A Guide to Basic Speech Structure

“A Speech is not an essay up on its hind legs!”

The biggest difference between preparing a speech and preparing an essay is the audience. The essay’s audience—a reader—takes in the written ideas through the eyes. A public presentations’ audience, however, understands the speaker’s ideas by seeing, hearing and “feeling” the speaker by using their eyes, ears and heart. If an essay’s ideas aren’t clear, its audience can read the words over and over again. When speaking in front of a live audience, however, you only have one shot at getting your point across.

Good news! You can get your point across in one shot with structure.

I like to think of a speech as a journey that you and your audience take together. You don’t want to lose your audience, so plan for a clear beginning (introduction), middle (body) and end (conclusion).

FIRST: Decide where you’re going. Where are you taking your audience? We call this your PURPOSE, and speakers often begin their planning by writing a purpose statement.

Purpose statements are ambitious, active and audience focused.

Here are some examples:

  • My purpose is to teach my audience three ways they can turn data into clear, useful charts.
  • My purpose is to persuade my audience to vote for this new idea because it’s affordable, quick to implement and will have long-lasting positive impact.
  • My purpose is to inspire my audience by sharing research that may predict sustainable life on Mars.

A purpose statement is critical in speech planning because:

  1. It keeps you “one sentence clear.” You know where you’re headed with the audience.
  2. It basically writes the body of your speech for you. (three ways to turn data into charts; vote because it’s affordable, quick and lasting; the two to three ways my research might predict sustainability on Mars...)
  3. It gives you a way to evaluate how successful you were after your presentation. Ask yourself: Did I achieve my purpose?

Now that you have your purpose statement, you can write your Introduction, right? WRONG!

Begin writing your speech by outlining the body of the speech first. Then write the introduction. You can’t introduce what you haven’t written yet, so begin with the body of the speech first.

Ultimately, the outline of your speech will have an introduction, a body and a conclusion.


  1. Engage the audience. Start with a story, a startling statement, statistic, or a question that grabs your audience’s attention. The best presentations begin by answering “why...” In other words, why you are excited about your research or speech topic, and most important, why the audience should care. Watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk for inspiration. 
  2. Focus the presentation. Now that your audience knows why they should care, state your thesis or goal. Let your audience know what they’ll learn.
  3. Preview the presentation’s structure, content or approach to let the audience know how the presentation will unfold.


Organize your talk logically and clearly around 2-3 main points or arguments. For each major section of your presentation, follow the “4 S Structure”1:

  • Signpost the point (“First, I’m going to point out the problem with...” My second argument is that...” “Now let me explain my methodology.”)
  • State the point clearly and succinctly
  • Support the point with data, cases, description, relevant studies, etc.
  • Summarize the point

Then make a clear transition to the next major section.


  1. Summarize and re-focus. Review key points or arguments. Restate the thesis.

  2. Close. Create a closing statement. Nodding back to the introduction can alert the audience that the speech has come to an end and provides a satisfying sense of final closure. Avoid using “Thank you” as your conclusion. Wait until the audience applauds. Then, thank them for that.

Audience Questions

1. Adapted from Joyce Ferguson, “Speaking Across the Curriculum at UNCG,” in Communication Across the UNCG Curriculum: A Guide for Faculty, ed. Karen Meyers, University of North Carolina—Greensboro, 2002.