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13.2: The Freedom of Organization

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    Have you had this experience? You have an instructor who is easy to take notes from because he or she helps you know the main ideas and gives you cues as to what is most important to write down and study for the test. And then you might have an instructor who tells interesting stories, says provocative things, and leads engaging discussions, but you have a really hard time following where the instruction is going. If so, you already know that structure makes a difference for your own listening. In this chapter we will examine why that is true and how you can translate that type of structure to your own speeches.

    Significant psychological and communication research has been done about how an audience needs and desires clear organization in a speech as they listen: 

    First, as we listen, we have limits as to how many categories of information we can keep in mind. You should avoid having more than five main points in a speech, and that would only be for a speech of some length where you could actually support, explain, or provide sufficient evidence for five points.

    For most speeches that you would give in class, where you have about 5-7 minutes, three points are sufficient, although there could be exceptions, of course. It is also acceptable for short speeches to just have two main points if doing so supports your specific purpose. That last phrase is bolded for emphasis because ultimately, your organization is going to depend on your specific purpose.

    Secondly, the categories of information should be distinct, different, and clear. You might think about organization in public speaking as having three steps. These steps are grouping, labeling, and ordering (putting into a good order). Before you can label your main points clearly or put them in the right order, you have to group your information.

    Researchers have found that “chunking” information--the way it is grouped--is vital to audience understanding, learning, and retention of information (Beighly, 1954; Bodeia, Powers, & Fitch-Hauser, 2006; Whitman & Timmis, 1975; Daniels & Whitman, 1981). How does this work in practice? When you are doing your research, you look at the articles and websites you read and say, “That information relates to what I read over here” and “That statistic fits under the idea of . . .” You are looking for similarities and patterns. That is exactly what you do when you group anything, such as the items at a yard sale, where you group according to customer interest and purpose of the items. Finally, if a piece of information you found doesn’t fit into a group as you do your research, it may just not belong in the speech. It’s what we would call “extraneous.”

    A good example of this principle is if you are doing a demonstration speech: a nurse may be teaching patients how to do self-care for diabetes, or a culinary student may be showing how to cook pad thai. The temptation is to treat the procedure as a list of steps, which may number as many as twenty or thirty steps. There are very few times we can remember a list of twenty or thirty items.

    Adult learning and listening needs information “chunked” or grouped into manageable categories. So, instead of listing twenty or thirty discrete steps in the process you are demonstrating or explaining, you would want to group the steps into three to five logical categories to help the audience’s reception and retention of the message, using the separate minor steps as “subpoints.”

    Finally, because your audience will understand you better and perceive you as organized, you will gain more credibility as a speaker if you are organized, assuming you also have credible information and acceptable delivery (Slagell, 2013; Sharp & McClung, 1966). Yun, Costantini, and Billingsley (2012) also found a side benefit to learning to be an organized public speaker: your writing skills will improve, specifically your organization and sentence structure. 

    13.2: The Freedom of Organization is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.