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6. Beginnings and Endings

Whatever you do or dream, begin it. For boldness has power, magic and even genius in it.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German philosopher

The most important moments of your presentation are the first and last ones. Everything else may be forgotten if it starts or ends badly. Audiences decide on you as a presenter just as they do when meeting you in person — within minutes. And you don't get a second chance to make that first impression.

Usually the best attention-getting beginnings come out of real-life experiences that are funny or insightful.

One personal experience that made a memorable beginning came from a very young-looking ophthalmologist planning a speech to the senior citizens he hoped to recruit as cataract patients. To establish credibility, I coached him to start by telling his own story. That day, an aging audience learned that my client wanted to be an eye doctor ever since the summer he spent temporarily blinded by a pop fly in a Little League game. That's when he had promised God that if he could ever see again, he would help others see, too. His pact with God still goes a long way in establishing credibility with an elderly audience.

Finding Your Audience

Research has proven that in a speech, until you have built rapport, captured attention, headlined the speech, explained its value, and established your credentials, you don't even have an audience.

Begin the creation process of speech writing by asking yourself who the audience is and why what you have to say is important to them. No kidding. Right up front, you should tell them why this is important for them and why they are important to you. Then fill in the blanks, "As______________ (stockholders, readers, middle managers, decision-makers, voters, or moms and dads) it's important that you_____________ ." This reminds you, too, that something must be accomplished here. Even though you've probably already been introduced, the audience may not have paid much attention before you had their attention. Your credentials are not just an abriged version of your resume, they highlight something that makes your background particularly appropriate in this situation. What from your experience can you open with to get their attention? Let the moral of that story be the main point, headline, or title of the speech.

The philosophy behind this is that you can't really begin until you have the audience's attention, they know the point, they understand what's in it for them, and what qualifies you to be their leader, in this venture at least.

Even before the attention-getter, some speakers opt for a rapport-builder. Former president Lyndon Johnson would often warm up an audience by acknowledging his introduction in a way that everyone could relate to, "That was the kind of very generous introduction my father would have appreciated and my mother would have believed." Vice President Walter Mondale was a little less flattered, "Of all the introductions I have ever received, that was the most recent."

In a recent presentation to an audience of public relations professionals, I mentioned an interview on the economy from the previous night with George Bush by CNBC's Ron Insana. I explained that Ron had once worked with me on coaching executives for financial interviews and that having journalists with such distinguished credentials was important in media coaching. "Experience teaches" was my moral, or main point. "Protecting your media contacts by making sure your clients approach the media successfully is why media coaching is important," I explained. My credentials included my own background as a journalist, including as a print reporter, which broadens my coaching ability even further.

I included three sub-points on how to choose a media strategy and coaching firm, and then I headlined, detailed, and reviewed each one before repeating the main point. Ask yourself what additional points you're going to tell them (preview), tell them (view), and then tell them that you told them (review). Finally, what thought or message must I leave with my audience? In my case, "Experience teaches best."

What About Jokes?

Opening with a joke is very risky, unless it is brilliant and perfectly appropriate for the audience and occasion. After 9/11, comedian Ellen DeGeneres opened the twice-canceled Emmy Awards with, "This ought to make the Taliban really crazy: a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews!"

It was brilliant not only for the audience, but for Ellen. Humor can backfire unless it is very appropriate to the situation. Almost without exception, jokes about an ethnic group are unacceptable (even blondes get offended) unless the speaker is clearly one of them. Comedians don't read jokes, they practice telling them to anyone and everyone who will listen: themselves, the mirror, the video camera, the dog, their mothers, and the baby. And everywhere they can: the shower, the car, the treadmill, or the driving range. Bore your friends and your family, not your audience.

Don't test it on anyone who's going to be in the audience, they might tell it first and give your punch line away. Choose someone you can count on to be a tough critic, someone who won't pull punches, and someone who'll tell you that it doesn't work.

Short, true-life stories with humor, paradox, or pathos are usually safer, even for professional comedians.

I'll never forget the time the program chair introduced a panel on the subject "Trust in Trying Times." The panelists were a group of public relations professionals who had been through the corporate scandals and stock dalliances of their respective corporations. She began by telling the story of the donkey that had fallen into a well and no matter how he screamed or squirmed, the farmer couldn't get him out. To put the poor animal out of his misery, the farmer and all the neighbors took shovels full of dirt and poured them down the well. Surprised to see the dirt coming, the donkey shook each shovelful from his back to the ground and stepped on it. After a time, the well filled up and the donkey stepped out of the well and ran off. It was the perfect story because despite all the dirt that had been shoveled at these corporate public relations people, they had lived to tell about it.

Something happens to an audience when it knows there's a joke or punch line coming. People seem to relax. They can have fun before they have to start paying attention and learn something. Linus Pauling's philosophy that laughter is the best medicine is at play here. So, look for an appropriate joke, story, or moral to relax your audience from the start.

Unfortunately, the program chair didn't know when to stop and reduced her own moral by saying that the donkey came back and did the farmer and all the neighbors in, which is what happens when you try to cover your ass.

Beginning Questions

One way to open a speech is to ask the audience at the beginning what they hope to learn about the subject. One at a time, audience members raise their hands, asking the questions that they usually have to save for the end. The element of surprise can be a great attention-getter and actually helps the speaker tailor his or her remarks to the announced interest of the audience.

The danger of this approach, of course, is that if the questions are entirely out of left field, the speaker's prepared remarks may seem irrelevant. One speaker, very experienced with his subject, added to the attention-getting by good-naturedly wadding up the paper with his prepared remarks and tossing it away. "Okay, then," he said with a laugh. "Let's talk about what you want to talk about."

It did intrigue the audience with what they were missing and he knew his subject well enough that he eventually included everything, but in a customized way.

If you need, as most of us do, your prepared speech for security and talking points, you may want to phrase your opening question this way: "One of my favorite T-shirts reads 'Life Is Short, Eat Dessert First.' Because "dessert" in after-dinner speeches is usually the questions and answers, let's start with those so I'll make sure to include what you came to hear."

This technique allows you to give the entire audience the impression that you have listened to them before speaking. If you ask them to say their names along with their questions, you can reference them by name when you get to the pertinent points they've asked about.

Avoid this technique, though, if you suspect a hostile audience or one that may have competitors who would take the floor and your time to grandstand.

Other Beginnings

Another speaker began her speech by arranging her cell phone to ring the minute she arrived at the podium. She pretended to answer it and used the phone to begin the speech on Technology: Tools of the Future.

Skits can backfire, however. Once, in the name of attention-getting, my colleagues and I began a speech with a sales scenario where everything was done wrong but we failed to tell the audience what we were doing. Our audience was a group of take-no-prisoners salespeople — some got it, but most didn't. We lost our credibility from the start and never got it back.

Another speaker on time management failed to tell the audience that he was merely pretending to be disheveled and disorganized at the beginning of his speech in order to make the point that disorganization wastes time, energy, and focus. He never got another chance to make an organized first impression.

I once started an afternoon conference workshop about 10 or 15 minutes late. Trying to be cool, I failed to mention that my tardiness was a result of my morning flight to the city being canceled due to weather and then taking heroic measures to fly to a nearby city, rent a car, and drive through a torrential rainstorm to make the event at all!

To me, and the organizers, it seemed a miracle that I was even there. Many of the presenters didn't make it. But by failing to acknowledge or explain what I'd done to be with them, several in my audience thought I was rude to begin late and said so in their presenter evaluations. That means they harbored negative feelings throughout the afternoon and nothing I did altered that first impression.

If I could do it again, I would use the hours spent driving to craft the experience into a beginning rapport-builder that would lead to my subject. Perhaps, "Communication at all costs," or "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," as the New York City Post Office inscription reads.

Stuff happens. Ambulances roar by at funerals. Cell phones ring unexpectedly. The electricity goes out so that video playback monitors that you've rehearsed with for hours don't work. Despite everyone's best efforts, even the founders of giant technology companies have experienced technical meltdowns in front of huge audiences at computer trade shows.

The speakers who can be humorous and roll with the punches because they are relaxed enough to be spontaneous are the ones who triumph over adversity and win the appreciation and approval of their audiences.

Ending Questions

One of the most terrifying moments of any speech is when you ask if there are any questions, and there are none. You've probably left a third to a half of your time for questions and no one speaks up. You may have just answered all of the questions in a really complete speech or the audience members may be shy or intimidated by their peers. But it gives the impression that no one is, or was, really interested.

Solution: Bring three or four really good questions (ones you have answers for) with you along with extra information that hasn't been covered in the prepared remarks. Then pose them to the audience with, "You might be asking yourself..." or "You may be wondering...," then answer them. This may serve to prime the pump and get them started asking their own questions or may simply finish your presentation smoothly.

Both at the beginning and end, you can use questions to your advantage as a speaker.

Completing the Circle

Revisit the beginning at the end. If you began with a story, tell the audience how it came out at the end. If your main point was a quote, restate it with emphasis or a twist. "Familiarity breeds contempt" was the moral from the Aesop's fable The Fox and the Lion. To which Mark Twain added, "Familiarity breeds contempt — and children." The classic martini, with a twist!

Begin, and end, on time. Or better yet, end a little early. Even if you are a paid speaker and want to impress the organizers so they know they've gotten their money's worth, stop yourself with a particularly good answer a few minutes before you have to. In today's over-booked society, nothing is more appreciated than the gift of a little found time.

According to Ronald Reagan's speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, he believed that no one wants to sit in an audience in respectful silence for more than 20 minutes. Then, offer up to 20 minutes of Q&A and everyone gets to go home!

Nothing is worse than keeping an audience trapped into the night. Don't fall in love with the sound of your own words. You will undo all the good you've done by dragging it out to get in just one more point. By finishing a bit early, you leave everything and everyone on a positive note, hopefully wanting more for the next time.

The Greek playwright Euripides is credited with the pithy observation that "a bad beginning makes a bad ending." I would add that a bad or weak ending makes a bad beginning for the next time and sends everyone, including the speaker, home with a feeling of disappointment of what could have been that wasn't. One of the best things about the trepidation that often accompanies public speaking is the adrenalin or natural high that comes with it. Most speakers I know need to wind down after the excitement of any personal appearance.

The end of a speech requires three things: (1) a payoff or something dramatic (but not necessarily forceful), (2) a sense of humility, and (3) a reiteration of expectations or call to action. A movie isn't over until it has delivered on the promise, and a sales call isn't finished until you've asked for the order.

Using, but not overusing, quotes also helps allay the fear of not knowing where to begin or end. Both Bartlett 's Familiar Quotations and search-engine quotation Web pages are organized by subject. So, with simply an idea of what the audience needs from you, you can begin to build your message around the profound words others have used.

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