When you hear the word structure, you might think of solidity and strength, of self-supporting constructions that have clearly defined edges and unbending lines. A structure is only a structure at all in so far as it’s rigid, right?
Well, sort of.
Structure is the speaker’s friend because it provides shape. We’ve all sat through presentations that lack definition. The speaker rambles and lacks focus, so the audience allows their attention to wander; the speech appears to have no real beginning, middle or end, and so everyone loses their place.
The best way to avoid making a speech that no one can follow is to give it a structure. Start with a story that illustrates your point; add some detail; and then come to a conclusion that brings everything together. Offer signposting throughout, and there you have it: a speech that makes sense to everyone.
There’s a point at which structure can become stifling, however. Most of us will also have sat through a dull speech that was perfectly structured, after all. You know the kind: it has a beginning, a middle or an end, but is also safe, predictable and a little robotic. There’s no give in it, no light and shade.
This often has as much to do with using your speaking style as structure. The right smile or gesture can go a long way towards making even the driest content seem a little more interesting. So can good intonation and inflection. All that said, there’s something to be said for not sticking to your structure too tightly.
Speakers who cleave to their slides or cue cards too closely will seem nervous or uncertain. The best speakers use their structure more as a safety net than a tightrope. In other words, it’s there to return to if you lose your way, and to help the audience orient themselves.
What your structure shouldn’t be is a straitjacket. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your script if the moment demands it – if you make a mistake and want to make a light-hearted remark about it, for example, or highlight it if there’s something in the room that is worthy of comment. Be human. Respond to your audience in the same way you’d like them to respond to you.
Although we think of structures as solid, in fact they have a little bit of give in them. New houses take time to settle, and skyscrapers move in the wind. In fact, one of the laws of physics is that nothing, despite our perceptions otherwise, can be infinitely rigid.
That should go for your public speaking, too.