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3 Essential Aspects of Organization: Outline, Transitions, and Patterns

There are three aspects to organization. It's important to use all three in order to keep your audience with you at all times. The first two are outlining and transitions, the third has to do with the order in which you present your information, or a pattern of organization.

Outlining: The Key to Organization

Fine speakers have various methods of approaching their material, but they all have one thing in common: a good outline. It highlights the important elements of your talk, gets rid of the excess, and helps you choose the best supporting information. An outline compels you to analyze your logic and reveals any gaps or flaws in your reasoning.

A strong outline also helps you perform your speech better because you visualize the main points in your mind. Your talk flows easily toward the conclusion without hesitation.

The biggest advantage of a good outline is that it can be modified to meet different situations and demands. With the right outline, you can change a 20-minute speech into a five-minute one, and vice versa.

Indeed, you should be prepared to deliver long, medium-length, or short versions of your speech, especially if you are the last speaker and the speakers before you ran over their time limits. A British foreign secretary was once at the mercy of a long-winded toastmaster who took up all the remaining time and most of the audience's patience. When the toastmaster finally introduced the secretary with the words "...and now our foreign secretary will give his address," the gentleman stood up and said: "I have been asked to give my entire address in the remaining five minutes. That I can do. Here it is: 10 Carlton Gardens, London, England." He then sat down, to appreciative applause.

A Good Outline Is Lean and Mean

The most frequent outline mistake is not making it simple and orderly. You may be tempted to cover many items, which all seem to be equally important. That's an understandable impulse; you don't want to leave out key facts or topics. But this approach will get you in the end. For starters, it's doubtful all those tempting items are equal in importance, and your audience just can't absorb that many points.

You must establish priorities. First, identify the three or four major points that need to be covered. Then establish subheads that will provide the framework people will use to absorb the information.

A popular management phrase these days is "lean and mean," think of a good outline as being "lean and clean." The following is a good general outline that should suit most presentations. It's designed to grab your audience, hold its attention, and provide the right amount of information.

Sample Outline for a 20-Minute Presentation

  1. Introduction: (5 percent of your time)

    1. Opening statement to gain attention and interest—capitalizes on audience's goodwill.

      1. Development of opening statement.

      2. Other supporting material if needed.

    2. Second introductory point (if necessary).

  2. Body: (90 percent of your time)

    1. First main point of your speech.

      1. Major subpoint supporting point A.

      2. Subpoint supporting point A.

    2. Second main point of speech.

      1. Major subpoint supporting point B.

      2. Subpoint supporting point B.

    3. Third main point of speech.

      1. Major subpoint supporting point C.

      2. Subpoint supporting point C.

  3. Conclusion: (5 percent of your time)

    1. Summary.

      1. Famous last words.

      2. Thank the audience.

Don't Forget Transitions

Transitions are so basic that many speakers overlook them and concentrate on structuring the outline. But transitions get you from one part of the outline to another; they are the secret to a professional's speech. Look at the sample outline and realize there should be transitions between each main point and subpoint. These devices are so important to organization—and to giving good presentations—that I've devoted all of Chapter 11 to them.

After you have written down three or four key topics, keep track of everything you can think of that supports these main points (more on this under Fault #4, page 69). Anecdotes, research, clippings, and facts will all be necessary to provide the support and the color a memorable speech needs.

Choose a Pattern: Make the Sequence Your Own

Once you've grouped your subheads and examples under the main points, the next crucial job is to work out the sequence in which you will present them and the style or pattern that fits your purpose best. Your choice of sequence must build from point to point both to maintain interest and move the speech along. It might be entertaining to string 10 jokes together, but if the string doesn't add up to a ball of yarn, the audience is dissatisfied. On the other hand, it may be logical to present a series of facts in chronological order, but that can also be boring.

Select a style of organization, but don't be too predictable. The last thing you want is a complacent audience. In the middle of a presentation I made the mistake of saying, "Let me be more organized." I felt the entire audience deflate—enthusiasm just wilted. So I quickly added, "I said organized, not boring." And the audience perked right up again.

An outline may seem strict and uncompromising by definition, but it's governed by the sequence of your points, and here you are free to create. You can start with small points and build to a climax. Or you can open with an attention-getter, and follow with less startling points.

Being organized does not imply that there is only one way of doing things. Some companies train their people to use the same style and often the same visual aids for all their presentations. That's great when just one person is speaking. There are times, however, when an audience is asked to listen to a series of speakers. If all the presentations are in the same style, using the same organization, the speakers' messages will get lost (and be uninteresting to boot).

A skilled writer can achieve the same objective a hundred different ways, and as a speaker, you can do the same thing. You may organize your points by using contrast and comparison; by moving historically from the most primitive examples to the most modern; or simply by going from the simple to the complex, the smallest to the largest, or the cheapest to the most expensive.

Whatever you do, choose a pattern that sells your message, fits your own thinking and style, and helps the audience move along with you clearly and logically. And remember to always hold something back for your windup. All speeches should end on a high point.

The 4 Classic Organization Patterns

You will see that nowhere do I have a style of organization based on a series of slides. Stringing together a group of points is boring! It would be just like going to a play or movie where the scenes had no connection. It would be very difficult to follow.

You can present your speech in a limitless number of ways, and this fact is daunting for people looking not only for any way but also for a pattern of presentation that is known to be effective. Here are four basic, tried-and-true patterns. Their acceptance doesn't make them dull or predictable; those adjectives can only apply to your attitude, material, and delivery. Like outlines, patterns are blank slates, and are as powerful, or as bland, as you make them.

  1. Sequential. Present events in the sequence they occur (that is, the steps necessary to start a new business or to install a new computer). A chronological sequence goes further and gives a specific time context to the event. It's inherently logical and easy for an audience to follow.

  2. Categorical. This pattern is useful when you lack a clear pattern of organization, or your topic isn't confined to a procedure, process, or time frame.

    You assign meaningful labels to subtopics related to a general topic. For example, I deliver a speech on the topic "Sales Success" and within the speech I have four categories: "Personal Power," "Organizational Power," "Verbal Power," and "Sales Power." The categorical pattern works well when you are presenting new ideas that have not yet been put into a framework by your audience.

  3. Problem and Solution. This pattern is commonly used in technical presentations, but it is effective for any talk where you need to show what is, what ought to be, and what needs to be done. When you think about it, most good presentations state a problem. Either the problem itself or the consequences of not correcting it is the attention-getter. Often this pattern includes:

    • Symptoms of the Problem. Get the audience to recognize that the problem exists and should be solved.

    • Identification of the "Real" Problem. Analyze and present your what, when, where, how much, how many, how often, and why. Show how the answers to these questions are related, and state (or restate) objectives related to the problem.

    • Possible Solutions. A talk addressing a problem of any complexity will not only list solutions but also include constraints on the solutions, an overall evaluation of them, and a recommendation of the best solution or combination of solutions.

    You can use the problem-and-solution pattern most persuasively and dramatically when you want the audience to make a decision and take action. It's also very effective for presenting your findings in a dramatic context.

  4. Contrast and Comparison. Get your audience to evaluate alternative ideas or plans by calling its attention to differences and similarities. The success of managers with a closed mind versus those who are more flexible, "intrapreneuring" versus hiring outside consultants, and the different ways two companies face a crisis—all use comparisons not only to illustrate but also to structure the argument.

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