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Chapter 11: Bridging the Gap: Building Smooth Transitions


Good transitions can make a speech more important to the audience because they feel they are being taken to a positive conclusion without having to travel a bumpy road.

- Joe Griffith

It's true. The smoother the road you lead your listeners along, the more willing they are to follow. Transitions make the road smoother because they are one of the three aspects to organization. The first two are outlining and sequencing (putting the ideas in the order in which you will present your information). But transitions are also important for several reasons. They are logical extensions of the thoughts that came before; they help you get from one idea to the next. They also act as signposts to tell your audience that a new idea is coming.

Imagine that you are driving through the state of Florida, and you want to visit Key West, America's southernmost city. There's one problem. Key West is located at the end of a series of islands. Once you reach the tip of the Florida mainland, you're sunk - or you would be, if it wasn't for the bridges. Each Key is linked to the next by a succession of overseas bridges that make it possible to travel easily from one island to the next (and the next and the next) until you reach your destination.

Presentations are like the Florida Keys in that they're made up of a series of separate ideas that have to be linked together. The only way to get from one to another is by building linguistic bridges; those bridges are what we call transitions.

Speakers tell me that transitions present some of the biggest problems they have in their presentations. Many speakers concentrate all their ammunition on the opening, thinking that with a strong start, the rest can just follow. Not true. While an attention-getting opening is crucial to the beginning of a detail, the challenge is to keep the ideas that follow just as vivid.

Map out Your Speech With Transitions

Transitions are usually put in as an afterthought. But keeping transitions in mind can help you organize your presentation before you begin. Suppose you were putting together a presentation. One of your first tasks would be to make a list of the ideas you want to include. Take this list, for example:

The subject of this speech is how to make a fruit salad. If you take the first two items on the list, oranges and apples, it's easy to see how you could transition from one idea to the next. It would also be a logical step to the next idea, fruit salad. But what happens when you come to "haircut"? You'd have to travel some awfully winding paths to get to that topic from fruit salad. If you can't easily make a transition from one point to the next, it means there's something wrong with your organization - it might even mean the point doesn't belong in there at all.

If we take haircut off the list, we've got: oranges, apples, fruit salad, pears. Although you could do it, you might have a bit of trouble moving from the combined fruit salad back into the solitary pear. It would be easier to transition from apples to oranges to pears, and finally to fruit salad. So the most logical order of ideas for this presentation would end up being: apples, oranges, pears, fruit salad. Considering the relative ease or difficulty of transitions before you put your presentation together saves you a lot of time that would otherwise be spent in editing and rewriting.

This fruit salad list is a simple example, but one that shows how you can use the concept of transitions to help you construct a clear, logical, easy-to-follow presentation.

Keep Your Ideas Connected

Transitions are what make an average speech seem polished and professional. When I tell participants in my speaking classes that overlooked transitions are one of public speakers most common problems, I can see the look of collective recognition as people remember the moments when they paused and stammered because they didn't know how to get from point A to point B. I am often asked, "What is the difference between a memorable talk and an average presentation?" Other than having a clear, well stated, well thought out purpose - I would have to say transitions.

You can't just present ideas; you must lead your audience. And that's where transitions come in; they are the maps you use when you are leading a group and you need to tell them which direction to go in next. The better organized you are, the easier it will be for you to develop smooth transitions. And the leadership evidenced when you're clearly in control adds to your power as a presenter.

Transitions: So Crucial, So Overlooked

Transitions are important in any type of communication, but they're even more essential to speaking than they are in writing. If you miss something in written material, you can always go back and reread. Haven't you ever found yourself reading along when you suddenly discover you're on a new topic, with no idea how you got there? So you turn back the page and try to re-establish the path the author took. Your audience can't rewind you when you're speaking live in front of them, so you have to make it as easy as possible for them to follow along.

As we've learned, speeches are made up of many parts that must fit well together. And transitions are responsible for much of that fitting: They take you from your opening into the body of your speech and provide a smooth passage between your main points, while also serving as smaller links between minor ideas. Yet transitions are so useful and frequent that they are often overlooked. If you hear a speaker stumble, chances are it's over a transition.

Um, Uh, What Did You Say? Watch out, People Are Counting!

Audiences are so savvy today that they often sit and count the number of times a speaker says "um" or "uh" or any other space-filling sound. In a New York Times article, (September 26, 1996) by Sandra Blakeslee, called "Traffic Jams in Brain Network May Result in Verbal Stumbles," linguist Dr. Willem Levelt says that the process of generating thought into speech goes through several layers of networks in the brain. If the process is interrupted at any one of the levels, "...many things can go wrong." And it is especially when our thoughts are not connecting properly that we run into trouble. Dr. Levelt states that "...speech errors can occur in the transition of a thought between the lemma network [which handles syntax] and the lexeme network [which manages spoken sound]." It is at that point that, according to Dr. Levelt, we use "'um' and 'er' to signal that trouble is afoot." In other words, when we have trouble connecting one thought to another, we stumble over our words and shift gears using "um," "ah," and phrases such as "let's see, and "our next point is." Effective transitions help you avoid those stumbling blocks. Look at your outline for a speech and see how many topics and subtopics you have. Each one requires a transition before you plunge your audience into it.

And be sure you don't start your speech with an "uh" - it's a cardinal sin that everyone notices. If you know that you have the "uh" habit, no matter what other speaking faults you have, eliminate the "uhs" first.

Successful Transition Techniques

It's always a good idea to memorize your major transitions or to write them clearly on the note cards you will have with you during your speech. Label these cards "transition cards" so you know when they are coming and can get ready to shift gears.

Frequent transitions carry your story forward, and they also help you to keep the audience's attention from drooping by strengthening logic, aiding retention, and helping you build to a climax. Frequent transitions add peaks to the curve of your speech and keep it interesting. The best ones will lead your audience in a subtle and natural way. You don't want your audience to feel it is being led, but you do want it to be alerted to new points you are about to introduce.

I once heard a speaker trying to persuade his audience to exercise. He used this transition into his conclusion: "And so, ladies and gentlemen, why exercise?" He then listed all the terrible consequences of inactivity and then said quietly, "The quality and quantity of the rest of your life is up to you." It was very effective.

The important thing is to spot where you need transitions. A rule of thumb is to use one any time you finish a thought and are ready to move on to a new idea. Major shifts - where your topic is really changing or you are introducing a new area - require unmistakable transitions. Give yourself at least a sentence to bring this shift to your audience's attention.

Crossing Bridges With Three Transitions: Verbal, Vocal, Visual

When most of us think of transitions, we usually think of a word or a phrase that will lead from one idea to the next. In fact, there are three distinct types of transitions; using all three will give your presentation added interest, vitality, and energy. The three types are:

  1. Verbal: These are the actual words you use and are the most common forms of transitions. Some transitional words and phrases include:

    However There is an even better way     For example
    But Another reason is
    And Here's where __ fits in In addition
    Although On the other hand In the same way
    So you see     These are just a few of the Think of it
    In short To show you what I mean Besides
    That's why All things considered A case in point is
  2. Vocal: Your voice can be a transition all by itself. You can use your voice as a transitional tool by changing pitch, rhythm, and tone. It can very effective to suddenly get louder at an emotional point in your presentation - but you can also make a strong impact by getting softer and slower (as long as you're sure that the audience can still hear you). Below you'll find an excerpt from Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Try using a variety of vocal techniques (review Chapter 5 if necessary) to transition from one idea to the next in this text.

    To be, or not to be: that is the question:
    Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
    To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub...

    Vocal transitions can be particularly effective when repetition is involved; try speaking the "To die: to sleep" loudly the first, and softly the second (or vice versa) and see what effect it has in moving on the next idea. Use your voice to command attention. Speaking too quickly or breathlessly translates into reduced credibility. Give vocal weight to your key points and transitions.

  3. Visual: This is a physical transition that your audience can actually see. Don't be afraid to use physical movements that reinforce your transitions. It could be moving from one side of the room to another (or simply taking one or two steps forward or back), standing from a sitting position (or vice versa), or using a prop or visual aid. When the speaker on exercise reached the concluding transition I described previously, he also moved from one side of the stage to the other, which emphasized the shift he was making as he spoke. This can be very effective when combined with the pause. For instance: "Asking questions can change your life. I know (pause, two steps forward) because it changed mine."

Keep Your Signposts Visible: Transitions Are Meant to Be Noticed

In writing, transitions are subtle. The knitting together of character, thoughts, and action into a narrative should be almost invisible. But in a speech, transitions that bridge the gaps from one topic to another are much more obvious because you have to be sure your listeners cross the bridge with you. If the transition is too subtle, they may miss it and remain on topic A, while you are well launched into topic B. An effective transition always lets the audience know you are moving from one point to another. The process can be straightforward or creative, depending on the device you use.

A Central Theme Will Keep You - and Your Audience - on the Right Track

One way to gain control and to keep your audience's attention going throughout your presentation is to develop a central theme that links your ideas together. Many presentations start off with a reasonable attention level, which drops off sharply as the presentation continues. The reason being that presentations tend to be like reading a list: "Good morning, everyone. Here I am today to talk about the three best ways to save on auto insurance. Here's suggestion number one. Now here's suggestion number two. And now here's suggestion number three." The audience knows from the outset that there's nothing to look forward to but a boring list of ideas.

On the other hand, look carefully at this chapter, for instance. The "central theme" is based on "traveling." There are several references to moving and driving, and to maps, signs, paths, and especially bridges. Every time we use one of these references to transition from one thought to another, we are helping you - the reader - follow along. This is a "left brain, right brain" trick you can use too. The left side of the brain controls logic and reasoning. The right brain is more creative. Giving an audience a simple list of drugs is a left-brain activity. You can spice up that list, and make it easier to remember, by adding in bits of right-brain imagery (for example, maps, cars, and bridges) to help the audience focus on and remember your points.

Your theme doesn't have to be complicated. And if you can tie it into an audience's particular interest, all the better. I work with many pharmaceutical representatives who have to make presentations to doctors. It's well known that many doctors play golf. So they might open their presentation by asking, "How is prescribing the right drug like using the right club to hit a hole in one?" Then they would say, "You wouldn't use a putter to try for a hole in one. Choosing the right club can make all the difference in your game. That's why we want to help you make the best prescribing decision, to make sure you're choosing the best drug for your patients." They would then sprinkle the presentation with golf-related images to keep the doctor's attention throughout. (Just don't overdo it; you don't want to come off too cutesy.)

10 Transitions for an Effortless and Enjoyable Journey

Good speakers vary their transition style and avoid being predictable.

Here are 10 types of transitions that are easy to use:

  1. The simplest transitions are bridge words - words that alert the listener that you are changing direction or moving on to a new thought. Examples of bridge words include: furthermore, meanwhile, however, in addition, nevertheless, moreover, therefore, consequently, and finally.

  2. A trigger transition relies on repetition, using the same word twice to connect one topic with the next. "That wraps up our assessment of product A. A similar assessment can be made of product B" is an example of this type of transition.

  3. A question can serve as a good transition. It can be broad or quite specific. At a seminar on productivity, I shifted people's attention by saying, "Now that we have seen what an effective team is, what can we do to build that better team within this organization?" It was a large question that I was about to address one part at a time, using smaller transitions between those parts.

  4. A flashback can be a transition and can also create movement within your talk with its sudden shift to the past in the midst of what the audience may think is a predictable sequence. The flashback doesn't have to be far in the past; use a transition such as, "You remember that I mentioned the major changes in our workforce a few minutes ago. Another example of the dramatic changes we will face this year is...." This is not one of my favorites because most audiences do not like to be reminded that they should know something. Often people use "as I said before," but I have not found that to be effective either. Better just to repeat a statement rather than tell the audience you are doing so. A more effective way to handle it would be to direct your audience to "flashback to all the changes we've been working through and how well we've handled them. This experience will prepare us for the dramatic changes we will face next year."

    Flashbacks can serve as mini-summaries sprinkled throughout a speech. They are especially helpful transitions because they aid your listeners in remembering your ideas and seeing how everything fits together. They also let you build your argument by summarizing the points you have made before. A simple example is: "So far we've talked about hiring new people and training our existing staff. Another possibility is a reorganization that would...."

  5. A point-by-point transition can also work, if you don't have too many points. Saying, "There are three important reasons this product will sell in the Midwest," and then listing them is a quick way to shift from generalities into specificity. These transitions can also serve as mini conclusions that sum up what you have said in a previous section of your speech.

    Be careful not to overuse point-by-point transitions, because they are the least dynamic and can easily bore audiences unless you have lots of lively examples with emotional appeal. Good visual aids also liven up a presentation that depends on point-by-point transitions.

  6. Visual aids are transitional by their very nature. Shifting from unaided speech to the mechanics of visual aids carries a built-in transition, as you turn down lights or start to use whatever equipment you have chosen. And when you use visual aids to illuminate complex points quickly and vividly (instead of just using slides to restate what you could easily convey verbally), you are making visual aids a transition that also enlightens.

  7. Pausing is a nonverbal transition that helps your audience shift with you. Good use of a pause - if done sparingly - helps your listeners focus on what you are about to say. But be careful, too many pauses will make your delivery seem frustratingly slow and stilted.

  8. Physical movement - such as moving to another part of a platform - also acts as a transition between parts of your speech. As I mentioned, just shifting from one prop or visual aid to another is its own transition, because it refocuses the audience.

    Effective nonverbal transitions entail doing the opposite of what your audience has gotten used to. If you have been pacing, suddenly stand still. If you have been standing in one place behind a lectern, move about suddenly. Either way, you call attention to what is about to come - which is the essence of a good transition.

  9. A joke or a story can act as an interesting transition. In a talk to managers on why and how to become better listeners, I used the Epictetus quotation: "God has given us two ears and one mouth - so we may hear twice as much as we speak." I added: "Now, because people talk twice as much as they listen, we must reverse the process and listen twice as much as we talk." The quotation helped me make my point and provided a way for me to shift to my next idea.

  10. The PEP formula - Point, Example, Point - is a valuable transition in itself, because it makes connections between points for your audience.

Transitions are the seams that keep the parts of your speech fitting smoothly together. They let you take the audience by the hand and guide it in the direction you want to go, and they also reinforce your main points.

Transitions also reenergize and reactivate an audience. It is a place to gain renewed attention. Mastering transitions means realizing the best ones are frequent, varied, clear, and compelling. Transitions are the maps you use to persuade your audience to follow your thoughts and buy into your ideas. Transitions turn an outline, with its abrupt switches, into a smooth, memorable presentation - and turn you into a persuasive, powerful presenter.

Professional Projects: Tackling Transitions
  1. You are giving a talk titled "Little Acorns Grow Into Mighty Oaks." And your very serious purpose is to get your department to economize on the little things that add up to big expenses. Your opening will explain the title and state your purpose. Write the transition that leads from the opening into the body of your talk.

  2. You are talking about the problems related to the new computer system. The second part of your talk deals with the solutions. Write a transition to get from the problems to the solutions. Try one serious one and one humorous one.

  3. You are introducing your boss to new employees at an orientation meeting. You have shared his credentials. Now devise an interesting, unique transition to her and her talk. Avoid the commonly used, "Please join me in welcoming."

  4. People often get into bad habits with transitions and repeat words like "so" and "and." Start listening with more concentration to your transitioning habits and work to add more variety.

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