Signposting for speakers
What do I mean by signposting?
Short verbal phrases that we can use as speakers to effectively signal direction and relevance in our talks. They help our audience’s brains make sense of where we are in the flow of words, and why they matter.
Why signposting matters?
Signposting helps us to direct and maintain the audience’s attention.
We may have a map of our talk in our brains, or on paper, but the audience can’t see this. They are dependent on us, as speakers, to help them make sense of the verbal flow.
Yes, we can use slides to support and visually anchor the progression of a talk. But an initial overview slide, for example, does not replace the ongoing need to be clear about where we are headed next and why.
No matter how good we are as speakers, it is also natural for our audience’s brains to experience moments of distraction, confusion, or wondering. What we want to avoid is this turning into a cognitive lag, where they start to tune out or get lost and switch off.
Signposting for direction and relevance helps to engage and re-engage our audience.
It won’t make up for a poorly designed map. (We want to choose places that are worth visiting and exploring.) But it will help the audience to navigate the talk with us.
SIGNPOSTING FOR DIRECTION
This list is by no means exhaustive; I’ve picked 6 to start with. The phrases are examples, and there are many different ways of achieving the same effect. So, choose language that fits you, in a conversational way.
The first places that I’d pay attention to and consider in your map or outline are the TRANSITIONS. This is where you are moving from one point to another and need to take the audience with you.
Depending on how you construct your talks, transitions will be: how you move from bullet point to bullet point, or how you move from slide to slide. In the one-page maps that I create with my speakers, they are the arrows or lines that connect key sections.
While you may be signposting for different reasons throughout your talk, doing so when you make a transition can be particularly helpful for your audience. You are helping to orientate them, rather than just jumping from point to point. Speakers and audiences benefit from this level of clarity.
SIGNPOSTING TRANSITIONS BETWEEN MAIN POINTS:
1) A new point:
There are lots of different ways to move to a new point. You can make a clean break, but one that still locates the audience in the bigger picture. You can use it as a chance to recap quickly and then move forwards. You can briefly place it in the context of an earlier point.
‘Now I’m going to introduce the 2nd way in which we X.’
‘There we saw X. What we’re going to focus on next is Y.’
‘So far we’ve talked about X and dug into Y. Those worked great for Z. But what we’re focusing on right now as a team is A, because….’
‘With X project we had 2 years to do Y. But what do you do when you’ve only got 3 months? That’s what I’m going to be sharing next…’
2) A sidenote:
Good to be overt about this is if you’re going to include one, so that the audience knows when you’re taking this diversion, and when you’ve returned to the topic points. (Also be clear with yourself why it’s worth taking the time to make this detour.) Speakers have different ways for expressing this. Examples I’ve heard include:
‘Time for an interlude.’
‘Total non-sequitur coming up…’
‘I’m going to take you on a quick tangent here because…’
‘Before we get into this, I just want to show you x…’
‘This wasn’t part of this project, but I wish it had been….’
3) Your final point:
It can be good to re-focus attention as you wrap up. You don’t want to do this from an apologetic position (i.e.… don’t worry this is nearly over). And you also don’t want to signal this too early, and then keep adding (i.e.…and one more thing….and one more thing…) as this will give you false endings. Decide and test your final section, so that you signal clearly that you are bringing the talk to a close, in a clear and impactful way.
‘In this final example, what I want to show you is…’
‘And a final question I want to put to you is X…’
‘In this final section of this talk, I want to take you into…’
‘Now I’m going to touch at the very end on X and why it matters so much for Y…’
SIGNPOSTING WITHIN A MAIN POINT
It helps the audience to remember and also to connect the dots between points if we include short amounts of repetition. It doesn’t have to be word for word. We get to paraphrase (explain it in different words) and build on what we have said. It just needs to function as a clear reminder of what we said originally.
‘I’ve said before that ….’
‘You remember when X…’
‘You’ll see in this video clip that X…’ (Show clip, and then after clip). ‘Totally one of my favourite examples of X, because Y.’
5) Comparing (between points):
We don’t just move forwards as speakers. It’s also helpful for our audience’s mental map to circle back and draw lines through.
‘This is kind of like the X I showed you, back in the first example. But where it differs is Y.’
‘And if you thought that X was vast, wait until I show you Y. It’s twice the size.’
‘And where X was a challenge for us re client expectations, what Y really taught us is Z.’
6) Going into more detail:
It helps the audience to know that you’re staying focused on the same main point, just going into it deeper, or in more detail. It becomes an organising principle in their brain, rather than just more words that they’re trying to decide how to place.
‘So, lets dig into that further…’
‘But what does that really mean for us, if we want to apply it…’
‘And if we take that principle and really unpack it, what we find is X. Let’s take a look at that…’
SIGNPOSTING FOR RELEVANCE
If you were studying something important on a page, and were able to make notes on it, you might do this in all kinds of ways. You might underline or circle short parts. You might mark or star certain bits that seem key. You might add words of your own that help you remember the importance.
We can differentiate our spoken words with the tone of our voice. And we can reinforce key aspects visually with slides.
But it is also useful to help an audience make sense of our words by signposting relevance. It causes a useful spike in their attention. And it helps provide a filter for importance.
‘The unusual thing about this is…’
‘This is very important when….’
‘The biggest problem with this is…’
‘And why that really matters is…’
‘And when this really proves useful is…’
We can also phrase a rhetorical question and then answer:
‘So why does our lab care so much about X right now? Well…’
‘And do you know what I really wished I’d know when I started this…?’
‘And what’s the biggest thing I’ve learned since starting X…?’
WAYS TO WORK ON SIGNPOSTING:
- Watch a talk (or go through a transcript) and note the signposting phrases that speaker is using. How are they helping you to understand the direction and relevance of their talk, throughout?
For example, in this talk by Steve Chien, from NASA he creates a self-described ‘whirlwind tour’. It works because he is signposting both for direction and relevance, regularly, to keep the audience with him.
- Draw a brief outline for a new or existing talk on one piece of paper.
Do a quick, initial check for relevance by asking yourself why each point is there? What will your audience get from it? You want to be starting with useful or interesting material.
A) Focus on your transitions. Go through and be really overt about how each of the points connect. Literally say it out loud. It doesn’t matter if the phrasing is rough. What you are doing is making sure that the logic is clear, to yourself, so that you can then be clear with an audience.
For e.g.… ‘Next I move on to this bit, because it helps to show X in more detail. And from there, I move to Y because it helps to give a wider context for Z. And then I introduce A because…’
We need to really understand how our own points link, and then it becomes much easier to practice signposting direction, as though an audience was there.
B) Go back through your outline. You’ve already done a quick check for relevance. Now be really overt about the importance of different parts. As though you were choosing which bits of your talk you’d underline and why. Say it out loud.
For example, ‘And this bit here is really important to know if X.’
Once we’ve pulled this out, and are clear ourselves, it again becomes much easier to signpost relevance for our audience.
Any work that you do in this area as a speaker will help with clarity – both for you and your audience. Don’t feel that you need to do all of the above! Find one thing that you want to try out. That will be great.
The other excellent news is that you may already be doing some signposting naturally. It is a skill that we can continue to learn and hone.