Start with Your Speech Skeleton, Add Some Tasty Skin

Imagine your body without a skeleton. You’d be a blob of loose skin covering a glutinous glob of quivering gelatin. Just as your body’s skeleton provides a framework to your body, you need to provide a skeleton to your speech.

Smiling skeleton in tophat raising a glass of red wine.There are a number of ways to frame a speech, but the basic framework is framed in threes. You have:

  • An opening
  • A body
  • A closing

Within that opening, body, and closing framework, you want to:

  • Tell them what you’re going to tell them
  • Tell them
  • Then tell them what you told them

The opening is the most important part of your speech. You have about 60 seconds to entice your audience before they begin reviewing their shopping lists or fiddling with their smartphones. Professional speakers do not start by thanking the person who introduced her, or even telling the audience what she is going to tell them. Instead, a professional speaker will put some skin on the opening with a story, a rhetorical question, or an outlandish declaration that grabs the audience’s attention and encapsulates the theme of the speech.

I started a speech once by shouting, “I’m great!” with outstretched arms. You can bet I had the audience’s attention with that.

It also can be a joke that relates to your theme:

“Speeches are like the horns on a steer. There’s a point here and a point there, but in between it’s mostly bull.”

If I’m giving a speech on success, I might start with a rhetorical question: “Have you ever failed?” Or better yet, I would engage the audience’s brains right away: “Think about a time when you failed. (Pause) Got it? Was it really a failure?”

Once you have the audience’s attention, you can tell them what you’re going to tell them. “Today you’re going to learn how to turn your failures into success.”

Then you’re ready for the body of your speech. It’s the ribcage, with tasty ribs.

A good body also uses the power of threes. Our brain is geared to remember and respond positively to a series of three. A 2014 study determined that a series of three persuades, but four or more provokes skepticism.

And here’s where stories are a must. A 2011 study underscored what storytellers have known since the beginning of human communication: stories sync the storyteller’s brain with the listener’s and invokes empathy.

So using the power of threes and the power of stories, you want to serve up three tasty ribs with three personal stories that illustrate the theme of your speech. In a speech on turning failure into success, you will want to tell stories of when you failed and how you did—or could have—turned them into successes.

Now you’re ready for the close. It’s the second most important part of your speech. It’s where you serve up the call to action, or leave them laughing, or satisfied that they’re learned something. Therefore after you tell them what you told them, dress up your skeleton with a strong closing. For example, in the speech on failure and success, you might ask your audience to think back to the failure they identified at the beginning of the speech. Did they turn it into a success? How? If not, can they see now how they could have turned it into a success?

Opening, body, closing. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. That’s the skeleton. Add skin and dressing with stories, rhetorical questions, and thought-provoking statements. Now you have a skeleton ready to come out of the closet and play to your audience.

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Related Posts:

This Is Your Brain on Stories

Donald Trump Targets Audience’s Emotions

Give a Eulogy to Your Public Speaking Fears


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

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  1. […] Start with Your Speech Skeleton, Add Some Tasty Skin […]

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