Public speaking (Part 3): Encapsulate

Reaching the end of their presentation is usually a moment of great delight for a speaker because it’s the time when the audience delivers warm applause – or, better still, a standing ovation () . For some speakers, the end is also a time of great relief that their own ordeal is over.

But, no matter whether you will be basking in the acclaim or just feeling relieved, there are some simple steps you can take to get the ending just right. Ideally, you will finish on something which reflects the essence of your talk, so that the audience regards the presentation as complete. You will signal your ending clearly, so that the audience knows it’s time for them to show their appreciation. And you will leave them wanting more.

It’s not over until it’s complete

On too many occasions, I have sat in a theatre approaching what I think is the denouement of a play when quite unexpectedly – to me at least – the final curtain has come down. I knew it was time to applaud, but the unexpected end left me feeling very unfulfilled. An ending should feel satisfying. Audiences like to know they have arrived somewhere.

The stakes may not be as high for a speech as they are for a play, but audiences still welcome a sense of resolution. There are many different ways that closure can be achieved. Some depend on structure. Some depend on style. And some combine both.

Closing structures

The structure of a closing aims to encapsulate what has gone before. Typical structures are based on one or more of the following:

Summary: At the end of a long or detailed speech, when you have a set of key points you particularly want the audience to take away with them, a summary may be just what you need. A summary can draw together the content of the presentation into a snapshot of what was said, ideally without verbatim repetition. This is how I might expect to summarise a talk of my own on public speaking:

    You can become a confident public speaker by mastering the Three ‘Ns:
  • engage: capture your audience’s attention at the outset
  • inform: during your speech
    • use material you have prepared and practised
    • slides can help, but don’t let them take over
    • keep your body relaxed and your voice interesting
  • encapsulate: when you finish, give them closure
  • And, if it doesn’t go as well as you hoped … do it better next time.

Conclusion: If your presentation is an argument which builds up to a conclusion, you have a ready-made ending right there (“… and that is why we don’t want a new motorway running through our village”).

Call to action:  Some of the most rousing endings are those which call on the audience to do something, such as invigorating a team to perform better or inspiring people to support an organisation (“Join with us as we lie down in front of the bulldozers. We shall not let them build.”)

Thematic expression: A very satisfying closure can be achieved with a powerful statement that reflects the theme of the speech. An example of this is a speech given by 16-year old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, at the United Nations. The whole speech is a call for urgent action. In places, it contains carefully articulated argumentation, with numbers to support her case, but look closely and you will see that the theme flowing through the speech is that of a conflict between the generations: her generation and the generation of our world leaders (“I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school … [but] you have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”). She might have been expected to end her speech with a specific demand for action, but she chose instead to end with a passage, directed at UN delegates present in the hall, capturing the essence of the generational conflict:

You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.1Arguably her words were a little muddled. One the one hand, “if you choose to fail us”. On the other hand, “change is coming, whether you like it or not.” But I don’t think Thunberg was seeking to convince the UN through logic. She was expressing emotion – through her words and especially through her delivery (watch a video () of the speech).

Sometimes, two or more of these closing structures can be combined with each other. A conclusion might also summarise several reasons (“And so, because it will be noisy, dangerous and destructive of local life as we know it, we emphatically reject the proposal to run the new motorway through our village.”) A call to action may follow directly from the conclusion to an argument (“Do you want the noise, the danger, the destruction of village life? Or will you lie down in front of the bulldozers with us?”). A thematic expression may incorporate a call to action (for example, by replacing Greta Thunberg’s final sentence with a demand).

In all, there are fifteen different combinations of one or more of these structures. 

Closing style

There are any number of stylistic (or oratorical) devices used in speech endings. Here are a few that I like:

Anecdotes are a popular form of ending. To be really effective, the anecdote needs to be on point, which means it should be linked with the thematic expression of the presentation. Better still, pick an anecdote that is the thematic expression of the presentation. (A variation is to use a quote, rather than an anecdote.)

Another device is contrast. (“The choice is clear: we can have A. Or we can have B. But we can’t have both.”) Contrast is often very powerful when used to articulate a call to action (“You can choose to act. Or you can choose to do nothing. It’s up to you, but you need to decide now or the opportunity will pass us by.”)

A popular device is the call-back to something significant said earlier in the presentation. You see this technique used a lot in stand-up comedy: the comedian concludes with a line that is a variation on a joke made much earlier (and often made in a completely different context). A call-back doesn’t have to be humorous in order to work its magic: the seriousness – or joviality – of a call-back ought to match the main message of the speech. But it’s important that the call-back relates to something the audience will remember you saying earlier or else it won’t have the necessary resonance.

On an earlier page, I quoted from my speech to a conference of regulators, who were – I argued – falling for an illusion. The meat of my speech was a minutely-argued piece of regulatory economics. But I opened with a reference to a Jim Steinman rock song whose title related to my central hypothesis. For the ending, I couldn’t resist the urge to combine my analytical conclusion (that great care was needed if regulation was not to go where it didn’t belong) with an allusion to Good Girls Go To Heaven – Bad Girls Go Everywhere () from the Steinman catalogue of hits.

A related device is the title-close: using the title of the speech as the closing words. It works in a similar way to a call-back. They both depend on the audience realising what you have done. But the two techniques are not the same (unless you actually did recite the title of your speech near the start). If a title-close is to hit home, the selected words need not only to function as an effective title – announcing what the talk is about – but also provide a satisfying ending. If you can find words to do both jobs, it’s probably rather more stunning than a call-back.2I haven’t yet tried this myself. The closest I have ever been was a written piece that ended with a riff on the title. But writing this description of the technique has given me the urge to give it a proper go in the near future.

Giving the right signals

Sometimes a speaker just stops – waiting for the applause – and nothing happens because the audience doesn’t know the speech is over. They think the speaker has just paused for thought.

One example of that has stuck with me for more than ten years because I wouldn’t expect such an inexpert error from so expert a speaker. It was a speech by Tony Blair, in 2007, on his final day as Prime Minister. His closing words were “Good Luck”. They could have worked as a signal that he was done, but he got the tone of his voice wrong – badly, badly wrong. His previous sentence had been an apology for “the times I have fallen short”. It was delivered with a heavy sense of sadness – too heavy and too sad for Blair to raise the mood seamlessly – and so he uttered the final words, “Good Luck”, still sounding sad and deeply reflective. There was no way his audience knew they were expected to applaud that.3The speechwriter probably expected the apology to be said with a tone of honesty, rather than regret, before gliding into a cheery “Good Luck”. You can watch the ending here (). Notice how Blair realises that the audience is waiting for him to make the next move. He throws his hands up as a gesture for them to applaud him – which they dutifully do.

Incidents like that are unnecessary and easy to avoid. A well-structured ending, spoken with a sense of finality, is often enough to do the trick. If you’re not confident that your ending conveys sufficient finality, throw in a word or phrase like “finally”, “in conclusion” or “to sum up …” But make sure it really does precede your ending. If you issue a signal that you are finishing and then embark on something else, you will need to signal the ending all over again when you actually arrive there – and the audience may not believe you the second time around.

In a presentation delivered with slides, a final slide bearing the word “Questions” can do the same job as a final curtain does in a theatre.

One ending that I abhor is: “Thank you for listening”. Although it’s pretty functional – it makes it clear that the presentation is over – it implies that the audience has been doing you a favour, rather than the other way around. That’s not a message I think a speaker should want to send – unless they’ve been delivering a fund-raising speech (or a request for other forms of help) and they really are grateful for the audience’s time.

A lot of people like to end with a simple “thank you”. I have never really liked that because it reminds me too much of “thank you for listening”. But if it is said quickly and confidently – and without any suggestion that the speaker really is expressing gratitude – I can live with it.

Leave them wanting more

It is said that you should always leave an audience wanting more. Personally, I think “always” is overstating it. (Did Greta Thunberg want the United Nations to be hungry for an encore?) But I certainly subscribe to the notion that a speaker should usually leave the audience eager to hear the speaker on a future occasion. And I encourage speakers to want to speak again … even if it’s only to practice getting better.   

Does that contradict my suggestion, at the start of this page, that an ending should leave the audience feeling satisfied? No, not a bit of it. Think about a TV series – the type with self-contained stories, rather than cliff-hanger endings: a good episode leaves the audience feeling satisfied, but still eager for the next in the series.

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