During an interview with poet Carl Sandburg, a reporter asked, "In your opinion, what's the ugliest word in the English language?"
The poet frowned. "The ugliest word in the English language?" he repeated, furrowing his brow and staring in the distance.
"Ugliest?" he muttered to himself. "Ugliest. The ugliest word."
He reflected awhile, face knotted in thought. After a long, pregnant pause, Sandburg's eyes brightened and returned to the reporter's.
"The ugliest word is - 'exclusive'."
The power in that story lies not so much in Sandburg's choice of a word as in the journey he took to get there. With the pauses - the repetition - the description of Sandburg's physical reactions - we do not merely hear the story, we participate in it. We sit in the room with the reporter, waiting for the great man's word. Then, once spoken, it is a revelation.
Another way to tell that story could have been: "Carl Sandburg once said that 'exclusive' was the ugliest word in the English language."
Not nearly as powerful, is it? The difference is that the first version puts us on the scene and creates a sense of tension in us - it fills us with anticipation.
Creating anticipation in your listeners can mean the difference between a so-so speech and a great one.
By carefully creating anticipation, we turn our audience from observers into participants. Instead of being passive recipients of our wisdom, they become companions on a journey, in which they feel they have something at stake.
By the end of this article, you'll know the simple tools that can create anticipation in your listeners - and you'll be able to use them in your next presentation. (By the way - I just used one of those tools!)
Knowing how to create anticipation is a valuable skill for the speaker, because anticipation is a basic part of our emotional makeup. According to Emory University preaching professor Rev. Fred B. Craddock, "Anticipation enables us to ride out the storm, endure periods of pain and privation, stick with distasteful and boring tasks, maintain sanity in chaos, and survive disappointments and delays in pursuit of our goals. In addition, it is probably the human spirit's greatest source of pleasure, often exceeding that provided by fulfillment of one's anticipation (emphasis added)."
How do you incorporate the powerful feeling of anticipation into your speeches? Building anticipation should be considered part of the structure of the speech itself. A speech that uses anticipation to move itself forward is an "inductive" speech.
Deduction is reasoning from the general to the specific. Years ago, I was taught that all speeches use this reasoning: they make a thesis statement, then back it up with the specific facts in the body of the speech. Deductive reasoning is looking at a house, then taking it apart to see how it all fits together.
But there's another way to construct a speech: inductively, or reasoning from the specific to the general. Inductive reasoning is looking at a construction site and realizing that you can build a house with what's there.
The inductive speech uses specific facts to point to a general conclusion. The late author Erma Bombeck was a master of this form - using the mundane specifics of domestic life to make points about the human condition. That's characteristic of an inductive speech - it tends to deal in universal themes.
An inductive speech has other distinctions. Where deductive speech has logic, inductive speech appeals to emotions; where deductive speech is rational, inductive speech appeals to our senses. Unlike the deductive speech, the inductive one rarely states its point directly. It lends itself to first person accounts, or to telling someone else's story.
Inductive speeches aren't superior to deductive ones, but they have their own virtues. Their foremost strength is that, by not showing their hand right away, they create anticipation in us - and thus compel us to listen.
A Greek orator was giving a speech on a matter of great importance. But people were conversing, children were playing - no one was listening. The orator paused and sized up the situation. Then he began again: "Once upon a time the goddess Ceres was traveling with a swallow and an eel." Immediately, every ear strained to hear what he had to say.
The orator was smart enough to know the power of an inductive speech. Inductive speech is storytelling. Its power is in making the audience wonder and care about what happens next - in a word, anticipate.
"Bricks are a superior building medium, as proven in the field." This may be a true statement, but so what? Will you remember it in an hour? Maybe not - but you probably remember a story that makes the same point: "Three Little Pigs!"
"Three Little Pigs" illustrates several powerful ways to create anticipation. One of the strongest is repetition and surprise. Why isn't it the "One Little Pig," or even the "Two Little Pigs"? Because three seems to be a magic number to create tension - it is neither too much nor too little. Let's analyze how it works:
One: A situation is contrived (a pig builds a house of straw), and something happens (wolf destroys house and eats pig).
Two: Another pig builds a house. We know that pigs in this story-world build houses and that wolves are dangerous and have certain powers. With the second house, we repeat the first action, with an interesting variation (sticks). Then - the same result. We are now accustomed to what happens between pigs and wolves.
Three: Bricks, an even more interesting twist. Because the wolf blew down two houses, we anticipate he will blow down the third. Surprise! The expected doesn't happen. And so we are compelled to keep listening.
But note there are only three pigs. Could we even remember the story if there were seven pigs and a variety of building materials? This illustrates another facet of creating anticipation: restraint.
What you keep out of a story is probably more important than what you leave in. We can't ramble too much or our carefully crafted anticipation fizzles away. We must focus our audience's attention only on the most important points, and not overload them with detail.
At the same time, creating anticipation means that the speech must have emotional and sensual content. What does that mean?
The audience must care about what happens in the speech. We can't create anticipation if the audience has no investment in the outcome. To make that investment, we must make sure that the audience identifies with what's going on in our speech. People will identify if we tell them how our characters feel in the given situation. There is an emotional investment in the Three Little Pigs, if only because we know that their choices have life-or-death consequences! Watch any good drama to see how the characters express their feelings, and thus become people we care about and identify with.
Another way of evoking feeling is by supplying sensual detail. (Please don't misread this - I'm not suggesting pornographic speeches!) This means using the richness of our senses: describing how things smell, look, sound.
For example, what's more appealing:
(a) "I was fired,"
(b) "I had a breakfast of hot oatmeal and maple sugar, drank a cup of hot black coffee, and looked at the fresh snowfall in the trees on my way to work. The boss came in and told me, in a small, broken voice, that I was fired."
Sensual detail puts us in the world of the story. We are no longer distanced from events - we participate.
Another way to create anticipation is by foreshadowing, where something happens early on that impacts later events. Telling the story about the time you saved someone's life, you might want to drop in something in the beginning that tells us how you came to know CPR: "My new employer made me take a CPR class, which I felt was a waste of time." This lets the listener know how we acquired the skills, and the description of our feelings adds some irony. Appropriately placed, this admission can pay big dividends later in the speech.
Sometimes we can foreshadow by dropping little hints of what's to come - what I call planting seeds. "I never guessed that would come back to haunt me." "I thought that was the last I'd seen of her - but she returned in a surprising way." Listeners look forward to when these seeds bear fruit.
I give a speech about James Reeb, a white minister who was killed marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. As I tell the story of Reeb's life, I talk about a time he went to see a play where a priest "deputizes" himself, as a representative of the Pope, to die in a Nazi concentration camp. Reeb disagreed with the priest's rationale - he thought it was a useless death - but did conclude that sacrifice might be necessary if it could aid or draw attention to a cause. Reeb's reaction to the play adds richness when I tell the audience about how Reeb met his own death.
What if your speech isn't inductive - for example, you're explaining the new widget to your sales force. Can you use the tools of anticipation? Absolutely!
Repetition and surprise: "The new product can best be described with the Three P's." What are these? Make them up - create three key words that begin with the letter P. They can be "Performance, Power and Profit," or "Personal, Persistent and Pain-free." The specific words (or letters) don't matter that much - just make them memorable. Define a short list of key concepts, make them sound complementary, and structure your speech around it. Anticipation is created as the audience checks each one off.
Remember: without at least two concepts, you don't have the power of repetition. Three is always better. If you have more than five concepts, there are probably too many. Always save your best, briefest and most surprising idea for last.
Emotional and sensual detail: Incorporate anecdotes. Since an anecdote is really a story, enrich it with detail. We can drop a pertinent anecdote into even the most technical speech - and use this opportunity to create anticipation ("You're going to hear several stories about how we developed this product - here's the first one ...")
Foreshadowing: Say the new widget is yellow (the old ones are blue). The audience will want to know why the change was made, but don't tell them at the start. Tell them, "By the end of my talk, you'll know why it's yellow." In other words, plant a seed - tell them at the beginning that we will explain the change (or they'll keep interrupting us to ask about it). If we assure them at the start that we'll explain the startling new change at the end, they'll be with us all the way. Just remember to make that explanation worth waiting for.
Another way to use foreshadowing is to create a story. For example: "I know you're skeptical. I knew someone who was more skeptical than you about yellow widgets. Let me tell you how even she changed her mind ... " Refer to the "skeptic's" objections at key points, and explain how the changes won her over. Finish with, "You remember our skeptic? That was me." We've just turned a lecture into a story with a plot and a big payoff.
Anticipation is more than an emotion - it's a very human need. Filling that need will make our speeches more memorable for our audience and more fun for us to prepare and deliver.
To master the tools of anticipation, study the masters - detective stories and horror tales, for example, depend on creating anticipation. Read them with an eye to see how they create it. Listen to how a good speaker or storyteller like Garrison Keillor creates anticipation, and notice how you feel when it happens. Then, start practicing it yourself.
Some questions to ask if you're considering an inductive approach: