides, your outline might include slide concepts, but no finer details.
    • Remember that your presentation is much more than your set of slides. Your outline should reflect your speaking elements which the slides complement.
  • When sequencing your outline points, try to avoid random order. Seek and extract the meaningful relationship.
    • Chronological – e.g. a biographical speech
    • Spatial – e.g. an entertaining travel speech
    • Cause-effect – e.g. speech relating crime rate to drug use
    • Low to high importance – e.g. reasons to exercise
    • Broad vision to specific details – e.g. a management speech outlining new company direction
  • Your outline is not the same as cue cards, but they are related (if you use cue cards). An outline contains high-level speech elements; cue cards might additionally contain selected speech details e.g. transition phrases, key words/phrases, key numbers, or punch lines.

Tree - Face the Wind

Speech Outline Example — Face the Wind

Here is the original outline that I put together for the Face the Wind speech. Comments follow which represent my thinking at the time of writing the outline.

  1. Opening humor – connect with audience as typical home owner
  2. Story #1 – Backyard tree battle
    • “Strong roots… strong tree”
    • Foreshadow: neighbour’s monster tree falling
  3. Story #2 – Winter storms knock over many trees
    • National news (trees falling on houses), but our house okay
    • Arborists: “Wind came from a different direction”
    • Establish key analogy – Trees cannot face the wind.
  4. Story #3 – Baby Maximus
    • Michelle and Lance have strong roots
    • Maximus is born
  5. Conclusion
    • Call-to-action: “We must face our problems”

Comments on Face the Wind Outline

At the outline stage, I set up many key elements of the speech. I determined the three main stories, planned humorous opening, identified a few key phrases to incorporate, established contrast (tree/people), used a metaphor (roots of people), and concluded with a call-to-action.

Opening – I wanted to open with humor to offset the drama later in the speech. Also, I wanted to connect with the audience as a homeowner as many in the audience are also homeowners.

Story #1 – I wanted the first story to establish the “strong roots… strong tree” connection. By establishing that trees have strong roots, it makes the fact that they were toppled in the storm (story #2) more dramatic.

Story #2 – This story was essentially an expansion of the “wind came from a different direction” theory of arborists that I picked up several months prior from my friend. The fact that trees cannot face the wind is the key analogy in this speech, although the audience doesn’t know it yet.

Speech Preparation Series

Story #3 – This story tells about the struggles which eventually led to the birth of Maximus. The key element here is the contrast between trees and people (who can face the wind).

Next in the Speech Preparation Series

The next article in this series discusses the causes of writer’s block and writing the first draft of your speech.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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Comments icon6 Comments

  1. Andrew, I can’t imagine not using an outline! In fact, for most of my presentations, I ONLY write an outline and use just that for all of my preparation. Can’t have a body without a skeleton!

  2. Chris says:

    Thanks, good information. I needed a refresher on some of this information. Much appreciated. :)

  3. teresa niskern says:

    i think to have a speach outline can help in the long run!!

  4. Lorretta Robinson says:

    This is an extremely good article which helps me a lot!

  5. Debora Loppies says:

    I am one of the students of CST 100 at Northern Virginia community college Annandale campus.

    Writing an outline is such as good help. It helps me to underline all the points that I am going to say, and also it helps me not to focus on my notes so that I can make a great eye contact with my audiences. My speech goes smoothly when I do my outline before that.

  6. Thank you for sharing! Great information to build a speech that will impact listeners. I quill share your page with others!

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Inspiration2go @empowerment2go — Aug 1st, 2012

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@blazelazarony @blazelazarony — Feb 10th, 2014

This article teaches you how to quickly outline your next speech. #speaking http://t.co/bSZLbOD23U

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