Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Elements - Structure

It seems so simple. A speech needs structure to hold it together, in the same way a railroad track needs ties and rails and spikes to hold it together.

There are three basic elements to the structure of any speech: an Introduction, the main Body, and the Conclusion. To those, might be legitimately added another, preliminary element -  the Preamble.

That fourth element is optional, however. It can be useful for establishing audience identification with the speaker, and for acknowledging other participants at an event. But it might not always be appropriate, and is certainly not essential.

Let’s consider the three essential elements that make up the framework of our speech:

Introduction - This sets up the premise or the theme that will be examined in the body of the speech. It’s also the part where, if you haven’t employed a preamble, you seek to establish that essential ingredient - shared identity with the audience.

Body - This is the main part of the speech. It’s where the arguments, or the justifications for the main premise of the speech are developed. This is where the factual bases for the premise are provided. Any statistics - and they should be used sparingly, to avoid confusing the audience - are provided here. The arguments in support of the premise are made here.

Conclusion - It’s where the whole thing is summed up. If there is a call to action - here is where it is  issued. If a stirring tribute, it is this point where the emotions of the audience should be most affected.

Let’s take another look at the speech we analyzed recently - Secretary of State Clinton’s address before the Council on Foreign Relations. How does it match the framework we’ve just defined?

The first paragraph, with its rather oblique reference to “the mother ship in New York,” is certainly a preamble. It is a beginning and certainly seeks to share some “inside humor.” Unfortunately, no one laughed.

As for the Introduction, it is less than a clear statement of principles, premise, or even promise:
And with more states facing common challenges, we have the chance, and a profound responsibility, to exercise American leadership to solve problems in concert with others. That is the heart of America’s mission in the world today.”
That’s hardly a statement like Winston Churchill’s famous speech at Westminster college:
The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American democracy. For with this primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future.
His “Iron Curtain” speech is an appropriate contrast here, because it also has foreign relations as its topic.

The Body of Secretary Clinton's speech suffers from this initial lack of a clear introductory statement. It continues with an equal lack of clarity. While much is said, it is difficult to follow any clear, logical, path of reasoning.

It is a series of successive paragraphs, each offering something, but they don’t go anywhere. They don’t tie things together into a complete, comprehensible whole. These paragraphs use none of the classic rhetorical devices, such as repetition, to help the audience follow what is being said. Nothing stands out.

Again the contrast is with Churchill:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.
With that one line, he coined a phrase that still resonates today.

Finally, her Conclusion. The final line is:
Now all we have to do is deliver. Thank you all very much.
It does nothing to inspire others on to action, to sum up the information in the speech, or to lay out a course of action the speaker intends to pursue.

In the end, a speech without a clear structure is like riding in a train that’s come off the track. You’ve still got an engine - but you won’t be going anywhere.

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom


  1. One of the most effective speakers I ever met or heard was the late Senator Patrick Moynihan. His speach structure would shock you. He would start with his premise, but then take the speach to many other places. Somehow in the end it always came back to the original subject in a convincing way. It was definitely not something to "try at home."
    Churchill could have read the lunch menu and made it into a great oration because of the conviction in his voice.

  2. I was then-Ambassador Moynihan's Suffolk County coordinator in 1976, when he was running for the Senate. So actually, no, I wouldn't be shocked.

    I know from close personal experience what you are referring to. Even over a private dinner, he was that way. And entertaining, as well.

    While Churchill did have great oratorical talent, he was also a Nobel Laureate in Literature! He took written preparation of his speeches very seriously.