This post is the sixth in a series on the basic building blocks of a great speech.
You’ve researched your audience, asked the right questions, and learned the particulars of the occasion. You’ve created the opening frame of the talk with an engaging story that hints at the glories to come. You’ve plunged the audience deep into the issue that animates your topic. You’ve bathed the audience in the keen light of your expertise or experience. You’ve painted a wonderful picture of the future for the audience if it adopts your point of view.
The last step on this journey turns the speech over to that audience. It has been relatively passive all this time, listening to you. Perhaps you’ve engaged the audience in various interactive moments and activities, but fundamentally, you’ve been driving and the audience has been passengers.
But most people are naturally active. And if you’ve done your job right, they’re ready to give back. More than that, they’re ready to get started implementing your ideas. Audiences begin by asking ‘why’ (Why should I care? Why does this matter to me?) at the top of a speech and, if they’ve gone on the journey, end by asking ‘how’ (How do I get started? How do I implement this idea?).
So let them get started. Give them something to do. Give them an action that represents a small, easy step toward the big thing you’ve been talking about. Get them to commit, to pick a path, to choose an idea. Get them to write an idea or two down. Get them to share something with the people around them.
Turning the audience loose for about 3 minutes will create a burst of energy (all that pent-up action) that you might find alarming, but it’s a good thing. It’s the audience making your speech so – making it happen.
I’m not talking about a wishy-washy call to action: “Let us agree to beat our swords into plowshares and make war no more.” That kind of rhetoric feels good but almost never leads to action. That’s why politicians employ it so often. I’m talking about an actual, physical activity. A modest one, but something real, concrete, and deliberate.
Of course, not every speech points to an obvious, clear action step. And some occasions simply don’t leave much room for one. And they are devilishly hard to dream up, often. But if you can come up with something that allows the audience to take all its bottled-up energy and get started, the result will greatly increase the staying power of your presentation.
I worked once on a speech with a client to a religious gathering. Thousands of church administrators were present and the topic of the day was “abundance.” The client was arguing that these church administrators already had all they needed to do wonderful work. Whatever they had, it was enough to get started. They had abundance. At the end, then, the speaker asked everyone to reach into their pockets and pocket books and grab all their loose change. On the count of three, he had everyone throw the loose change onto the floor of the auditorium.
The result? Thousands of dollars raised in an instant and a powerful message about abundance. Now, of course this idea was suggested by the collection plate, but it worked because the gesture – and the sound – of the money hitting the floor was so, well, striking.
Then the speaker was able to close by briefly pointing out the lesson learned about abundance.
The best endings are ones that involve the audience.