9 Organizing and Outlining

Meggie Mapes

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the process of grouping information
  • Introduce organizational patterns
  • Describe outlining best practices
  • Identify strategies for effective introduction and conclusions

Selecting and constructing a speech can be tough. But as we’ve discussed, a well-reasoned, researched, and constructed argument is key to effectively crafting and conveying information. The process, however, doesn’t stop there. The next step is determining how to organize and outline that information so that the audience can follow along.

Organizing information and reflecting on the best way to communicate an idea isn’t unique to a public speech; we do it all the time in private. Consider the following scenario:

Two friends – Anne and Stevie – have been dealing with interpersonal conflict. They can’t get along. Stevie decides that it’s time to sit down and tell Anne how they’re feeling, but first, she jots some notes. “Where to start?” she thinks, and tries to consider how she wants to breach the topic. “From the first time I was upset?” “Should I talk generally about the main 2 issues that keep bothering me?” How do I start?”

Stevie is trying to process how to organize the information that she’ll present to Anne – the main audience member. She’s also processing the best way to start – or to introduce – that information to her friend, and outlining key ideas that she wants to remember.

The same is true for preparing arguments in a speech. Having your information in a well-organized manner can make or break audience understanding of your content. In this chapter, we discuss ways to effectively categorize your information that will a) support your thesis statement, and b) increase audience comprehension of that information. To accomplish these tasks, we will introduce different organizational patterns, tips for outlining, and strategies for crafting your introduction and conclusion. Before you can select an organizational pattern, you should first work to group your information.

Grouping

Have you ever organized a garage sale? The first step, before putting up signs or pricing items, is to go through your closets and garage and create “piles” of items that you want to sell: children’s items, tools, kitchen items, furniture, trash, etc. Researchers have found that “chunking” information, that is, the way it is grouped, is vital to audience understanding, learning, and retention of information (Beighly, 1954; Bodeia, Powers, & Fitch-Hauser, 2006; Daniels & Whitman, 1981).

As we listen, we have limits as to how many categories of information we can keep in mind. In public speaking, use approximately 3 categories to group your information. 2-3 main points – or groups – is safe territory, and you should avoid having more than 5 main points for an audience to track.

“How does this work in practice?” you may be asking. “How do I group information to find my categories?”

Use your research and your brainstorming tactics! As you research, look at the articles and websites you read and say, “That information relates to what I read over here” and, “That statistic fits under the idea of . . .” You are looking for similarities and patterns. Think back to the yard sale example – you would group according to customer interest and the purpose of each item. As you learn more about your topic and expand your expertise, the patterns and groups will become clearer.

Once you locate a pattern, that information can likely be grouped into your speech’s main points. Return to your thesis statement and determine what groups are more suitable to support your specific purpose. If you continue to find more groups, you may want to limit and narrow your topic down further.

Finally, because your audience will understand you better and perceive you as organized, you will gain more credibility as a speaker if you are organized, assuming you also have credible information and acceptable delivery (Slagell, 2013; Sharp & McClung, 1966).

Pro-Tip: Groups Help Your Writing! Yun, Costantini, and Billingsley (2012) found a side benefit to learning to be an organized public speaker: your writing skills will improve, specifically your organization and sentence structure. Working on your organization will increase your critical thinking skills all around.

After you group, the next step is determining what type of organizational pattern works best.

Patterns of Organization

At this point, you should see how much your audience needs organized ideas. You also know that as you do research, you will group similar pieces of information from different sources. As you group your research information, you will want to make sure that your grouped content is adhering to your specific purpose statement.

Interestingly, there are some standard ways of organizing these categories, which are called “patterns of organization.” Our list isn’t exhaustive, but we provide insight on five organizational patterns with a few embedded examples. In each example, only the three to five main sections or “points” (Roman numerals) are given, without the other essential parts of the outline. But don’t worry—we’ll cover outlines later in this chapter.

Chronological

A groups information based on time order or in a set chronology—first this occurred, then this, then this, then that. The use of a chronological pattern is appropriate when the argument needs to be traced linearly or for speeches that instructor or demonstrate. For a speech about creating a meaningful and memorable protest poster, providing the instructions in order will allow audience members to actively deploy that information after the speech.

One of the problems with chronological speeches is the tendency to create a long list of activities rather than categorizing the content. It is important to chunk the information into three to five groups so that the audience has a framework.

For example, in a speech about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, your “grouping” or “chunking” might be:

  • The movement saw African-Americans struggling for legal recognition before the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

  • The movement was galvanized and motivated by the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

  • The movement saw its goals met in the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

It would be easy in the case of the Civil Rights Movement to list the many events that happened over decades, but that could be overwhelming for the audience. In this grouping of events, the audience is focused on the three events that pushed it forward.

Spatial

You can see that chronological is a highly-used organizational structure, since one of the ways our minds work is through time-orientation—past, present, future. Another common thought process is movement in space or direction, which is called the . For example:

Specific Purpose: To explain to my classmates the three regional cooking styles of Italy.

  • In the mountainous region of the North, the food emphasizes cheese and meat.
  • In the middle region of Tuscany, the cuisine emphasizes grains and olives.
  • In the southern region and Sicily, the diet is based on fish and seafood.

In this example, the content is moving from northern to southern Italy, as the word “regional” would indicate. If you were to actually study Italian cooking in-depth, sources will say there are twenty regions, but “covering” twenty regions in a speech is not practical, so research can help you limit and determine which regions would be more appropriate.

For a more localized application, consider this example:

Specific Purpose: To explain to my classmates the geographic layout of the Midwest Science March.

  • The main vein of the protest took place on the Kansas City Plaza.
  • Vendor booths promoting educational opportunities about science were grouped at Washington Square.
  • Counter-protesting was predominantly south of the river.

A spatial organizational pattern can assist audiences in visualizing your main points by grouping based on a spatial or geographic layout.

Topical/Categorical

The groups information into key categories. Many subjects will have main points that naturally divide into “types of,” “kinds of,” “sorts of,” or “categories of.” Other subjects naturally divide into “parts of the whole.” For example:

Specific purpose: To support the proposition that capital punishment should be abolished in the United States.

  • Capital punishment does not save money for the justice system.
  • Capital punishment does not deter crime in the United States historically.
  • Capital punishment has resulted in many unjust executions.

Another principle of organization to think about when using topical organization is “climax” organization. That means putting your strongest argument or most important point last when applicable. In the example above, “unjust executions” is a bigger reason to end a practice than the cost, since an unjust execution means the loss of an innocent life and a violation of our principles. If you believe Main Point III is the strongest argument of the three, putting it last builds up to a climax.

When using a topical pattern, you want to keep your categories simple, clear, and distinct by reducing repetition or blurriness between the groupings.

Cause/Effect Pattern

In a , the main points of a topic start with the cause, followed by the effect. If the specific purpose mentions words such as “causes,” “origins,” “roots of,” “foundations,” “basis,” “grounds,” or “source,” it is a causal order; if it mentions words such as “effects,” “results,” “outcomes,” “consequences,” or “products,” it is an effect order. If it mentions both, it would be cause/effect order. This example shows a cause/effect pattern:

Specific Purpose: To explain to my classmates the causes and effects of schizophrenia.

  • Schizophrenia has genetic, social, and environmental causes.
  • Schizophrenia has educational, relational, and medical effects.

This pattern can be helpful for an audience to understand how and/or why something has occurred. If your topic looks at a key problem, tracing how that problem originated may be worthwhile, even necessary, for an audience to track the outcomes.

Problem-Solution Pattern

The is closely related to cause/effect, but it also includes advocating for a key solution. This is a common organizational strategy used to persuade because a speaker is often asking the audience to address a problem with a concrete course of action. When you want to persuade someone to act, the first reason is usually that something is wrong!

We use a problem-solution pattern in everyday exchanges. If you and your friends were hungry (a problem), you’d invite them to dinner (the solution). However, if they’d recently eaten you might identify a secondary problem—you miss their company, for example.

Alternatively, let’s say that you want school board members to provide more funds for music at the three local high schools in your county. Ask yourself: What is missing because music or the arts are not funded? What is the problem? How is that a problem that the school board should intervene to resolve? How does funding those programs resolve the problems that you’ve identified? For example:

Specific Purpose: To persuade the members of the school board to take action to support the music program at the school.

  • There is a problem with eliminating extracurricular music programs in high schools.
  • Students who do not have extracurricular music in their lives have lower SAT scores.
  • Schools that do not have extracurricular music programs have more instances of community violence.
  • The solution is to provide $200,000 in the budget to sustain extra-curricular music in our high schools.
  • $120,000 would go to bands. This would be enough money to hire additional instructors and reserve after-school spaces.
  • $80,000 would go to choral programs.

Of course, this is a simple outline and you would need to provide evidence to support the arguments, but it shows how problem-solution works. Psychologically, it makes more sense to use problem-solution rather than solution-problem. The audience will be more motivated to listen if you address needs, deficiencies, or problems in their lives rather than giving them solutions first.

Outlining

After identifying an organizational pattern, an outline will assist you to compile information into that pattern. An outline provides a visual structure where you can compile information into a well-organized document. There are two primary types of outlines that we will discuss: preparation outlines and speaking outlines.

Preparation Outlines

are comprehensive outlines that include all of the information in your speech. These are often full sentences and include in-text citations and a reference page (if necessary). If someone were to read your outline, there should be enough depth to provide a skeleton of what will be accomplished.

Generally, we recommend starting from this outline format:

Sample Outline Template 

I. Introduction

a. Attention Getter
b. Credibility Statement
c. Relevance Statement
d. Thesis Statement
e. Preview

II. Main body

    1. First Main Point
      a. Evidence
      b. Warrant
    2. Second Main Point
      a. Evidence
      b. Warrant
    3. Third main Point
      a. Evidence
      b. Warrant
III. Conclusion    

a. Review of Main Points
b. Restate Thesis
c. Clincher 

This is just a start, and each main point may have more than one piece of evidence, for example.

As we mentioned, an outline is a visual structure, and it can aid you in determining where you need more or less information. For example, if you work on a problem/solution speech, your outline may visually demonstrate that most of your research is located under the “problem” main point, signaling to you that more “solution” research is required. Outlines also assist in reminding speakers to warrant all of their claims.

You should think of the outline as the blueprint for your speech. It is not the speech—that is what comes out of your mouth in front of the audience. The outline helps you prepare and, as such, they are a living document that you can adjust, add, and delete. We recommend beginning to add information to an outline right away. You don’t, however, often speak from that outline. Instead, you’ll use a speaking outline.

Tips for Effective Outlining

  • Use consistent numbering.
  • Full sentences are your friend.
  • Use in-text citations for references to your research.
  • Generally, numbers should be in 2’s (if there’s a 1, there should be a 2).
  • Make sure indentations are consistent and clear.
  • Follow your organizational pattern.
  • Revise. Revise. Revise.

Speaking Outlines

A is a keyword outline used to deliver a speech – often extemporaneous. As we’ll discuss in our chapters on delivering an aesthetic experience, the notes that you use to speak can aid or hinder effective delivery. A keyword outline – which you’ll use to rehearse and deliver – will allow greater embodiment and engagement with the audience. As you practice, you will be able to summarize the full preparation outline down to more usable notes. In those notes, create a set of abbreviated notes for the actual delivery. The more materials you take up with you to speak, the more you will be tempted to look at them rather than have eye contact with the audience, reducing your overall engagement.

Your speaking notes should be in far fewer words than the preparation, arranged in key phrases, and readable for you. Your speaking outline should provide cues to yourself to “slow down,” “pause,” or “change slide.” Our biggest suggestion is to make the notes workable for you.

Finally, always double-check that your speaking outline includes your oral citations. An author’s name and publication date are difficult to remember, so add all references directly into your notes.

Connective Statements and Internal Organization

At this point, you may be realizing that preparing for public speaking does not always follow a completely linear process. In writing your speech, you might begin outlining with one organizational pattern in mind, only to re-craft the main points into a new pattern after more research has been conducted. These are all OK options.

Wherever your process takes you, however, you will need to make sure that each section of your speech outline is connected – what we call connective statements. Connective statements are broad terms that encompass several types of statements or phrases. They are generally designed to help “connect” parts of your speech to make it easier for audience members to follow. Connectives are tools for helping the audience listen, retain information, and follow your structure.

Connectives perform several functions:

  • Remind the audience of what has come before;
  • Remind the audience of the central focus or purpose of the speech;
  • Forecast what is coming next;
  • Help the audience have a sense of context in the speech—where are we? (this is especially useful in a longer speech of twenty minutes or so);
  • Explain the logical connection between the previous main idea(s) and the next one, or previous subpoints and the next one;
  • Explain your own mental processes in arranging the material as you have;
  • Keep the audience’s attention through repetition and a sense of movement.

Connectives can include internal summaries, signposting or internal previews. These terms all help connect the main ideas of your speech for the audience, but they have different emphases and are useful for different types of speeches.

Types of connectives and examples

emphasize what has come before and remind the audience of what has been covered.

“So far I have shown how the designers of King Tut’s burial tomb used the antechamber to scare away intruders and the second chamber to prepare royal visitors for the experience of seeing the sarcophagus.”

let your audience know what is coming up next in the speech and what to expect concerning the content of your speech.

“In this next part of the presentation, I will share with you the truly secret and valuable part of King Tut’s pyramid: his burial chamber and the treasury.”

serve as bridges between seemingly disconnected (but related) material, most commonly between your main points. are transitions that both review where you have been and preview where you are going next.  At a minimum, your transition is saying, “Now that we have looked at (talked about, etc.) X, let’s look at Y.”

emphasize the physical movement through the speech content and let the audience know exactly where they are. Signposting can be as simple as “First,” “Next,” “Lastly” or using numbers such as “First,” “Second,” Third,” and “Fourth.” Signposts can also be lengthier, but in general signposting is meant to be a brief way to let your audience know where they are in the speech. It may help to think of these like the mile markers you see along interstates that tell you where you are or signs letting you know how many more miles until you reach your destination.

Connectives are an important way to assist the audience in understanding a) where you’re going, b) where you are, and c) where you’ve been. We recommend labeling them directly in your outline to make sure that they’re integrated and clear.

Conclusion

The organization and outlining of your speech may not be the most interesting part to think about, but without it, great ideas will seem jumbled and confusing to your audience. Even more, good connectives will ensure your audience can follow you and understand the logical connections you are making with your main ideas, introduction, and conclusion.

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Speaking Confidently by Meggie Mapes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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