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Chapter 12: Finish with Style: The Importance of Powerful Conclusions


Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

You've grabbed attention in the opening, sustained it through the transitions, and now all you have to do is close. It may seem like a time to wind down, to simply sum up and breathe a sigh of relief. And, of course, it's not. For no matter how vivid the words that came before, your conclusion is your prime time; it's what your whole speech should build toward. Don't throw it away. Instead, build up to it, and make sure it is stimulating and memorable.

What do people remember most? What they hear last. Yet so few speakers devote any thought or preparation to their ending. They just fade away and they and their messages are soon forgotten. To be truly memorable you must end as strongly as you began.

I've seen people so relieved their stint on the podium is over that they start to pack up before they finish speaking. Powerful speakers save a lot of energy and concern for the audience until the end, and make the conclusion their dessert: something delicious, with a memorable aftertaste.

Fitting Conclusions Don't Just Happen

The best time to prepare your conclusion is when you begin thinking about your speech. Memorize and practice your conclusion just as you do for your opening. Your conclusion must tie in with your opening and your overall purpose; it's an ending that must connect naturally with your beginning, and that's where organization continues to be important. Conclusions are your destination: You begin a speech where your audience is, but you end where you want them to be. The body of the speech is a bridge, and the speaker must always know what that bridge links. Always conclude with your own ideas, especially after a question-and-answer session. Alert the audience in the beginning of your speech that you will reserve the last few minutes to tie things up.

Ask for the Order

A good sales pitch will not only ask people to order, but also tell them how. When you buy a car, the dealer explains the auto's features, points out why it is better than the one you already own, and then tells you how you can pay for it.

Speakers, as you now know, are also in the selling business, and the conclusion is the time to ask for the order. Nothing will happen if you don't ask. And you ask by telling your audience what you want it to do with the information you've presented and how it can take that action. An effective speaker presenting a central idea ends by pointing out to those in his audience exactly what is needed from them to put that idea to work. For example, if you have been talking about on-the-job safety, end with an emotional and specific appeal showing why safety is important to the people in front of you, and how they can ensure safe operations by applying the information you've presented. If you've been persuading them to give blood, tell them where. And make it sound easy to get there.

Getting a visible demonstration of support is an effective technique. If you shared 10 reasons why your staff must operate their vehicles in a specific manner, end by telling them how lives could be saved, including theirs. End by asking, then and there, for a show of hands from those committed to the new procedures. This is not the time to be shy, but to be rousing.

Action doesn't always have to be literal. If you simply want the people in your audience to mull over your ideas, tell them this is what you want them to do. Summarize your important thoughts in sequence; in doing so, you give them a verbal pocket digest they can carry away with them. If you fail to ask for a specific action, you may end up giving a wonderful speech that builds up to nothing.

One way to zero in on a dynamic closing is to ask yourself, "What do I want the members of my audience to think about as they leave?" Remember that the conclusion is not a second chance: If you've failed to get your ideas across in the body of your talk, it's too late now. You've presented your message; now is the time to fix that message in your listeners' minds.

A Quartet of Quintessential Elements for a Strong Conclusion

There are four essential elements that go into constructing an effective conclusion:

  1. Never say "in conclusion...." It's not necessary to announce your intention to conclude. If people get a lot of advance warning that you are going to conclude, they wind up your speech in their mind and start to tune you out. Be more subtle: Lead into your conclusion with a creative transition instead of the not very dynamic "and so, in conclusion, I would like to point out...." It's better to use a word such as summary - then all the people who haven't been paying attention perk up and listen to hear what they've missed.

    The best way to regain the audience's attention and lend greater credibility to your message is to use this phrase (or paraphrase this phrase): "The most essential points, the ones that will benefit you most, are...." The more important people think the message is, and the more meaningful to them, the more they will hang on your every last word.

    A good conclusion needs a lot of energy: It may be a stirring statement, a joke, a call to action. Some conclusions try to motivate through a challenge issued directly to the audience.

    I once heard an executive outlining new organizational changes after a takeover. Predictably, the members of his audience were nervous, and rumors of layoffs were rampant. He described the changes and ended his presentation by saying, "I dare you to come in tomorrow, to put aside your fears and apprehensions and to give your all." That direct challenge to the unspoken reservations the members held roused them and let him end on a strong, memorable, and positive note.

  2. Construct your speech in the form of a circle. Referring back to your opening comments ties your whole speech together. Your audience sees your talk as a satisfying whole rather than a series of points without any particular direction.

    I once heard an executive conclude simply - and very effectively - with her opening words: "Now really is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their company." Opening statements often refer to the purpose of the talk, and conclusions that return to and reinforce that purpose can make effective endings. A speech on customer service started with the advice to treat the customer the way you would want to be treated and ended with the speaker asking the members of the audience to think back and remember how they felt when they were customers and were treated rudely.

    Most people who give technical talks - the ones who base their presentations on a series of slides - end badly. They simply present their last bit of information on a slide and never have a conclusion at all.

  3. Reenergize yourself, and your audience, with a strong, memorable conclusion. Don't rush to the end. To make the greatest impact, your ending should be vocally strong and verbally colorful. Use persuasive language and vivid imagery so that your audience has a clear memory of your presentation and your message.

  4. Use the two-conclusion strategy. One mistake that many speakers make is to end their presentation with a strong conclusion, and then take questions from the audience. After the last question, the speaker might say, "No more questions? Goodnight then." What does the audience go out remembering? What they heard last, which means they remember the last question and answer. That's not always a good thing, especially if the question was one that stumped you or that someone else in the audience answered for you.

    So if you're taking questions at the end of your presentation, be sure you have a second powerful conclusion to use after the last question has been answered.

6 Aids to Memorable Endings

Your closing statement should be brief yet powerful. There are six major devices for concluding your talk. You can use each alone, or combine them with the others. In addition, the devices for openings, transitions, and closings are very similar, and the same device can be used in numerous places.

  1. Summarize your major ideas. Conclusions should contain a summary. Don't make it a total rehash; instead, add some new thoughts or elements and a final statement. A summary is especially effective if the primary purpose of your talk is to give information. By restating your ideas, you may fill in some blanks for listeners who didn't fully grasp or respond to your entire presentation.

  2. Make a direct appeal. You have told the people in your audience what you want them to do, why, and how. Now stir them to action with a ringing declaration or challenge. This can be as simple as saying, in a rousing tone, "Now let's get up and make this work!"

  3. Look ahead. You may want to close with a prediction that holds forth hope and promise of better things to come. So turn your audience's thoughts to the future. If your talk has focused on disastrous corporate events, find some positive alternatives to end with. A talk on reshaping a marketing division could end, "With this new advertising approach, we can avoid the losses facing our industry, and next year we will be able to see black instead of red."

  4. Ask a rhetorical question. This device lets people fill in the answer for themselves, and you can combine it with other methods of closing. During a talk on safety, a rhetorical question might be, "Do you want to be the next statistic?" These questions make your speech a two-way street by actively inviting the audience's mental participation. They allow you to steer the audience's response in your direction. And while many rhetorical questions have evident answers, that very obviousness can give them a vividness and sense of urgency.

  5. Conclude your speech with a quotation. An appropriate quotation can conclude many kinds of talks and provides a graceful ending. Quotations also let you borrow the prestige of a higher source and help to crystallize the audience's thinking.

    Sources for stirring summations are no further away than a good directory of quotations. Voltaire was succinct when he said, "No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking." A seminar on hiring could end on a good note with this bit of wisdom from R. H. Rands: "When you hire people smarter than you are, you prove that you are smarter than they are." John Charles Salak defined failure two ways, with particular pertinence to business, when he said there were two kinds of failures: those who thought and never did and those who did and never thought. Persistence, motivation, generosity, the rewards of hard work - all these universal topics have been addressed by eloquent people, and their words are yours to use to great effect.

  6. Think outside of the box. When I close a program, I often do it with a song, sung to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy":

    Energy will keep 'em focused,
    Their attention will stay high.
    If I stay intr'ested, then they will too.
    E-ve-ry woman and guy.
    Be entertaining and engaging,
    Till the end of my address
    Keep my energy as sharp as Tuscan provolone
    My speech will be a big success!

You may not choose to use a song or dance to end your program, but you might try another creative venue. One speaker I know makes his final points while doing a demonstration of Tai Kwan Do! It's exciting, engaging, and helps the audience leave in an upbeat mood.

Combine Closing Techniques

Many conclusions will borrow from a combination of the above techniques. A fund-raising presentation I attended had a three-part conclusion: It started with a summary of reasons why the cause was especially worthy and led into this quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "No man can truly help another man without helping himself." The speaker then launched into a direct appeal: "So please reach into your hearts and checkbooks so that tomorrow really will be a better day for the needy."

These techniques also apply in general communication. For example, after a meeting with a client you might need to sum up your discussion or ask for the order. Never let important conversations or discussions just drift away.

Whatever technique you use, strive for a conclusion that will stay with your listeners long after they leave their seats and return to their private lives.

Professional Projects: Concentrate on Conclusions
  1. You are a Boy or Girl Scout troop leader on a day-long swimming trip. You've given a talk about the importance of the "buddy system." End by summarizing your key points and include a strong call to action.

  2. You are a fund-raiser for your favorite charity. You are speaking to a group of investors and have shared several reasons why yours is a worthy charity. Transition into your ending with a strong, direct appeal.

  3. Your talk opened with the statement, "We must exceed last year's production!" You've listed all the reasons why and how it can be done. Now write a strong motivational ending making a circle back to your opening statement.

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