Where Are We Going? Keeping Your Audience on Track During Presentations

How many times have you ridden in a car with a friend who “knows exactly where they’re going!” only to arrive white-knuckled, shaking, long after you expected, having wandering all over town hunting for your destination at breakneck speed? Hopefully not many, but that’s the experience I often have listening to people who are struggling to transition writing skills to speaking skills, and so I present here some suggestions for saving your audience’s nerves that will also make your speeches far more convincing.

The most glaring difference between writing and speaking is structural. The organization of a speech is usually far more rigid than in a paper, and for good reason. In an essay, the reader can always flip back a page or two and double-check something, but without a referee’s instant replay, the audience cannot do the same. To help our listeners with this, we make use of two techniques – road-mapping and signposting.

Road-mapping is a preview at the beginning of a speech that tells the audience what route you will be traveling together. Your thesis explains where you’re going, but the road-map lays out how you’re getting there. For example, if your thesis is, “the reaction to Richard Sherman’s post-game interview was absurd,” your road-map might look like this: “First, we’ll put this interview in context with previous interviews Sherman has given; second, we’ll compare his interview with those of other NFL players; and finally, we’ll look at the differences in racialized language used to describe those interviews.” A good road-map takes about 30 seconds and means that rather than clutching the metaphorical dashboard, audience members are relaxed in their seats, confident that you aren’t about to get lost in the woods.

Signposting is a reminder of where the speech is now and where it’s going next. After presenting your thesis and road-map, give the audience a transition to your first point. “The first thing I want to do here is talk about this interview in terms of other interviews Sherman has given.” Then talk about those interviews and provide another transition. “Now that we understand Sherman’s interviews, let’s compare them to some interviews given by other NFL players.” Think of signposting like using a turn signal before actually making a turn—just because you know where you’re going doesn’t mean the other cars on the road do too!

Use these transitions between each major argument or point, and between your last major point and the conclusion. There, another roadmap will keep the route fresh in the audience’s mind before you arrive triumphantly at the aforementioned destination—your thesis, nicely packaged, with all the major supporting reasons briefly listed. There’s no chance your audience will forget that fantastic argument you made four minutes ago. Nobody’s knuckles will be white, nobody’s hair will stand on end, and you might even see some heads nodding in agreement—all because you put in the work to transition that meandering scenic ride of a paper into the well-ordered route, with proper directions, that everyone needs when visiting new territory.

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