How should you close a speech?
I recently had a query from a fellow coach who specializes in working with engineers and tech firms, and her complaint was that far too many speeches in her experience ended with a slide reading “Any Questions?” She was asking for alternative ways to end a presentation.
It would be hard to imagine a duller (and less engaging) way to finish, aside from simply walking off the stage in silence.
First, there’s the slide issue itself. Slide-ware such as PowerPoint doesn’t help; it distracts, because it requires us to multitask. All the research on multitasking shows that we can’t do it. We first pay attention to one thing, and then to another.
Moreover, the research on how our brains process visual information indicates that we don’t actually see what’s in front of us, but rather an approximation of it that our brain matches to reality based on its memory banks.
So, what really happens when we’re confronted in a meeting or a presentation with a speaker and a set of slides is that we look at the speaker—because we’re inherently more interested in people than pictures—and when our collective attention starts to wander, we look at the slides.
Now, reading slides and looking at people occupy two different parts of our brain, and there’s a lot of inefficiency in switching back and forth. When we’re looking at the speaker, we’re getting one set of cues. When we look at the slides, we get another set. When we switch, we lose a bit of either information stream.
The result is two incomplete sets of information. That’s tiring and annoying, so we get cranky and tune out.
That’s what slide-ware does. With some exceptions, it adds to our information load, overwhelming it even faster and causing us to change channels mentally. Don’t do it.
OK, so how should you end a speech? Following are five suggestions so you can avoid the dreaded “Any Questions” slide.
1. The simplest way to end a speech is to say, “Thank you.” That has the virtue of being individually understood, unexceptional and unambiguous.
That remains my go-to recommendation for anyone who wants a way to signal to the audience that it’s time to applaud and then head for the bar. Neat, simple, gets the job done.
2. End with a question that broadens the discussion and gets people thinking. For example, if you’re wrapping up a talk on the future of software, you might say, “We’ve had a great discussion today about what software will look like in near future; I’d like to close by asking you what you think software might look like 100 years from now. Are we actually heading for the Great Singularity?”
Or even, “I’d like to close by asking you this: Do you think there should be government controls on either the violence in or the length of time spent on gaming software?”
That should give them something to talk about into next week, or at least over the coffee and doughnuts.
3. The best way to end a speech is to turn the audience loose on an action. After all, you’ve been asking the audience to sit passively for 20 or 30 or 50 minutes. Give them a chance to move, to do something. It should be related to what you’ve been talking about, it should be specific, and it should be relatively simple.
Get them to turn to a neighbor, for example, and pledge to start the good health regimen you’ve been talking about with one specific food change.
4. If you’re afraid of not getting any questions, arrange for a friend to ask one. Having a “plant” in the audience is a good way to get questions started. If you’ve turned the chore of asking for questions over to a slide, then that suggests either you don’t really want to engage in questions, or you’re afraid of them. If it’s the former, then get over yourself. You’ve had the floor for 45 minutes; now it’s someone else’s turn.
If the latter, then you might think about sharing your fears in an authentic way: “Now, I’m a little afraid of the questions you might ask, since there are some people here in the audience who know more about the subject than I do, but if we agree to turn the answering over to anyone who is best positioned to answer the question, I’m happy with that.”
5. Finally, you might borrow an idea from the theater and have a “talk back.” In the theatre, some groups invite the audience to give their thoughts back to the actors, the director, the stage crew, or anyone else who’s available. It’s a critique, a Q-and-A opportunity, a focus group, and a therapy session all rolled into one.
It’s risky, because you’re at the mercy of jerks in the audience who just want to ventilate or bloviate, but a Q-and-A can bring out those trolls, too. If you choose this option, it’s a big help to have someone else emcee the discussion.
There are plenty of interesting ways to end a presentation. Throw away that “Any Questions” slide, and get to work.
A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.