One of the best ways to keep your audience’s attention is to structure your speech with “signposts” or transitions which tell your audience where they are and where they are going.

In a written report, we can easily identify the executive summary and quickly see the outline at a glance. We know when one chapter ends and another begins, and the chapter titles introduce the themes.

How do you put that structure in a speech? Much like trail markers are essential to hikers, signposts in a speech are important indicators to the audience. In both cases, these signs prevent people from getting lost.

This is especially important in long speeches, and what better way to study the use of signposts than to look at President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech last month?

The SOTU is a uniquely long speech that covers a uniquely large amount of information. Rarely do we hear politicians (or anyone) speak for more and 20-30 minutes, and to tell the truth we rarely want to listen to someone speak for that long. Especially in a long speech, we should think about how to structure information to keep the audience with us.

Here are some transitions which President Obama used in the SOTU. You can find them in the transcript here.

Early on in the speech, the President introduces the theme and lets us know where he will begin:

  • “So tonight, I want to focus…on the values at stake in the choices before us. It begins with our economy.”

Later on, the President asks a rhetorical question to move the speech forward:

  • “So what does middle-class economics require in our time?”

He responds with:

  • “First…” and gives two examples.

Then he continues with:

  • “Second…” and “Finally…” making three points to answer his rhetorical question.

A note of caution: when you have a list of three items and examples within each item, make sure that the signposts refer back to your rhetorical question to remind your audience what it was. That’s something I found missing from the President’s speech, and I needed to read the transcript to figure it out.

Of course, we can use more creative signposts than simply, “first, second, and third.” We can use carefully crafted sentences to transition from one theme to the next.

The President uses these sentences to transition from American jobs to American business overall:

  • “So no one knows for certain which industries will generate the jobs of the future. But we do know we want them here in America.”

President Obama uses this sentence to transition from domestic policy to international affairs:

  • “Of course, if there’s one thing this new century has taught us, it’s that we cannot separate our work at home from challenges beyond our shores.” He then lists (“first, second, and third”) the different ways in which America is engaged in international affairs.

Towards the end of his speech, the president signals he is nearing the end by this transitional phrase:

  • “There’s one last pillar to our leadership – and that’s the example of our values.”

There is much more we can learn from the SOTU, but one of the main points we should take away is the importance of connecting the dots between ideas. A speech is not simply a collection of thoughts but a rich tapestry in which those thoughts weave together to form a compelling image that frames our way of looking at an issue.

So as you sit down to write your next speech, once you’ve written an outline of the issues you’d like to address – spend some time on the transitional phrases that will tell your audience where they are and where you are taking them. The more time you spend on this, the less time the audience will be lost in the woods of your ideas, and the more time they will spend with you on the path to your main message.