Mastering Suspense in Speeches

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A WRITER FRIEND IN ENGLAND SENT me a column he had written on Alistair Cooke, who died recently. In it I found a quote from the English/ American grandee of radio and television fame that could, I thought, be engraved and mounted in Toastmasters clubs around the world:

"I discovered very early on that broadcasting is the control of the suspense. No matter what you're talking about - gardening, economics, murder - you're telling a story. Every sentence should lead to the next sentence. If you say a dull sentence people have a right to switch off."

Sitting on top of a doghouse, a beagle wrote what is probably the most widely recognized first line in all fiction: "It was a dark and stormy night." Snoopy certainly had the right idea there - creating suspense. But, sadly, he couldn't think of what to say next.

So how do you create and maintain suspense? Here are a few pointers.

• Think like the lead GOOSE. This takes a little explanation. I didn't know what a GOOSE was until I encountered about a hundred of them on a skiing trip in Telluride, Colorado. In talking with some of them on chair lifts, I learned that the big letters on the back of their jackets stood for Guys-Only-Obstreperous-Skiing-Expedition.

Every fall, members of the club receive engraved invitations to a skiing outing the following spring. But the lead Goose doesn't tell anybody where they're going. There is an all-night party immediately preceding their departure. Even then, the participants are not told. Only when they are airborne does the flock learn its destination.

Withholding key information is the primary way to create suspense. People like surprises. Instead of the old tell-'em-what-you're going-to-tell-'em approach, experiment with openings that cause people to think along the lines of "I wonder where she could possibly be going with this?"

• Show, don't tell. People are very good at figuring things out for themselves. Let them. Rather than simply stating a point of view, provide acutely observed details, suggestive anecdotes and tantalizing pieces of information pointing in different directions.

• Tell them something they don't know. Better yet, tell them a whole bunch of things they don't know. With good research and a little imagination, you can keep an audience engaged with one unexpected story after another on the most familiar of topics.

• Confide, don't lecture. Make yourself an integral part of the story. You build interest by injecting yourself as a player in the story. Inside every speaker there is a real person, and the audience wants to know more about that person - as distinct from the pop-up personality that is simply "presenting" an argument or a set of interesting facts. Charm the audience with unexpected personal comments and insights. Let them in on your private thoughts and history.

• Save one good surprise for the end, and use it to tie all of the loose ends together. Nothing is more satisfying than a nice reversal of expectations at the end, which combines a final element of surprise followed by an immediate sense of inevitability and closure.

I wish there were space in this column to illustrate each of the points I have just made with telling examples. As there is not, I suggest that you do a Google search with the words "Letter from America" and "Alistair Cooke." That will take you to a Web site containing some of his greatest radio broadcasts. Each of his "talks," as he called them, is 13 to 14 minutes long, or about twice the length of Toastmasters speech. I particularly recommend one titled "Patriotism, Thanksgiving - and apple sauce."

You may wonder: What in the world is the connection between apple sauce and Thanksgiving? Good question. I will give you a hint: You won't know the answer until the very end, and by then you will also know how Cooke uses detail to show, not tell; how he piles one unexpected story on top of another; how he injects himself into the narrative; and how it all comes together with (seemingly) effortless ease.

There. I have given you a destination. And, unlike the lead GOOSE, I am not asking you to send me a check today for a trip you can't take until next March.

Andrew Wiles is a Toastmaster in California.

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