How do I organize my talk?

There are two basic outlines that work well for the beginning speaker.

  1. The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) format.
    AA members use this when they stand up and "qualify" their experiences:
  • This is where I was.
  • This is where I am now.
  • This is how I got here.
  1. This simple outline can help you tell the audience who you are and why you are qualified to speak on the topic you've chosen. A friend of mine had been asked to present a 25-minute speech for the local Board of Realtors because of her great success in real estate. I suggested she use the AA outline and open like this: "Twelve years ago, when I went into the real estate business, I had never sold anything but Girl Scout cookies and hadn't done well with that." (This is where I was.) "Last year, I sold $15 million of real estate in a slow market, selling homes that averaged $150,000 each." (This is where I am now.) "Today, I'll tell you how I did that." (This is how I got here.)
  2. The Q & A format.
    List the questions your prospects, clients, and friends ask you most often about your business. Then open your talk with, "The five questions I am most frequently asked about investments (or engineering or whatever your field is) are..."

    Pose the first question to the audience, and answer it for them in a conversational manner, just as you would to a potential customer or someone you meet at a party. You may never have given a speech before, but you certainly have a lot of practice answering these questions.
How do I write my speech?

  1. Open with a bang.
    The first and last 30 seconds of your speech have the most impact, so give them extra thought and effort. If you haven't hooked your audience's interest, their minds are going to wander off. Whatever you do, don't waste any of your precious seconds with "Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be here tonight." Open with an intriguing or startling statement: "Half the people in this room are going to . . .," "As a young man, my father gave me this valuable advice...," "Of all the questions I am most frequently asked..."
  2. Use humor cautiously.
    Opening a speech with a joke or funny story is the conventional wisdom, but nothing falls flatter than inappropriate humor. A friend who works at AT&T was convinced a joke was the only way to start a speech. He called me late one night, frantic to find the perfect joke for his boss to use the next day. I asked if his boss was funny. "No!" he answered emphatically. Then, I said, "you're going to make your boss look like an idiot in front of the troops." I suggested opening with an inspirational quote instead. We chose one, and the speech was a great success.

    Before you use humor to open your talk, test each possibility by asking:
  • Is it appropriate to the occasion and for the audience?
  • Is it in good taste?
  • Does it relate to me, my product or service, the event, or the group?
  • Does it support my topic or its key points?

  1. If you can't answer yes to these questions, choose a different opening. It's safer and more effective to tell the audience what they most want to know from you. For example, I helped a neighbor, Mike Powell, with a speech he was putting together for the Continental Breakfast Club in San Francisco. Mike was a senior scientist with Genentech at the time. I suggested that since most of us don't know what scientists are like or what they do, he should tell the audience what it was like to be a scientist. Mike captured everyone's attention by saying, "Being a scientist is like doing a jigsaw puzzle in a snowstorm at night: You don't have all the pieces and you don't have the picture you are trying to create."

    You can say more with less. Think about your audience. What is the information they want the most from you? If you know your business, you'll be able to predict what their questions will be simply by experience. If you're not sure what a particular audience might want to hear, talk to the program chair ahead of time and get that information.
  2. Develop strong supporting stories.
    If you're using the AA format, the middle of your talk is where you expand on your key points and develop personal stories that support where you were and where you are now. In the Q&A format, develop one or two strong anecdotes to support each answer. Personal anecdotes are best, but you can also insert some of the ideas and examples you've been gathering in your journal or computer.
  3. Close on a high note.
    Your close should be the high point of your speech. First, summarize the key elements of the investment process (or whatever your topic is). If you're planning to take questions from the audience, say, "Before my closing remarks, are there any questions." Answer them then.

    The last 30 seconds of your speech must send people out energized and fulfilled. Finish your talk with something inspirational that supports your theme. My scientist friend Mike talked of the frustrations of being a scientist, and he closed by saying, "People often ask, Why should anyone want to be a scientist?" Then Mike told them about a particularly information-intensive medical conference he had attended. The final speaker rose and said, "I am a thirty-two-year-old wife and mother of two. I have AIDS. Please work fast."

    Mike got a standing ovation for his speech. He told his audience what they needed to know.

Patricia Fripp is a San Francisco-based executive speech coach and professional speaker on change, teamwork, customer service,promoting business, and communication skills. She isthe author of Make It, So You Don't Have to Fake It and Get What You Want! Fripp also served as president of the National Speakers Association. She can be contacted via e-mail, at 800-634-3035, or through her Web site

Copyright © 2000 Patricia Fripp