My thanks to the editors of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce’s blog for publishing my piece on strong endings.
As I note in the post,
What too many business leaders don’t realize is that, when it comes to motivating an audience, the ending is the most important part of an engaging presentation. Why? Because all of us tend to remember the last thing we hear a speaker say. A weak ending, therefore, usually means your presentation won’t have much impact, even if the beginning and middle are well done.
Unfortunately, I hear far too many executives finish up their remarks to an audience by saying something like this:
“Well, that’s about all I have to say, and I see my time is about up.”
“So now I’ll answer any questions.”
No listener is going to be moved by that kind of an ending.
You’ll find the complete post, including advice on endings that do grab audiences, here.
When Yankee great Yogi Berra died last week at the age of 90, the tributes and reminiscences were certainly not limited to people from the sports world. Berra, a three time MVP, was one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, but as the New York Times’ Bruce Weber noted, “[he] may be more widely known as an ungainly but lovable cultural figure, inspiring a cartoon character and issuing a seemingly limitless supply of unwittingly witty epigrams…” It’s no surprise, then, that in addition to sportswriters he was warmly remembered by entertainment writers, language analysts, political columnists, and others.
To which I have to add: he was also beloved by speechwriters everywhere. His “yogi-isms” –those great non sequitur quotes (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it….”) are a wonderful resource.
To be sure, as Yogi said put it, “I really didn’t say everything I said.” So it’s often safest to “attribute” the quotes to him.
Still, the quotes can be pure gold, not just because they’re funny, but also because they appeal to everyone. I can’t think of an audience they would offend, and invoking a beloved figure like Berra can help get even the most jaded listener on your side. Moreover, their folk wisdom quality is a subtle way for a speaker to let the audience know that, though I’m a CEO or world-class expert or earn lots more money than you, we can connect through Yogi.
One of my favorite clients was the head of a giant trade association. He liked to have two kinds of quotes in his speeches — quotes from famous philosophers and scientists, and quotes from Yogi. That told the audience that he was a deep thinker, but one of them, too.
Yogi’s life may be over, but his words and warmth live on.
David Murray — editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, and a friend– has a great piece in IABC’s Communication World Magazine. He argues that leaders are “giving far too many of the wrong kinds of speeches, and far too few of the right ones.”
The problem is that CEOs and other top executives don’t yet realize role of a leader’s speech “has changed as much during the last decade as it did during the last several centuries.”
The advent of modern communications technologies means it is no longer necessary for a leader to go in front of a group of people simply to convey information. YouTube, blogs, on Twitter, and other social media channels can do that really, really well.
Instead, Murray says, leaders should stand at the podium only when they have an urgent message to convey to a crucial audience. Sadly, most leaders don’t take that approach, which is why we’ve all had to sit through boring presentations, rambling on-stage interviews, and deadly PowerPoint talks.
Interestingly, master communicator Lee Iacocca understood the difference between the right kind of CEO speech and the wrong one, long before the social media age. In 1994 he wrote, “In every speech I give the object is to motivate. You can deliver information in a letter or tack it on a bulletin board.”
I would bet that the question I get asked most often when I give a presentation is, how should I use humor in a speech? My quick answer: “very carefully.” As I noted in a post a couple years ago, using humor in speeches is risky, so proceed with caution.
But do proceed. Here are some guidelines on how to amuse.
Like just about every other speechwriter and presentation coach I know, I strongly advise against starting by telling a joke. Most jokes bomb; very few people are good at telling them; and they almost never sound natural or authentic. The result is that the first impression the audience has is that you are inauthentic at best and a phony at worst.
To prevent that from happening, keep in mind the very important distinction speech coach Christopher Witt draws between “a joke” and “humor.” “When you tell a joke, you’re trying to make people laugh,” he says. “When you use humor, you’re wanting to amuse them. You’re happy if they smile or chuckle.” And I strongly agree with him that the safest and most effective form of humor is self-deprecating.
The late John Cantu, who coached working comics and comedy writers as well as public speakers, thought long and hard about humor. You’ll find a lot of great advice on his SpeakerHumor site. Especially useful is his recommendation to speakers who are just beginning to get comfortable with humor: never use a bit of humor UNLESS it illustrates, clarifies, or specifically references the point you are trying to make.
So, proceed carefully, but do try adding humor to your speeches, talks and presentations.
Another great piece in Silicon Valley speechwriter Ian Griffin‘s terrific “Professionally Speaking” blog. This one is a guest post from U.K. media coach Alan Stevens, that is chock full of excellent tips on how to give a great speech. My favorite part of the piece, though is his concise list of things speakers should NEVER do. Such as…
- Start badly
- Fail to understand equipment
- Put too much on each slide
- Patronize the audience
- Use bad graphics
- Turn their back on the audience
- Speak inaudibly
- Use jargon
- Run out of time
- End poorly