Bridge The Gap - Speech Transitions

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When one idea leads to the next, you've got flow.

The day I dreaded arrived: I was assigned to evaluate Aaron' s speech. His previous speeches were so jumbled, they were hard to follow. I worried that my mind would wander during his speech and I wouldn't have any useful comments. Once he started speaking, I outlined what he said. It made sense - for the first time! I told him so in my evaluation. Later, I spoke with fellow club members and they said his speech didn't make sense to them. Why not?

I later realized Aaron's speech lacked transitions. He had the facts; he had them in order. But he didn't relate them to each other, and in doing so, minds wandered and got lost. Most likely you, too, have heard speeches that left you wondering why you couldn't follow the speaker. Even if the subject is interesting, the speaker can throw you off the path. How? With a lack of transitions. A transition is a bridge that links one thought to another. If you miss the bridge, you miss the next thought completely, or grasp it too late to understand the whole idea.

The purpose of transitions is to create a smooth flow of thoughts, one into the next. Without transitions, you'll blurt out idea after idea after idea - all of which will seem unrelated.


"The audience is dying to know the relationship between ideas," says professional speaker and speaking coach Max Dixon. "Their brains are hard-wired for that. It's more important when you are speaking than when you are writing because the listeners can't go back - they have to get it when it happens."

Too many facts at once bombard an audience into a stupor. Inside, they are saying Huh???

"If the brain is bored, or gets tired because it's overwhelmed, or gets confused - it can't stay in that place," says Dixon, "so it daydreams, creating its own interest."

"The auditory processing is complicated," says Dr. Carol Kauffman, psychologist and assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School. "People need a 'heads-up' when the course of the conversation is going to change. We're used to it in movies, where music is often the transitional signal. Think of the movie Jaws - when you hear that theme, you know what's coming!"

Without transitions, audiences have difficulty under-standing what you are talking about, says Dr. Larina Kase, psychologist and personal coach. "They hear various pieces of information and don't understand how they fit together. This is like looking at the pieces of a puzzle. Without putting it together, you can't see what it portrays."

How do you put ideas together? Start with a caring attitude.

"When I hear a disjointed speech, it seems that the speaker is more interested in getting their speech out than with connecting with the audience," says Elena Michaels, CC, and member of the National Speakers Association. "Speakers have a tendency to be more connected to the speech than the audience is. That's why practice is so important. When you practice your speech and are so familiar with it that you could do it while sleepwalking, then you're not connected to your speech any more. Then you have the opportunity to connect with the audience."

"Listeners need to be guided," says Dixon. "When the speaker takes care of the listeners in that way, and makes sure they always know where the speaker is in the speech, it builds the audience's trust toward the speaker. They trust you to be the guide on this journey. So they relax a little bit more. When they relax, they are more open to be influenced by the speech."

Bridging Techniques

Transition techniques can be divided into two categories: four techniques that pull the audience along, and three that push. Transition words or phrases are the most common pulling technique. These include:

alsoin additionbesides
just as importantstillthese include
likewisesometimeson the other hand
even sohoweverthat's why...
an example is ...speaking of...reminds me of...
what a contrast that is to ...
meanwhile, back at the ranch ...

Other "pulling" techniques include:

• Silence. Keynote speaker John Chappelear suggests the use of silence occasionally.

"You may say something thought-provoking," he says. "Without giving transition time, the audience will be back with that thought while you have moved on. The use of silence as a transition is powerful. But being able to stand silently in front of a large audience for 15-45 seconds requires practice."

• Movement. Gestures, like dipping the head when saying "Meanwhile..." or "that's why..." emphasizes a transition.

"I think body movement is a great way to transition," says Michaels. "If, for example, the speaker walks a few steps to the left, and lifts up his arm with the lifted index finger of the left hand, the audience cannot ignore that action. The movement carries the audience with him. A few steps over, a few steps back - use your space, and the audience will transition with you."

However, David Brooks, 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking and professional speaker, urges subtlety with gestures in countries outside the U.S.

"The main difference in speaking in Asia or Europe," he says, "is they don't care for physical actions as much as they care for the quality of the content. Here in the U.S., there's a lot more 'showbiz' speaking than is wanted or even tolerated in other parts of the world. In Europe, they just want good information. They don't want you to move around, pound your chest or shake your fist."

• Internal summaries. In a long or complex speech, it's important to remind listeners of the points you have covered before presenting new information.

Dixon offers an example: "Let's say you have the five secrets of something. You've just finished talking about secret number three. Just before the transition you might say, "So what have we looked at so far? We've seen how..." and you say a sentence or two about numbers one and two. "Now let's look at where this logically takes us....

One thing the brain really needs is a sense of order and pattern, Dixon continues. "The brain hears a topic being dealt with. As soon as the speaker says something like, 'Let's look at the three of this' or 'the four of that' the listener's brain whispers, 'Oh, thank you! There's going to be an outline here."'

"You set up their hopes but you have to satisfy them," he continues. "So occasionally you have to say, ‘Now, we're still on number one.' Then the audience feels like they're being taken care of. Even though it's basic, it still answers that part of us that asks, ‘Where are we now? What did you just say?'"

"Pushy" transitions set up an expectation for the audience to look for. These include:

• Visual Aids. Something to look at creates expectations in the listeners. Pick up a stuffed snake or prop up a poster listing three points and all eyes will brighten.

• Questions. Ask a question to shift to the next point. "How much money did they lose?" you may wonder. The audience expects the next part of your speech to answer the question.

• Sequence. If you tell the audience to expect five of something, they'll start counting.

"If they can see you've organized your speech," Dixon says, "that allows them a sigh of relief."

When Transitions Don't Work

Sometimes, you'll find a fact or anecdote that is fabulously interesting or exotically entertaining. But it's hard to fit into the speech, even with a transition. The truth is, it probably doesn't belong.

For example, the ancient art of mummification is a step-by-step process. A speech about the process wouldn't include a hilarious review of the movie The Mummy. If the fact doesn't contribute to the main topic, leave it out. Use it some other time. Write out a single sentence that summarizes your speech. This will help you decide what goes in the speech.

Adding transitions alters the text, makes it more conversational and easier to understand. Of course, transitions add words and length to your speech. But it's better to cut out a few facts than to cut out transitions.

"Any length of speech with transitions is more interesting than one without them," insists Michaels.

Steven L. Katz, professional speaker and author of books on management, says, "In the end, good speakers are characterized by their ability to link facts and information together in ways that make the listener think 'Aha!"'

What transitions give you is a seamless speech. You know it's seamless when you get to the end and the timer has become so engrossed with your speech, she forgot to watch the time.

Paula Price is a Toastmaster in California.

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