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 of all, there’s the slide issue itself. Slide-ware like PowerPoint doesn’t help; it distracts, because it requires us to multitask. And all the research on multitasking shows that we can’t do it. We first pay attention to one thing, and then 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 attentions start to wander, then 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. So 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.
So the result is two incomplete sets of information. That’s tiring and indeed annoying for us, 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 tune out.
Don’t do it.
OK, so how should you end a speech? Following are five suggestions, in order to avoid the dreaded “Any Questions” slide.
1. The simplest way to end a speech, after you’ve finished the content part, 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. But let’s say you want something more original and exciting. A personal favorite of mine is to end with a question suggested by the talk, something related that broadens the discussion and gets people thinking. So, 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 whether or not 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 donuts.
3. Of course, as I’ve recommended many times, 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 and pledge to start the good health regimen you’ve been talking about with one specific food change, for example.
4. If you’re afraid of not getting any questions, then you can arrange for a friend in the audience to ask one. The “plant” is a good way to get questions started if you fear silence. But 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 theatre 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 up into one. It’s risky, because you’re at the mercy of jerks in the audience who just want to ventilate or bloviate, but then Q and A can bring out those trolls too. If you choose this option, then it’s a big help to have someone else MC the discussion.
No excuses; there are plenty of interesting ways to end a presentation. Throw away that “Any Questions” slide and get to work.
With thanks to Susan de la Vergne for the question.