What Is Signposting in English and Why Does It Matter?

Published on
July 1, 2022
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Updated on
June 27, 2022
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5
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Emile Dodds

Signposting is a simple and easy-to-learn technique that can improve your listening, writing and even presentation skills. In fact, once you know this technique, you will see it everywhere! Let us explain it to you with this step-by-step guide.

What Is Signposting in English and Why Does It Matter?
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A presentation is very similar to a school essay, if you think about it. Both have an introduction. Both have a conclusion. Both have a certain number of main points. An essay is a structured way of writing. A presentation is a structured way of speaking.

But when you read an essay, you know exactly where you are - you can look at the page and see if you are near the beginning of the essay or near the end. You can see which main point you’re reading, by glancing at the paragraphs.

What about when listening to a presentation? Do you know “where” you are? With a good presenter, the answer is yes! Because a good presenter uses a technique called signposting.

So what exactly is signposting?

Just like a signpost by the road that tells you where you are going, signposting in a presentation tells the listener what is coming next.

Here is an example:

Now that we have looked at the causes of work-related stress, let’s examine the solutions.
The first solution that I would like to highlight is…

The language used here clearly signals that the speaker is moving on from talking about the causes of stress to talking about the solutions.

When we use language like this, the structure of our presentation is clear and transparent to everyone listening. Remember, listeners like to know “where” they are in a presentation.

At the sentence level, we can use signposting language to show what we are about to say. Here’s an example:

The best thing about Steve is that he is a trustworthy friend.

The simple signposting phrase in bold tells the listener what to expect next in the sentence. It may seem like a trivial thing, but this style of communication greatly improves understanding.

Signposting can help you with your listening

So far, we have looked at signposting from the speaker’s point of view. However, signposting is also something that can help you with your listening.

Imagine that you hear this sentence:

George is a conscientious guy.

Let’s assume that conscientious is a word that you don’t know. Is the speaker saying something good about George or something bad? Did they say ‘conscientious' or ‘contentious’?

As a listener, you’ll still be puzzling over the word ‘conscientious’ as the speaker continues, and you will lose the flow of the conversation.

But, in fact, we usually speak like this:

What I like about George is that he is a conscientious guy.

Now that we can recognise the signpost (in bold), we can at least understand that being conscientious is a positive trait (it describes a person who likes to do the correct thing) and we know that the speaker didn’t say ‘contentious’ (argumentative). We can move on with the rest of the conversation.

If you are attending a lecture or a talk, listening for signposting language will help you structure your notes. As soon as you hear, “I’m going to mention three methods to lose weight…”, you can prepare a space to write method one, method two and method three.

You should especially listen out for cues that the speaker is moving on to a new topic, giving an example or ending the talk.

You need to listen for phrases like these:

  • My next point is…
  • The next main point is…
  • The next thing I wish to highlight is…
  • Now that we have discussed…, let’s move on to…
  • For example…
  • For instance…
  • Here’s an example…
  • To conclude…
  • To sum up…
  • In conclusion…
  • To conclude this talk, I would like to…

Signposting can help you with your writing

The main difference between writing and speaking is structure. When speaking, you simply say the first thing that comes to mind. But when writing, you take time to plan out what to say. You plan the order of your paragraphs and you plan the structure of your paragraphs (or at least, you should!).

However, simply planning out your structure is not enough. You need to make an effort to show the structure to the reader. We do this through signposting.

Imagine that you need to write a short essay or an article comparing large and small companies. The first paragraph might look like this:

Have you ever wondered whether it is best to work at a small or large company? This essay examines the advantages and disadvantages of both in order to help you make that decision.

Here are excerpts from the following paragraphs:

The benefits of working in a large company areFor example
On the other hand, large companies can be
An example is
A small company is good for
For instance
However, many small companies
A good example is
In conclusion

Can you see how the signposting phrases make the structure clear to the reader? We can already see that the article will be easy to understand, no matter what the points are.

In the modern world, a large number of people skim and scan articles to get information quickly. The use of signposting makes it especially easy to do this.

Hence, if you use signposting, the speed readers of the world will thank you for it!

Signposting can help you with presentations

Remember how I said that a presentation is similar to an essay?

Look again at the signposting phrases that I suggested for an essay:

The benefits of working in a large company areFor example
On the other hand, large companies can be
An example is
A small company is good for
For instance
However, many small companies
A good example is
In conclusion

These same signposting phrases can be used in a presentation, too!

But let’s look at the introduction to a presentation. This is the part of a presentation where you lay out the structure of what is to come. Again, signposting phrases can help you do this.

Take a look at this introduction to a presentation on mental health issues at the workplace:

Have you ever felt stressed, neglected, alone or overwhelmed at the workplace? For some of us, these negative emotions can develop into serious mental health issues. As a workplace psychologist, I see this every day.

In my talk today, I’m going to discuss five different mental health issues. After that, I will walk you through ways to deal with each one.

I will end my talk with a Q&A session
where I’ll be glad to field any questions you may have.

After this simple introduction, the audience knows exactly what to expect. They will hear about five issues, followed by five solutions. They also know to expect a Q&A session. They’re now ready to begin the talk.

Signposting can help you in day-to-day communication

Casual, day-to-day conversation is not structured, like an essay or a presentation. Nevertheless, simple signposting at the sentence level can help us in daily communication.

Here is an example:

Paula: Do you think this hat looks nice on me?
Pablo: I don’t want to sound rude, but it looks quite silly.

Can you see what Pablo is doing here? He is afraid that he might upset Paula, so he leads in with a signposting phrase. This alerts Paula that he is going to say something sensitive and he wants her not to be upset. It also softens the harsh comment; we generally soften comments by saying them indirectly.

Here is a second example:

Pierre: There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.
Pietro: Oh no! Am I in trouble?
Pierre: Not exactly, but I have been receiving complaints from your coworkers…

Notice how Pierre doesn’t mention complaints at the beginning of the conversation. Instead, he uses the signposting phrase in bold.This phrase indicates that the topic of discussion will be serious, and that is why Pietro wonders if he is in trouble.

Pierre uses this technique to set the tone and expectations for the conversation.

Note how the two examples shown here are quite subtle. Understanding subtle and indirect meanings is an advanced language skill. This means that it is something you should look out for as you move up from intermediate to advanced level English.

My advice is to listen out for more examples of this kind of signposting, and write them down in your notebook when you hear them. Your ultimate goal is to use them yourself.

Signposting can help you with the IELTS test

The concept of signposting is used throughout IELTS exams.

IELTS listening passages are carefully scripted to include signposts to help you. In IELTS reading, the signposting phrases help give context when you need to guess the meaning of a word or phrase.

You will also be expected to use signposting language when you write and speak, and the examiner will look for examples. If you use signposting language correctly, you will score marks for ‘coherence and cohesion’ (the logical flow and connection of your writing/speaking).

In the writing section of the IELTS, coherence and cohesion provide 25% of the total marks.

If you are able to use signposting phrases, but do not always use them correctly, that indicates a band 6 score. At band 7, signposting phrases are used correctly and appropriately. At band 8+, use of signposting approaches the skill level of a native speaker.

Some examples of signposting

Here is a list of example signposting language to get you started. Remember, there are many more than we can list here.

Introducing a topic

  • The topic of today’s talk is…
  • Today, I would like to discuss…
  • What I wish to talk about today is…

Sequencing

  • First…
  • Next…
  • Finally…

Developing a point

  • Additionally…
  • Moreover…
  • Furthermore…

Contrasting…

  • Nevertheless…
  • Even though…
  • Despite…

Emphasising a point

  • The important thing is…
  • It is important to note that…
  • The vital thing to understand about this is…

Concluding

  • To conclude…
  • To summarise what we have discussed…
  • In conclusion, what I would like to say is…

Embrace signposting as a major feature of English

Perhaps you had never heard of signposting before reading this article.

If so, then I hope this article has opened the door to a major feature of the English language. The more you know about signposting, the more you will see and hear it everywhere.