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Chapter 2. Organizing Your Message

Good meetings don't just happen. More preparation goes into "seamless" meetings than you can imagine. This chapter will guide you in spending energy on the right activities. A singular key to effective meetings is preparing an agenda and circulating it in advance - three days before your meeting if possible. When participants have advance agendas, you can expect them to show up on time, bring material relevant to the meeting, and be prepared to do what you've set up as the purpose of your meeting. An hour of preparation on your part can save several hours of actual meeting time, so get set for the pure gratitude of participants when you execute a productive meeting. There's nothing sweeter than to have several people approach you afterward to say, "That was a really good meeting!"


First consider the people attending your meeting. It's not enough to plan from your perspective alone, since each of us "sees" differently. Plus, if your intent is to deliver a message or solve problems, you need to adopt a relational approach. You're not just talking to folks; you're relating with them. You're trying to understand where they are coming from so that you can link with their ideas and feelings, at least enough to get your point across if not persuade them to your way of thinking.

In planning, you need to think from the other side of your desk and deliver your talk or conduct your meeting with listeners' viewpoints in mind. Here is information you should know about your audience before you convene a meeting.

Now comes the hard part! You have to ask yourself what this group would consider important - and plan your meeting from that direction. Empathizing with your audience, walking around in their moccasins for a while, will help you get into their mindsets. What questions are they likely to ask? Get answers in advance; include them in your talk if you prefer. How can you make your message memorable? Even if you're planning meetings for a small work group you know, think about the issues you're bringing up and how they are likely to respond. Open your meeting by asking them what they want to know, and then provide the answers you've prepared. Listen attentively to their problem-solving suggestions, and treat them with respect and courtesy in decision making. Buy a new outfit for the "Great Boss" award ceremony.

Agendas and Meeting Objectives

Now that we know with whom we're doing business, let's structure the meeting. Do this by making an agenda for every meeting you conduct - every meeting. Don't think you don't have time; you will waste more time in a meeting without an agenda than you'll spend constructing one. Agendas help you crystallize your thoughts, as well as provide some direction for the folks attending your meeting.

People want to know what to expect in advance. Don't call meetings unless they are necessary; when they are, let people know what your meeting is about by circulating the agenda at least three days in advance. Then show up on time, keep to the agenda time limits, follow up on responsibilities, and watch your popularity index climb!

In the sample agenda form provided, the first line asks for a meeting objective. Simply stated, why are you having this meeting? Why is it important? What's in it for the attendees? Write your meeting objective by answering the question, "During this meeting or when it's over, what do I want people to do?" This objective and your thinking behind it will determine whether your meeting is worth attending! People tend to gloss over this part of planning because they have a mental picture of their topic and what should happen. The problem is that the audience doesn't know all that.

Be specific. Use action verbs, such as to identify, to analyze, to select. Be as concise as you can be. However, don't settle for "to inform about gun control," when you could use "to illustrate loopholes in the law concerning gun ownership" or, "to assess parental responsibility when minors use guns."

So, you've thought long and hard about the meeting objective and have developed one that will accomplish results: information will be imparted or exchanged; plans will be formed; ideas or opinions will be expressed; or decisions will be made. The objective determines the content of the meeting at the appropriate level of detail.


Meeting Objective:





Meeting Members

1. Leader:

2. Attendees:

Meeting called by:


Agenda Item



Who's Responsible


Sequencing Agenda Items

Next, let's look at the agenda items. These can be sequenced in several ways. Some experts advise starting with the most important items first, when interest and attention are at their highest levels. Some advise handling short, urgent items first so they don't get crowded out of the meeting. Others advise starting with the least important items and ending with the most important, after a working cohesion among participants has been established. The sequence you choose depends on the purpose of your meeting. If the objective is straightforward and you expect little controversy in the meeting, you could safely start with the most important item.

If during your talks with participants before the meeting, you realize that group cohesion is required in order to deal with controversial agenda items, you should consider slotting them later in the meeting after you've established rapport within the group. Especially when you're dealing with potential controversy, concentrate on fewer, important agenda items, rather than having an exhausting number of items to consider.

As a way of adding interest in the agenda, solicit items for discussion from participants and give them recognition for their ideas. If you have guest speakers, allow them to contribute early in the meeting, so that they can leave and you can have privacy during the rest of the meeting. You also should decide whether you want to spend meeting time on items that are not on the agenda - something a participant brings up during the meeting. Nothing disrupts the purpose of a meeting more than discussing side issues and jumping between the items on the agenda. When people attend a meeting expecting to deal with one issue and the discussion doesn't meet this expectation, they might feel that they've wasted their time - and you have to have another meeting. Hopefully, your talks with participants prior to the meeting will jog their memories sufficiently to mention the addition prior to the start.

Agenda Item Process

After the agenda items are set up, establish a process or method for tackling each item. For example, will you have a whole-group discussion for an item, or will you break into small groups? In introducing the agenda, will you make a presentation with an overhead transparency or will you show a video clip of something? The process column tells how the agenda item will get done. Ideas for processes: group discussion, brainstorming session, presentation, interactive lecture, vote. If you're splitting a large group into smaller ones, indicate how this should work.

Following this, establish the amount of time you plan to spend on each agenda item. When time is crucial, this column becomes all-important. The "Responsible" column tells who is doing what in your meeting. Remember to contact these persons prior to your meeting, so that their participation will not be a surprise to them. The logistics area of the agenda can be an important time saver. The "preparation required" item tells participants what to read or gather or think about before they arrive at your meeting. Send handouts to everyone along with your agenda so they can come prepared to discuss and vote.

Structuring a Topic

Preparing and presenting are done in a different order.



Write objective



Select key points


Your introduction

Add supporting material


Meeting objective

Write transition statements


(Alternate spot for your introduction)

Write preview and summary


Design the opening



Design the closing


Three key points


Supporting material


Two transitions





To-do statement

Don't wait until the last minute to start preparing for public speaking. Develop your selected topic in stages and allot enough preparation time for plenty of practice before you speak. This is the best antidote for a bad case of nerves prior to speaking.

Preparation Order

  1. Write the objective. What are you trying to get people to do? What do you want to accomplish by delivering this presentation? That's your objective - the object of presenting. Don't confuse your main points with your objective. An objective is a concise statement, usually one sentence, that conveys the main idea of your presentation. The objective is the first element you prepare because all of the rest of your presentation is designed to support it.

    Speakers can be dynamic and have interesting visuals; but if the audience can't remember the intent of the message or what they're supposed to do as a result of listening to the message, the presentation probably lacked a clearly defined objective. A presentation is usually aimed at getting people to understand something, or actually to do something. Don't forget to tell your audience what your objective is, either before or after introducing yourself.

  2. Select the key points. The simpler and clearer your points, the easier it will be for your audience to remember your message. If you can, use the "rule of three" with your material. Most messages are organized into three main points, presumably based on what the audience can remember without losing interest. Thinking through all your material and distilling the main points provides structure for grouping information. When you group information, the audience can understand it better.

    For greater effect relate the point you want them to remember - the most important one - last.

    Organizational schemes you can use:

    • Chronological order. Key points can be presented in the order that they occur in time. Examples include what happened first, then what, then what; OR past, present, and future; OR first, second, and third steps.

    • Spatial arrangement. Key points can be related by geographic areas - East, West, Midwest, South; or topographically - mountains, low-lying areas, deserts.

    • Topical approach. Key points can be presented in the order of their importance. Take your listeners from the least significant point to more important ones, and then to the most important one.

    • Concerns / solutions. Key points are presented in two categories. Ex amples include: problem/solution, advantages/disadvantages, objections/ answers, ideal/reality, old way/new way, feature/benefits, and compare/ contrast. Use this form when you have six or eight items you want to include and they logically fall into two categories.

      Mnemonic devices help people remember your key points. Try using the first letter of each key word to form an acronym that people will remember (w w w). Or try phrasing your key points so that they all start with the same letter (push, pull, protect). Or form a word with your starting letters (M E M O).

  3. Add supporting material for each key point. What will help people accept your major points? Key points alone are not sufficient to persuade people. You must include supporting materials that relate to the key point and create meaning for your audience, which, in turn, helps them remember your message.

    Where does supporting material come from? Internal sources include information within the organization, such as newsletters or reports. Interviews can also yield useful material. If your presentation concerns improving a parking situation or the cafeteria, interviewing the parking services coordinator or the cafeteria manager should work. Two other sources for supporting material are external and personal. External sources are newspaper articles, books, trade journals, television shows, or the Internet. Personal sources come from your experience.

    Supporting material may occur in one of these forms.

    • Examples. Supplying a "for instance" or "for example" applies a general point to a specific person or event, making you more credible. Using a "word picture" of what could occur is also effective; with visualizing, the audience can better understand your key point.

    • Comparisons. Clarifying a point by comparing it to something with which the audience is familiar helps them understand and makes them more receptive to your ideas. When a direct comparison isn't handy, use an analogy. An analogy implies that if two things are alike in one respect, they may be alike in other respects, too. Finally, using contrast shows points that oppose each other; differences are highlighted.

    • Quotations. Providing a statement from a celebrity or an authority lends credence to key points. Make sure the "expert" is well known. Make sure you give credit to the author of the quote!

    • References, facts, numbers. Supplying quantitative evidence from reports or statistics validates key points. Use only current data; make sure it's accurate.

    Which of these types of supporting material should you use? All of them, in a balanced way. Don't use one type of material to support all points. How much supporting material should you use? Don't cover up the importance of your main points, but use enough to appear credible and convincing. Gather lots of information and have it ready. If you don't use it in the first meeting, you can use it in later meetings. Better to have too much than too little! Remember, you're distilling information for use.

    Providing graphic support gives your audience a better idea of your key points.

    • If you just show a picture and say nothing, comprehension and retention is three and one-half times greater than using words alone.

    • Showing a picture and saying the words increase retention and comprehension to six times greater than words alone.

    • Video clips are good; just don't treat everyone to a five-minute clip in a short meeting; one minute or less is fine.

  4. Include transition statements between your major points. Transitions step listeners from one key point to the next. They are small but critical steps. Transitions help your listeners follow your thinking and make your message easier to remember. As a presenter, you know when you're moving on, but your audience doesn't, unless you use transitions.

    Examples of transition statements are:

    "After these two points, you'll be surprised by my third one."

    "Now that we've considered the plus side, let's look at the minuses."

    "First we looked at X, then we considered Y; now we're going to consider the most important of all - Z."

    Pause in your delivery of transitional statements. Don't rush through these! Transitions add drama to your talk and make you appear a polished speaker, so make these count. One way to help the audience realize that you are going on to another point is to ask for questions after each key point. "Before we go on to my next point, I'd like to ask for questions. Anything need clarifying at this time?"

  5. State your key points into brief sentence form, so that people are reminded of the highlights of your message. The audience is more likely to be persuaded by what they hear frequently and recently. The preview is a window that gives the audience an advance view of the key points. The summary reminds people of where they've been.

    Format for a good presentation

    • Tell them what you're going to to tell them.

    • Tell them.

    • Tell them what you told them.

  6. Design the opening. Figure out a way to get attention, pique curiosity, introduce your topic. What gets people's attention?
    • Authoritative quotes from a recognized authority. Celebrities, politicians, authors, and leaders are good to use. State your source's authority and what this expert does. Relate the quote to your topic.

    • Rhetorical questions invite attention because they involve the audience immediately. When you pose a question, people start mentally forming their replies, especially if it appeals to their curiosity.

    • Declarative statements make an attention-getting statement of fact. To get attention, address an issue of interest to the audience and deliver it expressively. A declarative statement stated without facial expression (deadpan) or the right tone of voice has little impact on your listeners.

    • A scenario makes up a scene that will grab your audience's attention. This technique makes a "word picture" that creates scenes in the minds of the audience. Use a real event or an imagined one. Maybe ask people to close their eyes; then wake them with a bang!

    • An anecdote describes an incident that's interesting, amusing, or biographical (or all three). Use facial expressions, gestures, and intonations to add interest and to bring your audience into your presentation. Audiences respond more when presenters relate on a human level, so showing an incident from your life improves rapport.

    Introduce yourself somewhere after the opener and before you start listing your key points. Be brief and to the point. Don't linger on the introduction, but give enough information that the audience knows why you chose your topic. For example:

    (Opener) "Have you ever gone up in a hot air balloon? I have and I'm here to tell you it's fun!"

    (Introduction) "Hi! My name is……"

    (Your background) "Although I've only been up in the air once, I'm an instant fan of this sport."

    (Objective) "Perhaps after my talk today, I can persuade some of you to try this amazing sport."

    Do not think saying hello and your name is an opener! An opener has razzle-dazzle to it; it perks up the audience because you've aroused their curiosity. Your credentials or background reveal your expertise in the topic. How do you know what you know? Put this in your intro.

  7. Design the closing. Ask the audience for agreement or action. Leave people something to do, and make this part of your close. State it in one of three ways: a reminder, an application of the information, or request for approval. "I encourage you to consider hot air ballooning as the exciting adventure I find it to be. Join me next Saturday!"

Presentation Order

A Well-Built Presentation

If you can change the way people think, they will change the way they behave. Remember, however, that information alone doesn't persuade people. Strong presentation skills do!


Directions: The next pages feature a format guide for organizing messages, a sample to show appropriate level of detail, and a practice exercise.

Format guide

MEETING OBJECTIVE: (fill in this blank)



Opener: (How will you get their attention?)


Preview of talk: (Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; the key points)

BODY (Tell 'em)

Key Point 1   

Supporting facts/information/types of material:


Transition statement: (actual words)

Key Point 2   

Supporting material:


Transition statement:

Key Point 3   

Supporting material:



Summary: (Tell 'em what you told 'em; the key points)


To-do statement or request:


Meeting Objective: To inform about ways to help endangered species



Endangered species inhabit only 7% of United States land area. (Show overhead of lovable endangered animal.)

Preview of talk: I'm going to talk about several endangered species, what the government is doing to decrease these numbers, and organizations that aid the rescue of these ever decreasing species.



Key Point 1

Number of endangered species


Supporting material:

World Conservation Union's Red List


Transition statement:

Although the numbers of species is extraordinary, our U.S. government is decreasing the numbers.


Key Point 2

1973 Endangered Species Act


Supporting material:

Government document and magazine articles


Transition statement:

Despite government action, other organizations support and devote funds to endangered animals.


Key Point 3

Organizations supporting endangered species


Supporting material:

World Wildlife Federation and Internet organizations




I have talked about endangered species what the U.S. government is doing to decrease the numbers of species and what organizations are doing to help endangered species.


To-do statement:

Think of ways to increase the numbers of endangered species in the U.S.

Practice Exercise

This is a portion of a safety article from an insurance company. State a meeting objective and divide the information into three key points. Then add the remaining items.

Preventing Car Jackings & Auto Theft

If Approached by Strangers…

When Parking Your Car…


MEETING OBJECTIVE: (fill in this blank)


Opener: (How will you get their attention?)

Preview of talk: (Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; the key points)

BODY (Tell 'em)

Key Point 1   

Supporting facts/information/types of material:

Transition statement: (actual words)

Key Point 2   

Supporting material:

Transition statement:

Key Point 3   

Supporting material:


Summary: (Tell 'em what you told 'em; the key points)

To-do statement or request:

Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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