Outlining Your Speech

You should feel confident by now that you can choose an adequately narrowed topic, determine your specific purpose, and create a thesis statement that reveals your main speaking points for your audience. All you need now is an outline to organize your thoughts and successfully lead you through your actual presentation. You have probably created an outline before, perhaps as an assignment in your high school English classes or in a college composition class. Possibly you have discovered that outlining chapters from your textbook or your notes from class is beneficial on its own. Studies have shown outlining to be an effective study tool; knowing how to identify the main ideas and supporting data and how to logically organize it seems to help in the retention of the course material (Van Blerkom 10).

An outline is an important tool for the public speaker as well. Once you have decided on your main points, you can begin to sift through the supporting materials that you’ve gathered, choosing the most relevant examples and the strongest facts and details from your research. As you work through the outlining process, you begin to see which details best correlate with your main points and how to connect those ideas logically. An outline provides you with a visual snapshot of your essay or speech. Just looking at an outline allows others to immediately see how you’ve grouped ideas together or which details support which main points. Outlines typically use symbols and indentations to reveal the organization of your points and are valuable tools to assist you in structuring, organizing, and developing your ideas (Sumerset). An outline can reveal gaps in your information or disorganized thinking on your part. Never underestimate the importance of your outline; it’s your guide, or map, to your presentation.

The first step in creating your outline is to determine what main ideas you will include in your speech. Most students find that that they can clearly explain no more than three or four main ideas in a four- to six-minute speech. Your presentation will be stronger if you choose to explain a few ideas clearly and comprehensively rather than choosing to explain too many ideas sparingly. Your main ideas are represented on your outline by Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.) as shown in the following example.

  1. The link between lung cancer and smoking
  2. Treatment options for lung cancer patients
  3. The mortality rate for lung cancer

Obviously, the outline shown above is incomplete. There is more to an outline than the main ideas. Where are the supporting details -the facts and statistics, the stories of patients who have experienced lung cancer and survived? Any reader should be able to deduce from your outline how you intend to present the topic and how your supporting details relate to your main points. You have two or three main points, but which details fit where? Merkley and Jeffries suggest the utilization of a graphic organizer to help you visualize how your details support your points (350-59). A network tree organizer, such as the one shown below, is useful when you intend to list facts, definitions, or examples that relate to a single idea or concept -in our case, points relating to one main idea.

If you have a main idea, but you cannot find at least two (or three) supporting details for that idea, you probably need to reconsider whether that particular point is integral to your topic. If it’s a key point in your presentation, you should be able to “back it up ” with several relevant facts or explanations.

Supporting details should be listed vertically under each of the corresponding main points and are represented on your outline by capital letters (A, B, C, etc.). Supporting details should be indented on the outline; the indentation acts as a visual reminder that these are lesser details linked to the bigger idea above them. The following list is an example.

The link between lung cancer and smoking*

A. Smokers are seventy percent more likely to develop lung cancer

B. Scientists can show that nicotine and other cigarette additives destroy lung tissue and air sacs, reducing the lung’s ability to defend against invading cells

The addition of sub-points (A, B, C) under each main idea (I, II, III) helps to further explain and validate the bigger main idea. However, in most cases, your outline will need to go one step further. What if you need to further explain some of your sub-points? In the previous example, subpoint A provides a statistical detail (seventy percent of smokers are more likely to develop lung cancer). It would be important to list the source of this data and perhaps the timeframe for this statistic so that your listeners can assess the validity of your facts. These details should then be listed vertically under subpoint A, as they relate directly to that single statistic and to that particular sub-point. These details would also be further indented to show the corresponding relationship and are represented by numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.). Take a look at the following example.

I. The link between lung cancer and smoking

A. Smokers are seventy percent more likely to develop lung cancer

  1. Five-year study published in the Harvard Journal of Medicine
  2. Study compared medical records of 10,000 lung cancer patients

Now let’s put the entire outline together so that you can see the finished project.

I. The link between lung cancer and smoking

A. Smokers are seventy percent more likely to develop lung cancer

  1. Five-year study published in the Harvard Journal of Medicine

2. Study compared medical records of 10,000 lung cancer patients

B. Scientists can show that nicotine and other cigarette additives destroy lung tissue and air sacs, reducing the lung’s ability to defend against invading cells

II. Treatment options for lung cancer patients

A. Partial removal of affected lung tissue

B. Lung transplant

C. Radiation to shrink existing cells

  1. Palliative measure only
  2. Adds +/- two years to patient’s life

III. The mortality rate for lung cancer

A. Less than forty percent of lung cancer patients survive more than three years

B. Lung transplants result in organ rejection (and ultimately, death) in fifty-eight percent of patients

* These are fictional details for instructional purposes and do not represent any actual statistical data, studies, or findings.