Quick Ways to Structure a Talk

What could be more enjoyable than being called on to speak with no advance warning?  If you’re like me, the answer is probably anything.  But sometimes you do get called on, so what can you do?

The good news is that, normally, in situations like that, you’re given the topic.  Your challenge is simply to work out a way to approach that topic.

One approach that always helps me is to quickly break the topic down into a set of structured elements, either a 2-point structure or a 3-point structure. Here are some examples:

Two Point Structures:

  • Pros and cons.
  • Thesis and antithesis.
  • What I know and what I don’t know.
  • Opposite poles (or opposite extremes).

Three Point Structures:

  • Past, present, and future.
  • Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
  • What I know, what I don’t know, and what I wish I knew.
  • Two extremes and the golden mean.

The beauty is that these structures are familiar to us because we use them in our everyday lives. I’m sure you’ve often considered something in terms of, say, its pros and cons.  So, if a topic lends itself to that approach, you already know how to develop it. The structure challenge is solved. Now, focus on content. The talk practically writes itself.

I’ll give you some examples.  Let’s start with a two point example.

“Good morning. I’m going to spend a few minutes with you this morning considering the issue of whether we should paint all of the houses in our neighborhood the same color. I’ll begin by suggesting some obvious advantages of doing so and then we’ll look at some potential disadvantages. So, what are the advantages? I see three…”

Pros and cons, right?

Here is a three point example.

“Good evening. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you this evening about something vitally important to all of us: the future direction of our organization. As you all know, we face a number of challenges. I have some thoughts on how we might move forward. But, to be sure we’re all on the same page, let me briefly review where we are today and how we got here…”

Past, present, and future!

It’s like a game to me. Give me a topic and a structure and let me see if I can quickly meld them together into a coherent message.

I’ll add one final comment. If you find yourself in one of these situations, and you can’t quite settle in on a structure, I suggest using “What I know, what I don’t know, and what I wish I knew” as the default. It’s simple and it’s easy to remember.