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The End is the Beginning
by Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP
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People remember best what you say last. In a presentation, what people take with them to put into action or to connect with what they already know depends to a large degree on how you end the presentations. So in one sense, the end of your presentation is the beginning for the audience. Speakers often reach their momentum in the middle of the presentation and lose contact with the audience by the end. One of the ways a speaker can ensure beginnings for an audience is by having a strong ending; this article will provide a few simple tips to achieve this concluding spark.
First, focus on the general purpose of your presentation. Are you moving the audience to action? Are you helping your audience to understand? Are you attempting to change the viewpoint of your audience on a particular issue? Or are you simply entertaining? The purpose will determine how you end the presentation. Some speakers lose sight of this, their endings do not fit their purposes, and the audiences leave without knowing where to begin.
If your purpose is to move the audience to action, then your conclusion should in some way answer the question, "What do I want my audience to do as a result of my presentation?" What action do you want people to take? The conclusion should state the specific action to be taken. A presentation on donating blood individually as a part of the company goal for community service would need to end with the time and location for giving blood. An even more effective ending would be to obtain some kind of commitment. Ask for a show of hands: "Raise your hand if you are going to give blood when the Bloodmobile is here next Monday." If your purpose is simply to entertain, then the conclusion should be light and send the audience away with the good feelings that laughter and humor provide.
A second method for enhancing your conclusion is to summarize.PLUS! Certainly you want the audience to take with them the major theme or main points of the message, but in addition you should give them a phrase or quotation to connect with the summary. This is the exit line. An exit line is a short saying, profound idea, or clever line that compels the audience to think about the main theme of the speech. The exit line will increase the likelihood of the audience's remembering what you want them to do as they begin after the presentation.
When I stress the value of preparation, I often end with the remark by former Senator Bill Bradley, "When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing.and when you meet him, he will win." In talking about the power of developing language skills, I like the quotation by Mark Twain: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." To punctuate the summary with a thought-provoking idea usually helps audience members to know clearly where to begin as they leave your presentation.
A third way to enhance the ending is to understand the mechanics of the conclusion. It should be short. Don't start concluding when you still have ten minutes of material left. Don't say, "In conclusion." unless you really mean to finish. You will lose the audience if you keep talking long after you announce you are finishing.
Speak the conclusion without reading it. Look at your audience as you end; know exactly what you want to say and avoid fumbling with your notes, which distracts people from your words. The ending should raise the emotional level of your interaction with the audience; rapport, eye contact, and feeling between speaker and audience are enhanced when the speaker does not hesitate and stumble looking at notes. Look pleasant and try not to hide behind a lectern as you end. Conclusions are great opportunities to move away form the lectern and toward the audience.
Another important tip is to avoid introducing new material in the conclusion. The "add-ons" and "By the ways." should not be added once you are winding up your presentation. In the conclusion, you should do these three things: summarize the main points, include a statement that reiterates your general purpose, and develop an exit line. If you add to these areas, you are using material that should probably be included earlier in the presentation.
Finally, don't take the ending too seriously. Speakers sometimes look for that fantastic audience response-sustained applause, laughter, or even a standing ovation-only to be disappointed about the whole speech if the response doesn't happen. On one occasion Winston Churchill was stopped by a woman who said to him, "Doesn't it thrill you, Mr. Churchill, to know that every time you make a speech the hall is packed to overflowing?"
"It is quite flattering," Sir Winston replied. "But whenever I feel this way I always remember that if, instead of making a political speech, I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big."
Concentrate on your endings and you can't help but give the audience new beginnings in the process.
About The Author: Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is a professor of speech communication at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky. He works with organizations that want to speak and listen more effectively to increase personal and professional performance. He can be reached at 800-727-6520 or visit http://sboyd.com for free articles and resources to improve your communication skills.