When, Why and How To Use Signposts in Public Speaking

by Janice Tomich

Signposts in public speaking are often missed or misunderstood.

You might know signposts by other names such as benchmarks or keypoints. No matter what you call them they are an integral piece to the framework of your speeches or presentations. If they’re not built in, you run the risk of losing your audience soon after you’ve spoken your first few words. As an executive communication coach, I know the value of signposts done well. Here’s what I teach my communication clients about using signposts effectively.

What Is A Signpost In A Speech?

A signpost is a verbal or visual marker indicating the direction you are taking your speech/presentation or where you are presently at in order to help your audience move through different concepts, connect the dots, and help them stay engaged. Planning when you’ll use signposting is an essential element to planning a well structured, well organized presentation

Why Are Signposts Important In Your Speech?

Even if you’ve invested multiple hours preparing your presentation your attendees won’t hang in there if you don’t guide them through the different stages you’re speaking about. What you’ll notice instead is eyes looking away and fingers tapping on phones because you’ve lost them. 

To compel your audience to keep listening there are many types of signposts to be aware of that you can embed in your next presentation.

Types of Speech or Presentation Signposts  

How To Build Signposts Into Your Presentation Opening 

You’ve likely heard many speeches or presentations begin with these typical statements:

  •  Today, I’m going to talk about…
  •  I’m going to cover…
  • You will learn the following…

These types of statements can help your audience envision what you’ll be speaking about, however a word of caution here. 

Don’t start your presentation with signposts. You run the risk of losing your audience because your setup is frankly quite boring. It’s how ‘everyone’ opens their presentations. The folks at Ideo, who are masters of corporate storytelling, call starting a speech this way throat clearing (which no one wants to hear).

You need to entice and hook your audience in with your first words. Starting with signposts won’t accomplish that

Pro Tip: Begin your presentation with a hook. Engage your audience – pull them in. Then (and only then) speak to your signposts (using a light hand) to show your audience where you’ll be taking them. 

How To Use Signposts Throughout The Body Of Your Speech

You are the subject matter expert. It’s why you’ve been asked to speak. What you know is not what your audience knows. This is called ‘the curse of knowledge’ and with this often comes an outpouring of information with no structure. 

Structure is needed to help your audience stay engaged (and connect the dots to what you’re telling them) by using signposts. 

Use examples similar to these when you want your audience to be alerted to important concepts:

  • It is  important you remember (or make note of)…
  • If you take away one gold nugget today this is it…
  • Turn to your partner and share what you know about…

When you want your audience to know you’re providing more depth of concept use a signpost similar to this: 

  • Let’s take a deeper dive into this important idea…

To create a signpost to indicate you’re moving on to a new idea:

  • Now that you have a good understanding of x let’s move on to…
  • I’m going to do a complete about face now and talk about..

Pro Tip: Take your audience along your information path by dropping crumbs for them to follow so they can walk beside you.  

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How To Create Signposts In The Conclusion Of Your Presentation

How many times have you been to a presentation where you weren’t quite sure that it was over because the speaker rambled on and then fizzled out? I’ve experienced this so many times I’ve lost count. 

Signposts help your audience know where you are in your argument—where you're going—like this signpost image.

To demonstrate your communication expertise it’s important to finish powerfully and confidently so your audience is clear you’ve concluded your presentation: 

  • These are the most important concepts to take away from today…
  • We’ve gone from x to y today. I’ve spoken about…
  • We’ve covered lots of information today. Please connect with me…

Pro Tip: A word of caution with your conclusion – do not finish your presentation with a Q & A because you’ll give the floor (and your power) to someone else, risking having delivered a  presentation that’s irrelevant. Instead speak to your signposts. 

Spoken Signposts vs Visual Signposts

As effective as spoken signposts can be, equally effective are visual signposts. Skilled presenters have moved beyond using reams of bullet points in their presentations and using images in their slidedecks instead. 

A carefully chosen image is a great signifier of the concept that will be spoken to next. The example below works well to signify loss of control or old school technology. 

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What Is The Difference Between A Signpost And A Transition?

A signpost is a marker indicating where you are in your speech/presentation or the direction that you are going. Think of road signs you pass on the highway. For example, a sign that lets you know you are now entering Vancouver. The sign also indicates that Whistler (where you are heading) is 120 km from Vancouver. This is a marker that indicates the direction you will be travelling.

A transition may seem similar, however it is different. It is the actual act of moving your audience from one concept to the next. For example Vancouver is a beautiful city with skiing close by on Grouse and Seymour Mountains, however Whistler is known as a ski town that provides a full skiing experience. This example provides insight into skiing and then carries you along to possibilities.

Can You Have Too Many Signposts?

Yes. Audiences are sophisticated and need a few elements of surprise. When your presentation is too structured you’ll bore them. 

The tired and misused recommendation ‘tell them, tell them again, and then one more time for good measure’ is outdated. No one wants to be talked down to or at every turn know what’s coming next. 

Gently guide but don’t coddle. It’s okay to highlight statements such as, ‘this is important to note/remember’, however if you say it more than a few times all of those ‘important’ concepts will blur together. 

By using signposts your audience will be able to stay with you and your carefully chosen thoughts and ideas. Help them stay on track by providing markers to guide them through your concepts so they will have tangible takeaways.

I help professionals master public speaking and communication skills. Reach out to set up a quick call to discuss how coaching can help you succeed as a speaker and position you as a leader.  

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