Planning Your Talk

The first step in Planning an Oral Presentation involves acknowledging two fundamental differences between oral and written communication.

One essential goal of oral communication is to make personal contact with the audience, and to help connect them to the content. Reading a written report aloud is not usually an effective strategy for engaging with the audience. The needs/preferences of the audience play an even larger role in oral presentations than in writing. The content of presentations should be prepared with this goal in mind.

Second, oral presentations are fleeting (or time-sensitive). If readers get lost or stop paying attention for a few minutes, they can always flip back a few pages. Listeners, on the other hand, usually can’t interrupt the speaker and ask that s/he start again and go back a few minutes. Once words are uttered, they vanish. Presenters can account for the fleeting nature of oral presentations by making sure that the presentation is well organized and by making structure explicit in the talk, so the audience can always knows where they’ve been and where they’re going.

A Speech or Notes? The first decision a presentation planner must make is whether to speak from notes or to write a complete speech. Either strategy can work. Some students are not comfortable without a prepared text to read; others can easily talk authoritatively with only notes (and sometimes without). Choose what you’re comfortable with, or something in between the two options.

However, if you choose to write a prepared speech, make sure that it’s designed for oral delivery, that you’ve practiced it adequately, and that you don’t read from the sheet (See Practice for more information). Using a prepared text as a security blanket is okay, but relying on it too much makes it difficult to connect or engage with the audience; be prepared to depart from your text when necessary and be flexible.

  • Purpose Statement
  • Opening Strategy
  • Main Idea
  • Overview
  • Conclusion
  • Take Away Statement [1]

Components: A well-planned oral presentation should contain these elements at the beginning and the end of the talk:

Our Speech Outline (available in .pdf) can help ensure that you cover all of the components of the talk.

1. The first step in planning a talk is developing a Purpose Statement: this is the objective for the talk, or what the speaker wants to accomplish. The purpose statement is more than a statement of topic. For example, your purpose might be to explain the advantages of your design, to allay the concerns that a project is behind (or justify why it is), or to clarify a complex aspect of your work [1]. This purpose statement, however, is not always explicitly stated in the presentation itself: you may not necessarily say “I’m giving this talk to explain why we’re five weeks behind schedule” or “I’m giving this talk to sell 500 computers to you.” Although often unstated, the purpose statement guides your preparation for your talk.

2. A well-planned presentation should also have an Opening Strategy that helps develop a rapport with the audience. There are a wide range of strategies available, but they all attempt to connect the audience to the content. Some example opening strategies are:

  • Telling jokes, anecdotes, bits of history, startling facts, etc.
  • Giving key information the audience needs
  • Making the listener own the problem [2]

Major considerations for planning opening strategies are relevance and time: make sure that the opening strategy chosen suits the context and the content of the talk, and that it doesn’t take up too much time.

3. The Main Idea is how the purpose statement manifests itself in the talk: it is the explicit statement made at the beginning of the talk that identifies a) the topic and b) the end goal of the talk. Be careful when using the phrase “talk about” in your statement, because it tends to give only a statement of topic: “I’m going to talk about Project X” establishes a topic, but doesn’t provide any further focus for the talk. Instead, the main idea should be based on a stronger verb. For example, given the two unstated purpose statements from above, your main idea might be:

  • “We’ll diagnose the problems with Project X and provide recommendations for mitigating them.”
  • “This presentation identifies the advantages of Bluetooth enabled computers and Local Area Networks.”

These stronger verbs help to establish the goal of the presentation. Sometimes you will begin your planning by establishing this statement; other times you might start in the middle to help you figure out what you are trying to say. Regardless, you need a strong sense of purpose to motivate your talk

4. An Overview gives the listeners a mental roadmap of the whole talk, making the structure explicit at the beginning. For example, if you have three reasons why the project is behind, sketch them out quickly:

  • “Project X is behind because the raw materials for High Performance concrete arrived late, unforeseen weather delays prevented pouring on four days, and changing specifications forced us to re-design two areas.”
  • “First, we’ll explain what Bluetooth technology is, what it can do for Local Area Networks, and how its low cost and ease of use gives it advantages over other networking solutions.”

When developing an overview, make sure that it contains actual information that is relevant to the talk. Be careful not to provide a generic statement of structure, such as: “I’m going to explain the problem, provide several solutions, evaluate them, and give recommendations.” This overview could be applied to many talks because it says nothing specific, and is not particularly helpful for the audience (especially if they are hearing more than one talk).

5. The Conclusion should provide a brief summary by referring to the presentation’s main point(s). You don’t usually need to go over every single point or repeat the headings stated at the beginning of the talk, but you should signal that your talk is coming to an end by using phrases such as “in conclusion” or “to sum up” and reiterate your main idea.

  • “By ensuring that our suppliers are held responsible for delays, building a sheltered mixing area, and maintaining closer communication with the audience, we should be able to smoothly get back on schedule on Project X.”
  • “Because it’s cheap and easy to implement, Bluetooth technology can make for effective and easier to manage LANs.”

6. The Take Away Statement is the last sentence that comes out of your mouth: it will also be the last thing the audience remembers and should clearly identify a) that the talk is over (and to give the audience the signal to applaud) and b) identify what the audience should take away from the talk, or what they can do with the information given in the talk. Don’t finish the talk by saying “that’s it” – it may signal that the talk is over, but it doesn’t remind the listener of what s/he should take away from the talk. For example, a summary for the second sample talk, you could say:

  • “So, the next time you’re untangling wires from printers, mice, keyboards, speakers etc. from the back of your computers, think about easy managing a network of Bluetooth enabled computers would be.”

Presentation Organization: These six key components should sandwich the body of the talk. However, presentation planning also involves organizing the body of the talk. There are two steps in organizing the body 1) identify the key points and 2) use an organizational method appropriate for the presentation content and purpose. Some relevant organization structures are listed below [3] (See also The Writing Process / Rhetorical Patterns).

  • Chronological: Breaks talks into steps, organized by time; useful for process descriptions or progress reports.
  • Ascending or Descending Pattern: Sorts topics based on performance in predetermined criteria, such as difficulty (easiest to hardest), size (smallest to largest), significance (least to most important), or cost (inexpensive to costly.)
  • Pro and Con: Divides talk into positives and negatives. Useful in evaluating; can be objective or persuasive.
  • Cause to Effect: Breaks material up in results and precipitating causes; can be speculative (starts with causes) or analytical (starts with effects). Emphasizes ways one thing leads to another.
  • Scientific Method: Follows reporting structure for lab work: purpose, methods, results, discussion, and recommendations.
  • Problem/Solution: Describe situation/ explain problem (or opportunity)/ explain solution (include methodology if appropriate)/ justify solution.

[1] Irish, R., Tiede, K., and Weiss, P. Oral Communication Course Notes. Engineering Communication Program, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering,University of Toronto. 2004.
[2] Andeweg et al. ”May I have your attention?’ Exordial techniques in informative presentations.’ Technical Communication Quarterly. 7.3 (1998): 271-284.
[3] D’Arcy, J. Technically Speaking: A Guide for Communicating Complex Information. Columbus, OH : Battelle Press, 1998.