March 27, 2024

Organizing Presentations: Some structures that can help

Presentation Tips , Public Speaking

You're tasked with making a presentation. How do you approach the assignment? Do you organize with an outline? Or are you what creative writers call a "pantser," someone who puts the story together as they go, working by the seat of their pants.  

The most common organization structure for business presentations seems to be the topical approach. We talk about it at The Buckley School as defining The One Thing, then using the Rule of 3: You have a clear overarching topic or theme, then structure your message into three points or three categories.

This plan can help you bring order to even the most sprawling presentation. It's a great approach if you find yourself needing to speak with little or no time to prepare. And many speakers find they can recall and deliver a speech with three points, even without notes.

We remind our students, however, that a topical scheme isn't the only way to organize. While we won't try to cover all the options here, take a look at other ways you might organize.

Pro-Con, Compare-Contrast

If you're presenting about a decision your company needs to make or evaluating plans of action, this can be a helpful way to organize information. For your audience to explore the options thoroughly, it's good to structure the information so comparisons are direct, easy, and intuitive.

For example, if you present budget issues as the first item on the pro side, present budget information first on the con side. This mirrored structure will also reassure your audience that you're not omitting critical information.


You may have used this format even if you favor the Rule of 3: 1) the problem, 2) the solution, 3) next steps.

One tip we have is this: Don't become so enmeshed in presenting the problem that you use up all your presentation time (and audience goodwill) on that. Let the solution share some of the spotlight!

Logical Progression

Some messages lend themselves to laying out the thought process or sequence, A leads to B, B leads to C. We tend to think of this as the "If you give a mouse a cookie…" approach.

Of course, a presenter's logic can be faulty. Public speakers sometimes make questionable connections. If you are presenting to a logical audience (engineers, for example), be sure your progression can withstand their scrutiny.

Chronological and Spatial

Speakers use this structure to describe a project's history or take you through a map of a location or diagram of a machine. It's a straightforward, practical way to organize.

Just remember that it may not deliver the most important information first. Take care that you don't provide a historic perspective, for example, when your audience wants to know about right now.

Case in Point: A Story to Kick It Off or Bring it Home

You see this approach frequently used in TV news stories. A change in government policy, for example, is presented through the story of one person. Often the news story begin with the individual: Mary Smith went to Walmart today, knowing she would have to make a tough choice: come home with enough food to feed her family this week or buy the medication she needs to manage her diabetes. Then the story expands to the bigger points about drug prices. And it might come back to Mary’s story to conclude.

A story can be a great organizing tool to help audiences visualize an abstract or complex issue. The story can come anywhere in your presentation - a single point to open that broadens; a point in the middle you narrow to, then expand; or a point you bring your message down to at the end. 

Mix and Match the Methods You Need

Presentations can, of course, combine organizational schemes. Your Pro/Con, for example, might also use the Rule of 3, with three points for Pro, three points for Con. A logical progression might pay off with a story that captures the process, or the story might illustrate the progression. 

Learn More

Here's a look at why the Rule of 3 is appreciated by audiences and a useful tool for you.  

Our founder, Reid Buckley, wrote a book on organizing ideas. See an excerpt of it here and try his Declaration of Independence scramble. 

And here's Reid Buckley's take on how organizing can help you overcome nervousness.

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