Boundless Communications

Organizing and Outlining the Speech

Main Points

Choosing the Main Points

The needs, interests, and expertise of the audience should be the central consideration in choosing main points.

Learning Objectives

Demonstrate a variety of methods to help you choose your main points based on your audience and the purpose of your speech

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • If you are speaking to a homogeneous audience, research the particular interests of that group and tailor your speech to meet their needs.
  • If you are speaking to a heterogeneous audience, try to find points that will interest each segment of your audience, and also a common purpose to unify diverse elements.
  • As you choose your main points, ask yourself what is at stake for the audience. Why should that particular group of people care about your topic ? How will it affect them?

Key Terms

  • heterogeneous: Diverse in kind or nature; composed of diverse parts.
  • Homogeneous: Having the same composition throughout; of uniform make-up.

Choosing Main Points

When you are preparing a speech, it is important to establish a clear focus from the beginning. How should you narrow your focus and choose your main points? Follow the first commandment of public speaking: Know Thy Audience.

Focus on the Audience

According to a Greek philosopher named Epictetus, "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. " Epictetus's wisdom applies to public speaking: listening to the audience is twice as important as speaking to the audience. Find out what your audience members already know about your topic, what they want to learn, and why it is important to them. If you focus on information that is obvious, irrelevant, or incomprehensible to them, you may find yourself speaking to a room full of yawns, cell phones, and backs walking out of your talk. However, if you research the demographics of your audience, you may avoid some common last-minute dilemmas: "Do I need to define this term? " "Will this anecdote offend anyone? " "Will anyone care about what I'm saying? "

An audience waiting to hear Canadian politician Justin Trudeau speak at the University of Waterloo's Humanities Theater.

Consider the Audience: In order to create an effective speech, the speaker needs to take the specific audience into account.

Of course, some groups are easier to figure out than others. Let's say you are speaking at a professional development conference for paralegals. In that case, the attendees share a common purpose, which makes it easier to address their specific needs. You could look at sources such as professional journals and conference bulletins from previous years to see what issues are important to ambitious paralegals. If, on the other hand, you are speaking at a high school graduation ceremony, the audience may include a wide range of people with very little in common except the ceremony itself. In that case, your main points could focus on graduation, the one thing that binds everyone together.

Before you choose your main points, answer these questions about the audience:

  • What does the audience know about my topic?
  • Is the audience homogenous or heterogeneous?
  • How does this topic relate to the audience?
  • Why is this topic important to the audience?
  • What is at stake for the audience?
  • What does the audience want to learn about my topic?
  • How can I show the audience that my main points are relevant and useful?

Homogeneous and Heterogeneous Audiences

A homogeneous audience is a group of people who share a consistent level of interest and expertise in your topic. A heterogeneous audience includes people with different levels of expertise and interest in your topic. It is important to determine what type of audience you have, and plan your speech accordingly. If you are writing a toast for your best friend's wedding, you already know what your listeners want: they are gathered to celebrate the happy couple, and your toast should help them do that. On the other hand, if you are presenting scientific research to a mixed audience of academics and wealthy donors, you need to navigate a varied set of interests, agendas, and levels of knowledge as you select your main points. If there are non-experts in the audience, it is important to provide background information and define key terms. For a heterogeneous audience, you should make points that appeal to different segments of the audience, but also try to identify points that will unite your listeners under a common cause.

If you are addressing a homogeneous group, don't take their interest for granted. It's not a free pass--a homogeneous audience is not a captive audience. For example, if you are presenting research on business ethics to a group of specialists in your field, make sure to include points that might be applicable to their research.

The Stakes

How does your topic relate to your listeners, why should they care about it, and what is at stake for them? The answers to these questions will be your best guide in choosing main points. If you want to hold your audience's attention, your speech needs to answer these questions as early as possible.

The Innovation

What are you adding to the existing conversation about your topic? What can your speech offer that the audience won't find elsewhere? If you want to hold your audience's attention, make a case for the comparative advantage of your perspective.

The Purpose

Most speeches aim to do one of three things: to inform, to persuade, or to commemorate. Choose main points that will fulfill your speech's overall purpose:

  • For an informative speech, provide a foundation of relevant information and then present knowledge and wisdom that will be useful to your audience.
  • A persuasive speech assumes that your audience already has preconceptions about your topic. Address these preconceptions, and then introduce points that prove the value of your position.
  • A commemorative speech usually compiles stories and wisdom that will help the audience honor, remember, or celebrate something.

Remember the broad purpose of your speech--to inform, to persuade, or to commemorate--as you choose your main points.

Ordering the Main Points

There are 9 different ways to organize your speech and the type of speech can help you decide which one is best to use.

Learning Objectives

List ways to organize the main points of your speech

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • When ordering main points, the speaker should consider the audience and find a way to make sure the points are arranged to help retention and clarity.
  • Try to limit a speech to 3 or 4 main points with supporting sub-points to make sure the audience is not overwhelmed with too much information.
  • Each of the main points would require additional support and evidence in a speech and are identified only to aid the conceptualization of the organizational forms.
  • Asking someone to listen to the speech can help make sure that the main points flow well and are in a order that will help maximize understanding for the audience.

Key Terms

  • chronological: In order of time from the earliest to the latest
  • sub points: A sub point has a direct, specific relation to its major point that you can make clear by the organizational method you choose.

Ordering Main Points

It is important to make sure that a speech flows properly to enhance understanding. When ordering main points, the speaker should consider the audience and find a way to make sure that the points are arranged to help retention and clarity.

A man giving a speech and using his hands for emphasis.

Organizing the Main Points: Making sure the main points are ordered correctly helps the speech to flow better.

How Many Main Points?

Try to keep main points down to three or four with supporting sub points. An audience will only be able to grasp so much information at one time and the presenter does not want to bombard the audience with too much information at once. Additionally, make sure that each of your main points are supported by the same number of subpoints or evidence. This adds balance and proportion to your speech.

Ways to Organize the Main Points of Body

The following are the 9 different ways to organize your speech, including examples to help you understand better. Each of the main points, of course, would require additional support and evidence in a speech and are identified only to aid the conceptualization of the organizational forms.

Temporal Organization

This is the chronological approach; it is good choice for when you are telling a story, explaining research, or outlining a future plan.


Telling why something happened; cause-effect may be used for past, present, or future events and processes. Cause-effect can also be reversed, from effect back to cause.

Example: What causes something to happen, and the result (effect) of the occurrence.

Spatial Patterns

When using spatial patterns, be sure to proceed systematically from one place to the next, following a clear order. A size sequence is a variation on spatial organization, describing different artifacts from smallest to largest (or from largest to smallest). This is useful when describing something, especially a progression through a place/time or a physical object.

Example: First you enter here, then you go through there, and you end up…


Topical is an appropriate approach when the subject matter has clear categories of division.

Example: My Family: my dad, my mom, my brothers.

Importance Patterns

This can be used to discuss the different reasons for something and then designating their importance.

Example: If you were the President's advisor, you may come to him/her with 3 problems, organizing each in the order of importance to the country.


The compare/contrast takes two or more entities and draws attention to their differences and/or similarities.

Example: If you were comparing apples and oranges you could use this to better clarify and prove your argument.

Problem-Solution Organization

  • Problem-solution organization involves the identification of a problem followed by a possible solution.

Example: (1) Timmy does not have enough skittles (2) Ask Bobby to share.

Stock Issues

Stock issues are designed to organize presentations on issues of policy in a more complicated way than simple problem-solution. There are generally four main components to this organizational scheme:

  • a description of the current system (inherency, or the inherent flaws in the current system),
  • explanation of the harms that result from the current system (harms),
  • a program to address those harms (a plan of action),
  • reasons why the plan would be preferable to keeping the current system (solvency or why the plan would help the problem).

Monroe's Motivated Sequence

This is good organizational tactic for persuasive speaking. It has 5 Components:

  • Gain audience attention
  • Show need for change
  • Provide an alternative
  • Benefits of the change
  • A call for action

Highlighting the Main Points

If you want your audience to follow your main points, you should highlight them using visual and textual cues.

Learning Objectives

Give examples of ways to highlight the main points in your speech

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • 65% of Americans are primarily visual learners, while 30% work best with auditory learning and 5% thrive with kinesthetic (or hands-on, touch-based) learning. This puts public speakers at a disadvantage, since only 30% of Americans learn best by listening.
  • Public speakers should accept the reality of distractible audiences and take responsibility for getting the message across despite this challenge.
  • Public speakers can emphasize their main points using visual and textual cues.

Key Terms

  • visual cue: A visual cues is a signal the audience can see. Examples of visual cues include slides, handouts, charts, and also the speaker's body language.
  • textual cue: Textual cues are signals within the language of a speech: key words and phrases, examples, anecdotes, and selections of text that appear on a slide or handout.

Highlighting Main Points

The scenario: your teacher is droning on and on, and your mind wanders..."Mmm, food. What's in the fridge? Should I buy groceries after class? What could I make for dinner? " When you snap back into focus, the teacher has just finished explaining a key concept. Nothing else makes sense without that piece of the puzzle, but you can't just turn back a page or hit rewind, so you're out of luck! We've all been there, right? This is an important lesson for public speakers: no matter what you do, audience members will zone out occasionally. In an ideal world, your listeners would cherish every word that comes out of your mouth, but in the real world, that's not going to happen. It's practically a law of nature, so you might as well accept it and plan accordingly: highlight your main points to help your audience catch the most important ideas.

Visual and Textual Cues

Public speakers can highlight important points using visual cues and textual cues. Visual cues are cues the audience can see, including aids such as slides, handouts, and charts, and also the speaker's body language. Textual cues relate to the content of the speech: signal words and phrases, examples, anecdotes, and selections of text that appear on a slide or handout. Take responsibility for your message and use some of these tried and tested techniques to get your message across.

Four highlighters with marks on a piece of paper.

Highlighting Main Points: Public speakers can use visual aids and textual cues to highlight their main points.

Highlighting with Visual and Textual Cues

Some studies estimate that 65% of Americans are primarily visual learners, while 30% work best with auditory learning and 5% thrive with kinesthetic (or hands-on, touch-based) learning. This puts public speakers at a disadvantage, since only 30% of Americans learn best by listening. Fortunately, speakers can use visual cues to make their words "stick. " For examples of visual cues, just look at the page you are reading right now. Important points are highlighted with topic headings in large typeface, bold font, italics, bulleted lists, banks of key terms, etcetera: the visual presentation of a printed page functions as a guide for the reader. For a speech, the rules are a little bit different. To highlight key terms and new topic headings, a speaker can create slides or handouts that outline the speech's main points. To convey the effect of italics or bold print, a speaker has to rely on tone of voice rather than visual cues. To combine visual and kinesthetic learning, speakers can poll the audience and ask them to raise their hands and look around the room to see the results. Here are several techniques for using visual aids such as slides, handouts, or posters to enhance your presentation:

Highlighting with Graphics

Graphics such as charts and pictures can make a presentation more engaging by illustrating the main points. If you support your claims with numbers, visual aids such as charts, graphs, and models would help your audience understand the figures easier and faster. If your speech describes people, places, or objects, pictures of those subjects would make your presentation more vivid and interesting.

Highlighting with Text

Visual aids such as slides, handouts, and posters are excellent ways to highlight key phrases, definitions, quotes, and lists. Spoken words can evaporate as soon as they leave your mouth, but written words stay in place--they're not going anywhere. Try to put your most important points in concrete form. For example, a slide show that lists important definitions allows the audience to copy the definitions exactly as they appear, refer back to them, and make mental notes of the most important terms. When you make an outline of your speech, keep the question of visual aids in mind. You can save time with an outline that converts easily into visual aids: remember this when you choose subject headings, definitions, quotes, and key phrases.

Highlighting with Signal Words and Phrases

Signal words and phrases are designed to command attention. These verbal road signs have many uses, one of which is to highlight important points. Here are some examples of signal words and phrases that will alert your audience to pay attention: important, noteworthy, crucial, vital, major, principal, primary, central, valuable, defining, distinctive, relevant, above all, in the end

Highlighting with Examples

Precept is instruction written in the sand. The tide flows over it, and the record is lost. Example is graven on the rock, and the lesson is not soon lost.
-William Ellery Channing

Instructions, rules, and descriptions are all great, but if you want to make a concept stick, support it with an example. Different types of examples include facts, figures, data, illustrations, anecdotes, and quotes. As an illustration, compare the following two versions of the same point:

  1. Many Americans struggle with debt. For this reason, affordable health care is an important priority for our country.
  2. Anne Smith is one of the forty-six million Americans who live below the poverty line today. Last week, Anne arrived at the emergency room of Lutheran General Hospital unconscious and seriously injured after a drunk driver hit her and left her half dead. Anne survived, thanks to the hard-working EMTs at Lutheran General, but she woke up the next morning with $120,000 in medical bills. A health care system that cripples its patients with debt is not consistent with a healthy economy: Americans like Anne deserve better.

The second version combines facts, figures, and an anecdote to convey the human impact of the situation along with its broader significance. That is the power of example in action.

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