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Structuring Your Speech I: Top and Tail It!

November 1, 2013

“To begin at the beginning:

it is Spring, moonless night in the small town,

starless and bible-black,

the cobblestreets silent,

and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible…

down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”

Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood


Isn’t that the most magical opening in the history of English literature?  They are, of course, the words of Dylan Thomas, in his play for voices, Under Milk Wood.

Every book needs an emphatic opening, and so too every speech.  Indeed a speech structure is a simple affair: an opening (think of the head), a conclusion (the feet) and in the middle a body, preferably tightly honed.

But the most important parts of any speech are the topping and tailing, the opening and the conclusion.  The opening should grab the attention of the audience.  The conclusion should ensure that the speech lingers in the memory.

Openings should be dramatic – you should try and start with a bang.  Here are some ideas: you could try a quote, as I did earlier.  Or you could ask the audience a stimulating question, even a loaded one such as ‘How many of you here this evening have stopped watching internet porn?’  That should warm the audience up!

Or you could sing a song – as I did once on a speech on setting personal goals.  I opened with a song by the Rolling Stones: ‘No, you can’t always get what you want…’  Whereupon, some wag in the audience piped up with: “Not bleeding surprising, with a voice like that!”.

Most important of all is the conclusion.  That’s what people in the audience are going to take away from your speech.  If it’s a contest, that is what the judges will remember.  So here’s a tip: save the best to the last.

If it’s a persuasive speech, conclude with a call to action.  If it’s an educational speech, ram home the key message.  If it’s a humorous speech, keep your best gag in your bag until the end.  Now I am seriously setting myself up for a fall here, but here we go…

In summary, you should structure your speech with a dramatic opening, a well honed body and a memorable conclusion.  Talking of the ultimate ending, suppose the world should come to an end tomorrow.  I know where I would like to be – back in the town of my birth, the other side of the mountains, in West Wales.  Everything takes at least ten years to get there!


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