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Planning the message

Before designing a talk, the speaker should know their 'A.G.E.'

Audience: Who are they? What do they know about your topic already? Why do they care? Always keep in mind THIS audience on THIS occasion.

Goal:  What is the PURPOSE of the talk? (NOT what is the talk about?)  What affect do you want your talk to have on your audience? Check requirements for assignment. If you were to ask your audience at the end of your talk, “What are you taking away with you from this session?”, what would you like them to say? Identify the big take home point. That is your goal.

Environment: Where will you present? What equipment will you have? When will you present? Are you a member of a panel?

General structure of a presentation


Attention-getter/hook – Quotation, reference to a current event or development in research, startling statistic, brief personal reference, striking image, video, or audio, etc. 

Preview/road map - The speaker is like a host or a tour guide. At the very least, the topic of the presentation should be clearly defined to orient the audience.  The topic could be stated in the form of a question that will be answered, or the speaker can briefly mention the points that will be addressed in the talk. Also helpful is providing context and relevant background information (e.g., historical context, scholarly context, define key terms).

Audience tie-in – Make the content relevant to audience.  Why should they care?  What issues are at stake?  Why is this problem significant in the discipline?  The speaker may also want to establish credibility here to enhance rapport with the audience.


Generally 2-4 main points that develop the core message of the talk.

3 points are recommended as appealing both cognitively and psychologically.  Speechwriters refer to the rule of 3— the principle that ideas that come in threes are inherently more satisfying, complete, rhythmic and in unison. 

See also a study by Cowan, Nelson. The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? This study addresses why it's good to present only 3-4 main points or main themes.

Each main point is developed with a variety of supporting materials to serve the speaker’s rhetorical purpose [e.g., examples, testimony, facts, statistics, definitions, metaphors, etc. that illuminate or prove the key idea]. 

Tutors can listen for whether the presenter stays on point, or appears to be introducing too many concepts or claims at once, thus making the structure, logic and message unclear.

Signposts and transitions (see also “Moving from Written to Spoken” section below) are very important to convey the structure of the talk, and to link previous points to the next, thus making the speaker’s reasoning or story progression clearer to the listeners’ ear.  [e.g., “In the first study, we discovered that A occurs with B.  But we wondered if C moderates this relationship.  To answer this question….”]


Summary - use repetition effectively to emphasize the core message.  You can add new insight as you repeat the key ideas. 

Audience tie-in - emphasize relevance, broader significance. 

Clincher (e.g., circle back to introduction, action step, or future directions.)

Printable Handout on Overview of Effective Speaking