To Craft a Speech: Which Comes First, the Idea or the Structure?

Christopher Witt —  April 13, 2016

The Idea or the StructureWhen crafting a speech, do you start with an idea or with a structure, with content or with form?

Some Say “Start with an Idea”

There are those who argue, powerfully in my opinion, in favor of beginning the speech writing process with an idea.

They have a point: Any speech worth its salt is built around an idea.

One would hope that the idea being presented is coherent, insightful, supported by reason and evidence, emotionally engaging, and relevant to the audience. Which is, sadly, not always the case, especially in political discourse these days.

As a speech writer, after a preliminary conversation, I ask my clients, “What do you want to talk about?” And then I follow up with the more substantive question, “What do you want to say about it?”

The first question–what do you want to talk about?–simply defines the topic. It could be something like climate change, a recent threat to the company’s future, a new policy or procedure.

The follow-up question–what do you want to say about it?–lays out an idea about that topic: the content of the speech. For example, this is what climate change is, this is what it means for us, and this is what we should do about it.

A speech is nothing without an idea. It’s like a beautifully wrapped package that’s completely empty.

So it seems right to start with an idea.

Others Say “Start with a Structure”

On the other hand, there are those who argue–and I’m beginning to adopt their position–in favor of starting with a speech’s structure.

Speeches are a way of structuring an idea, of presenting it clearly and persuasively.

Most speeches–98.2% of them–follow a form, a structure: they begin with an introduction, proceed through the body, and end with a conclusion. (I made up that statistic, by the way, so please don’t ask me to cite my source.)

Within that basic structure, there are other ways of structuring a speech.

You can use the “They Say/I Say” structure, a variation of which I’m using in this piece. Or the “Problem/Cause/Solution” structure. Or the “Past/Present/Future” structure. Or the “Where We Want to Go/Why We Want to Get There/How We Can Get There” structure.

And certain kinds of speeches necessitate certain structures. A keynote address takes a different form, from example, than a panel discussion.

Knowing how to structure a speech shapes the idea being presented.

Structures may not generate a specific idea for a speech, but they do make possible the meaning of any idea.

A speech without a structure is, like a drunkard’s monologue, incomprehensible and tiring, or, like Macbeth’s view of life, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

So it makes sense to begin with a structure.

I Say “It Depends”

I favor starting with a structure. I agree with those who believe that you can’t even begin formulating an idea without structuring it.

But here’s where the it depends comes in.

Experienced speakers and speechwriters can begin by focusing on the idea they want to develop, because they intuitively think in terms of how they are going to structure it. They create a structure as they think about the speech’s idea.

But beginning speakers should start crafting a speech by choosing a structure that will work for them, a structure that forces them to formulate and express their ideas in a meaningful and moving way.

What do you think?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

2 responses to To Craft a Speech: Which Comes First, the Idea or the Structure?

  1. I say that I agree with this in particular: “a structure that forces them to formulate and express their ideas in a meaningful and moving way”

    When I develop a speech I start out with an idea/concept that I want to convey. Thinking about it…most of my speeches are about moving the audience to consider (accept!) my point of view.

    From there I use the Ann L. method of structure/content development, loosely based on Buzan’s mind-mapping concept. The map starts out with the central idea in the center. It may, at this point, be poorly phrased, or too long. It may take two or three days of drawing circles, connectors, diagrams, etc, all connected to the central idea, which itself is usually becoming more focused. The process is a simultaneous development of central point and supporting points.

    Once that center is crystal clear I can then really think about what structure will best meet audience needs/point of view/level of interests, etc. Also, by the time the central idea is crystal clear, much of the concept work of supporting content is clear, and so is much of the research (which helped develop things to this point).

    In a pinch, this method lets me put together a 5-15 minute talk on a familiar topic in 15 minutes.

  2. Ann,

    Thanks for your insights.

    In reality, I think the distinction between idea and structure is somewhat artificial. After all, the “idea/concept that [you] want to convey” already has a structure of sorts, a way of pulling together information–observations, impressions, half-formed thoughts–into a coherent and meaningful form.

    Like you, I start with the idea, and (I suspect also like you), I am already thinking in terms of structure. And the structure I’m given either by the meeting planner or by my clients–say, a five-minute briefing–shapes the idea (its scope and impact) from the get-go.

    I love how you use the mind-mapping process.

    And, like you, I believe that speeches are about moving–persuading, motivating, inspiring–the audience.