Chronological, Step-by-Step, and Spatial Organization

Learning Objectives

Explain the chronological, step-by-step, and spatial patterns for speeches and identify which topics work best for these types.

We can think of speeches organized chronologically, step by step, or spatially as following a “natural” or self-evident structure. When you’re talking about a process, for instance, walking the audience through the process step by step seems like a logical or natural choice.

Remember, though, that even if your speech is structured in a “natural” sequence, you still need an introduction that helps the listener understand why they’re listening to this story. Imagine that a friend is going to tell you a story about something that happened to them that day. First, let’s imagine that they start the story with “Something really funny happened to me . . . .” What are you listening for in the story? Now imagine if they started the story with “I’m really upset because of something that happened today.” Or “I really need your advice. Here’s what happened . . . .” With each of these different beginnings, we listen in a different way. In the first case, we’re primed to laugh; in the second, we get ready to offer comfort and sympathy; in the third, we’re prepared to problem solve. The same is true of the beginning of your speech: by setting the stage with the introduction or the “hook,” you’re letting the listener know what they’re listening for and how they should listen.


A flooded plaza

A persuasive speech about Climate Change might describe the predicted effects of global warming in chronological order.

A chronologically organized speech pattern organizes its main points following a sequence of events or occurrences according to the time they took place. This structure works particularly well for informative and introductory speeches. For example, an introductory speech about the life events that lead you to attend your college could be organized chronologically starting with the first meeting with your guidance counselor, which lead to filling out an application a few weeks later to then drafting an essay, going on a campus tour a few months after that, having an interview with the department, and then finally getting the acceptance letter. Another example of a chronological speech topic would be a speech about a historical event, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the Boxer Rebellion, or the Arab Spring, which covers the events that occurred in the order in which they happened.

The advantages of a chronological speech pattern are that it is very easy to follow and it creates a clean, clear order. The timeline does the organizational work for the speaker and makes it easy to use. The cons are that there may be many events that occurred, such as in a speech topic about women getting the right to vote, which may not fit into the speech delivery time limit. So, consider the time allotted in addition to whether the time sequence of events is the most effective way to present the material before selecting this pattern.


A simple diagram showing instructions two basic salsa dance patterns.

An informative speech about Salsa dancing might give step-by-step instructions.

This pattern presents the steps involved in doing something and is useful for “how-to” or demonstration speeches where you are teaching or showing how to do a task. It follows the order of a process. For example, the steps involved in baking a cake, a speech demonstrating the dance steps required to do the Macarena, or how to create a PowerPoint presentation would use a step-by-step structure.

The advantage of this organizational pattern is that it breaks the task into small pieces for the audience. It allows them to see the process of doing something so that they may be able to do it themselves. The disadvantage of this pattern is that it can be tedious or repetitious if listeners are already very familiar with some of the steps in the process. With this organizational pattern, it’s particularly important to know how much prior knowledge of the process your audience already has.


A detailed poster showing the different parts of the International Space Station.

An informative speech about the International Space Station might use a spatial organization pattern, giving the listeners a tour of each part of the station as though they were moving through it.

A spatial pattern organizes each main point in a directional structure, connecting each main point to a whole. This structure is used for informative speeches where the topic is organized by location, geography, or moving through a space (“spatial” is the adjective form of “space”). For example, a speech about the parts of a resume might move in order from the top section to the bottom section. A speech about the regional cuisine of Germany might move from the Northwest region in a clockwise direction around the country. A speech about a building might start at the front doors and end on the roof. A speech about the pathway of Hurricane Sandy would include the geography showing the path moving from south to north east.

The spatial pattern is particularly useful if you want your listeners to be able to visualize an entire place or a complex object, since it moves between the part and the whole in a visual way. If you want your audience to visualize the Statue of Liberty, for instance, you might describe it spatially from top to bottom, rather than telling the story of its construction (chronological) or talking about the various things it has come to symbolize (topical).

To Watch: Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, “Diego Rivera, Man Controller of the Universe”

Spatial organizational patterns are often used to describe artworks and architecture. In this short video, art historians Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker discuss Diego Rivera’s 1934 fresco mural Man, Controller of the Universe in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City. The first part of the video is organized topically and chronologically, covering some of the major themes of the mural and the circumstances surrounding its creation. At around 3:25 in the video, Zucker says, “Let’s take a closer look at [the mural]”, and the two art historians discuss each part of the mural in sequence starting with the figure in the center. The spatial organization of their description is based on the visual structure of the painting; since the painting is largely symmetrical, Harris and Zucker describe the center, then the upper left and upper right, then the middle left and middle right, then the bottom left and bottom right.

You can view the transcript for “Diego Rivera, Man Controller of the Universe” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Note how Harris and Zucker end their tour of the artwork with broader thoughts about what we can learn from it: “We’re still very much at these crossroads. Technology is ever more important in our lives. What will technology bring us? A more egalitarian society, a world where everyone can be educated? Or will it bring greater inequality? These are still things debated today. We are still grappling with the increasing power of the tools that we have built, the power that technology has given us, and the choices that we make in terms of how we wield that power.” Whatever organizational pattern you use, it’s always crucial to bring the discussion around to something the audience can take away—a new insight, a new perspective, or a new way of framing a problem.