9.1 – General Guidelines for Introductions and Conclusions
Can you imagine how strange a speech would sound without an introduction? Or how jarring it would be if, after making a point, a speaker just walked away from the lectern and sat down? You would most likely be pretty confused, and the takeaway from that speech—even if the content was really good—would likely be, “I was confused” or “That was a weird speech.”
Introductions and conclusions fulfill numerous roles and, when done correctly, can make your speech stronger. However, the introduction and conclusion are not the main parts of the speech; that is the body section where the bulk of your research and information will be housed. To that end, the introduction and conclusion need to be relatively short and to the point.
The general rule is that the introduction and conclusion should each be about 10% of your total speech, leaving 80% for the body section. You can extend the introduction to 15% if there is good reason to, so 10-15% of the speech time is a good guideline for the introduction Let’s say that your speech has a time limit of 5-7 minutes; if we average that out to 6 minutes, that gives us 360 seconds. Based on the 10-15% guideline, that is 36-54 seconds for your full introduction.
Consequently, there are some common errors to avoid in introductions:
- rambling and meandering;
- speaking to become comfortable;
- saying the specific purpose statement, especially as the first words;
- choosing a technique that hurts credibility, such as being pedantic (defining words like “love”) or using a method that is not audience-centered;
- beginning to talk as you approach the platform or lectern;
- reading your introduction from your notes;
- talking too fast.
Write your introduction after you have a clear sense of the body of your presentation. The challenge to introductions is that there is a lot you need to get done in that 10%-15% and establishing yourself as a knowledgeable and credible speaker is vital.
In terms of the conclusions, be careful NOT to:
- signal the end multiple times;
- talk as you leave the platform or lectern;
- indicate with facial expression or body language that you were not happy with the speech.
9.2 – Structuring the Introduction
A common concern many students have as their first major speech approaches is “I don’t know how I should start my speech.” What they are really saying is they aren’t sure what words will be memorable, attention-capturing, and clever enough to get their audience interested or, on a more basic level, sound good. This is a problem most speakers have, since the first words you say, in many ways, set the tone for the rest of your speech. There may not be any one “best” way to start a speech, but we can provide some helpful guidelines that will make starting a speech much easier.
With that in mind, there are five basic elements that you will want to incorporate into your introduction. And while you can structure your introduction to best fit your speech and you wouldn’t necessarily always do all of these in the order below, the following order of these five elements is fairly standard. Unless you have a specific reason to do otherwise, following the order below is advisable.
Element 1: Get the Audience’s Attention
The first major purpose of an introduction is to gain your audience’s attention and make them interested in what you have to say. While many audiences may be polite and not talk while you’re speaking, actually getting them to listen to what you are saying is a completely different challenge. Let’s face it—we’ve all tuned someone out at some point because we weren’t interested in what they had to say. If you do not get the audience’s attention at the outset, doing so will only become more difficult as you continue speaking.
That’s why every speech should start with an attention getter or some sort of statement or question that piques the audience’s interest in what you have to say. Sometimes, these are called “grabbers.” The first words out of your mouth should be something that will perk up the audience’s ears. Starting a speech with “Hey everybody. I’m going to talk to you today about soccer” already sounds boring and has not tried to engage the individuals in the audience who don’t care about soccer. Once your audience has deemed your speech to be boring, trying to persuade or entertain them becomes exponentially more difficult. So, let’s briefly discuss what you can do to capture your audience’s attention from the onset.
First, when selecting an attention-getting device, you want to make sure that the option you choose is actually appropriate and relevant to your specific audience. Different audiences will have different backgrounds and knowledge, so you should use your audience analysis to determine whether specific information you plan on using would be appropriate for a specific audience.
You will also want to choose an attention-getting device appropriate for your speech topic. Ideally, your attention-getting device should have a relevant connection to your speech. Imagine if a speaker pulled condoms out of his pocket, yelled “Free sex!” and threw the condoms at the audience in the beginning of a speech about the economy. While this may clearly get the audience’s attention, this isn’t really a good way to prepare an audience for a speech about the stock market or really much else.
Anecdotes and Narratives
An anecdote is a brief account or story of an interesting or humorous event. Notice the emphasis here is on the word “brief.” A common mistake speakers make when telling an anecdote is to make the anecdote too long.
You want your audience to feel a sense of connection to your speech, so this technique can be helpful when your audience may be less familiar with the topic. One of the best and easiest ways to do this is to begin with a story that your audience is likely to have heard before. These types of stories come in a number of forms, but the most common ones include fables, tall tales, ghost stories, allegories, fairy tales, myths, and legends.
Two primary issues that you should be aware of often arise with using stories as attention getters. First, you shouldn’t let your story go on for too long. If you are going to use a story to begin your speech, you need to think of it more in terms of summarizing the story rather than actually reciting an epic saga. Even a relatively simple story such as “The Tortoise and the Hare” can take a couple of minutes to get through in its entirety, so you’ll need to cut it down to the main points or highlights. The second issue with using stories as attention getters is that the story must in some way relate to your speech. If you begin your speech by recounting the events in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” your speech will in some way need to address such topics as finding balance or coming to a compromise. If your story doesn’t relate to your topic, you will likely confuse your audience and they may spend the remainder of your speech trying to figure out the connection rather than listening to what you have to say.
A personal story is another option here. You may consider starting your speech with a story about yourself that is relevant to your topic. Some of the best speeches are ones that come from personal knowledge and experience. If you are an expert or have firsthand experience related to your topic, sharing this information with the audience is a great way to show that you are credible during your attention getter.
If you use a personal example, don’t get carried away with the focus on yourself and your own life. Your speech topic is the purpose of the attention getter, not the other way around. Another pitfall in using a personal example is that it may be too personal for you to maintain your composure. When speakers have an emotional breakdown during their speech, audience members stop listening to the message and become very uncomfortable. They may empathize with the distraught speaker, but the effectiveness has been diminished in other ways.
Another way to start your speech is to surprise your audience with startling information about your topic. Often, startling statements come in the form of statistics and strange facts. The goal of a good startling statistic is that it surprises the audience and gets them engaged in your topic.
A strange fact, on the other hand, is a statement that does not involve numbers, but is equally surprising to most audiences. For example, you could start a speech on the gambling industry by saying, “There are no clocks in any casinos in Las Vegas.” You could start a speech on the Harlem Globetrotters by saying, “In 2000, Pope John Paul II became the most famous honorary member of the Harlem Globetrotters.” Both of these examples came from a great website for strange facts (http://www.strangefacts.com).
Although startling statements are fun, you need to use them ethically. First, make sure that your startling statement is factual. The Internet is full of startling statements and claims that are simply not factual, so when you find a statement you’d like to use, you have an ethical duty to ascertain its truth before you use it and to provide a reliable citation. Second, make sure that your startling statement is relevant to your speech and not just thrown in for shock value. We’ve all heard startling claims made in the media that are clearly made for purposes of shock or fear mongering, such as “Do you know what common household appliance could kill you? Film at 11:00.” As speakers, we have an ethical obligation to avoid playing on people’s emotions in this way.
A Rhetorical Question
A rhetorical question is a question to which no actual reply is expected. For example, a speaker talking about the history of Mother’s Day could start by asking the audience, “Do you remember the last time you told your mom you loved her?” In this case, the speaker does not expect the audience to shout out an answer, but rather to think about the question as the speech goes on.
Reference to Audience or Appeal to Self-Interest
As we have tried to emphasize throughout this book, your audience is the single most important factor in crafting your speech, so making a direct reference to the audience could make sense. In this case, the speaker has a clear understanding of the audience and points out that there is something unique about the audience that should make them interested in the speech’s content.
Another way to capture your listeners’ attention is to use the words of another person that relate directly to your topic. Maybe you’ve found a really great quotation in one of the articles or books you read while researching your speech. If not, you can also use a number of Internet or library sources that compile useful quotations from noted individuals.
If you use a quotation as your attention getter, be sure to give the source first so that it isn’t mistaken as your own wording.
Reference to Current Events
Referring to a current news event that relates to your topic is often an effective way to capture attention, as it immediately makes the audience aware of the topic’s relevance.
You may also capture your listeners’ attention by referring to a historical event related to your topic. Obviously, this strategy is closely related to the previous one, except that instead of a recent news event, you are reaching further back in history to find a relevant reference. For example, if you are giving a speech on the perception of modern music as crass or having no redeeming values, you could refer back to Elvis Presley and his musical breakout in the 1950s as a way of making a comparison, evoking the audience’s knowledge of Elvis to raise awareness of similarities to current artists that may be viewed today as he was in the 1950s (which was nothing short of the devil’s musician).
Humour is another effective method for gaining an audience’s attention; it’s an amazing tool when used properly. We cannot begin to explain all the facets of humour, but we can say that humour is a great way of focusing an audience on what you are saying. However, humour is a double-edged sword. If you do not wield the sword carefully, you can turn your audience against you very quickly.
When using humour, you really need to know your audience and understand what they will find humorous. One of the biggest mistakes a speaker can make is to use some form of humour that the audience either doesn’t find funny or, worse, finds offensive. Think about how incompetent the character of Michael Scott seems on the television program The Office, in large part because of his ineffective use of humour. We always recommend that you test out humour of any kind on a sample of potential audience members prior to actually using it during a speech. If you do use a typical narrative “joke,” don’t say it happened to you. Anyone who heard the joke before will think you are less than truthful!
Now that we’ve warned you about the perils of using humour, let’s talk about how to use humour as an attention getter. Humour can be incorporated into several of the attention-getting devices mentioned. You could use a humourous anecdote, quotation, or current event. As with other attention-getting devices, you need to make sure your humour is relevant to your topic, as one of the biggest mistakes some novices make when using humour is to add humour that really doesn’t support the overall goal of the speech. So when looking for humourous attention getters, you want to make sure that the humour is going to be relevant to your speech, but not offensive to the audience.
For example, here’s a humourous quotation from Nicolas Chamfort, a French author during the 16th century: “The only thing that stops God from sending another flood is that the first one was useless.” While this quotation could be effective for some audiences, other audiences may find this humourous quotation offensive. The Chamfort quotation could be appropriate for a speech on the ills of modern society, but probably not for a speech on the state of modern religious conflict. It also would not be appropriate in an area that had just experienced damaging floods. You want to make sure that the leap from your attention getter to your topic isn’t too complicated for your audience or the attention getter will backfire.
This list of attention-getting devices represents a thorough, but not necessarily exhaustive, range of ways that you can begin your speech. Certainly these would be the more common attention getters that most people employ. Again, as mentioned earlier, your selection of attention getter is not only dependent on your audience, your topic, and the occasion, but also on your preferences and skills as a speaker. If you know that you are a bad storyteller, you might elect not to start your speech with a story. If you tend to tell jokes that no one laughs at, avoid starting your speech off with humour.
The best attention getters can be described as follows:
Other factors like suspense (introducing a story and finishing it at the end) or conflict (telling a story with strong opposing forces and tension) can also be used.
Element 2: Establish or Enhance Your Credibility
Whatever your topic and purpose, your audience will be expecting you to know what you are talking about. So, the second element of an introduction is to let your audience know that you are a knowledgeable and credible source for this information. To do this, you will need to explain how you know what you know about your topic.
For some people, this will be simple. If you are informing your audience how a baseball is thrown and you have played baseball since you were eight years old, that makes you a fairly credible source. You probably know what you are talking about.
However, you may be speaking on a subject with which you have no history of credibility. If you are just curious about when streetlights were installed at intersections and why they are red, yellow, and green, you can give an interesting speech on that, but you will still need to give your audience some sort of reason to trust your knowledge. Since you were required to do research, you are at least more knowledgeable on the subject that anyone else in the class. In this case, you might say, “After doing some research and consulting several books on the subject, I want to share what I’ve learned about the evolution of traffic lights in contemporary cities.”
Element 3: Establish Rapport
Rapport is basically a relationship or connection you make with your audience. In everyday life, we say that two people have a rapport when they get along really well and are good friends. In your introduction, you will want to build a connection with them as a speaker and to build a connection between the audience and the content (answering the “what’s in it for me” question). You will be making a connection through this shared information and explaining to them how it will benefit them.
An important point to note here is that there is not necessarily a “right” or “wrong” way to establish rapport with your audience. You as the speaker must determine what you think will work best and make a connection.
Element 4: Preview Your Topic/Purpose/Central Idea
The fourth major function of an introduction after getting the audience’s attention is to reveal the purpose of your speech to your audience. An introduction should make the topic, purpose, and central idea clear. For most speeches, the central idea and preview (Element 5) should come at the end of the introduction.
While not a hard and fast rule, you will probably also want to avoid having the audience “guess” what your topic is through clues. However, at no point in your introduction do you ever want to read your specific purpose statement as a way of revealing your topic. Your specific purpose is included on your outline for your sake, to keep you on track during preparation. The language used in the specific purpose (“To persuade my audience…”) is too awkward, blunt, and boring to be read aloud.
Element 5: Preview Your Main Points
Just like previewing your topic, previewing your main points helps your audience know what to expect throughout the course of your speech and prepares them to listen. Your preview of main points should be clear, brief, and easy to follow, so there is no question in your audience’s minds what they are. Long, complicated, or verbose main points can get confusing.
These five elements prepare your audience for the bulk of the speech (i.e., the body section) by letting them know what they can expect, why they should listen, and why they can trust you as a speaker. Having all five elements starts your speech on solid ground.
9.4 – Structuring the Conclusion
Similar to the introduction, the conclusion has three specific elements that you will want to incorporate in order to make it as strong as possible. Given the nature of these elements and what they do, these should generally be incorporated into your conclusion in the order they are presented below.
Element 1: Signal the End
You may be thinking that telling an audience that you’re about to stop speaking is a “no brainer,” but many speakers really don’t prepare their audience for the end. When a speaker just suddenly stops speaking, the audience is left confused and disappointed. Instead, you want to make sure that audiences are left knowledgeable and satisfied with your speech. In a way, it gives them time to begin mentally organizing and cataloguing all the points you have made for further consideration later.
However, do not begin with the blunt essay-style wrap up cues you see in high-school level work, such as “in conclusion,” “in summary,” or “to conclude.” These are very blunt and will prevent your speech from standing out when compared to others. Look to employ more elegant, interesting, or creative language here, but make sure the audience catches on to the fact that your speech is ending.
Some of the techniques used in the introduction could help you signal the conclusion, too. For example, if you began an anecdote in the introduction, but didn’t finish, telling the audience the end of the anecdote will signal that you are now concluding, as the parallel of the anecdote should now be seen with the other content of the speech. As another example, asking a rhetorical question, could work well, too, such as “okay, so what’s significant about what I’ve just said?” That would cue the audience to understand that you’re going to tell them the significance of your message, which is content usually included at the end of a speech.
Element 2: Restate Main Points
In the introduction of a speech you delivered a preview of your main points; now in the conclusion you will deliver a review. One of the biggest differences between written and oral communication is the necessity of repetition in oral communication (the issue of “planned redundancy”). Remember, your English instructors can re-read your essays as many times as they want, but your audience only has one opportunity to catch and remember the points you are trying to get across in your speech. Because you are trying to remind the audience of your main points, you want to be sure not to bring up any new material or ideas.
This is a good place to remind you that the introduction, preview, transitions, and conclusion are for helping the audience be interested and prepared to listen, to retain, and to follow your speech. The conclusion is too late for that. The hard core facts and content are in the body. If you are tempted to cram lots of material into the conclusion, stop yourself; that is not the place for it, nor is it the place to provide the important steps to a solution.
As you progress as a public speaker, you will want to work on rephrasing your summary statement so that it does not sound like an exact repeat of the preview. In fact, nothing in your conclusion should precisely repeat any other part of your speech (at least, not more than a few consecutive words).
Element 3: Clincher
The third element of your conclusion is the clincher, or something memorable with which to conclude your speech. The clincher is sometimes referred to as a “closer” or “concluding device.” These are the very last words you will say in your speech, so you need to make them count. This is the last idea your audience will hear, so you want to make it good. A good clincher prevents your audience from feeling let down and, in fact, can even make an audience remember a speech more favourably. After a strong speech, the audience will usually reflect on that speech later in the day, perhaps even several times; a good clincher helps frame their thinking about those reflections.
Conclude with a Challenge
A challenge is a call to engage in some kind of activity that requires special effort. The challenge should be something they can strive for, but not see as something impossible.
In the same category as a challenge, probably the most common persuasive concluding device is a call to action. In essence, the call to action occurs when a speaker asks their audience to engage in a specific behaviour.
One specific type of appeal for action is the immediate call to action. Whereas some appeals ask for people to engage in behaviour in the future, the immediate call to action asks people to engage in behaviour right now.
If you are giving a persuasive speech about a solution to a problem, you should not relegate the call to action to the very end of the speech. It should probably be a main point where you can deal with the steps and specifics of the solution in more detail. Although this can be an effective conclusion, speakers should ask themselves whether the solution should be discussed in more depth as a stand-alone main point within the body of the speech so that audience concerns about the proposed solution may be addressed.
Conclude with a Quotation
Another way you can conclude a speech is by providing a quotation relevant to the speech topic. Some quotations will have a clear call to action, while other quotations summarize or provoke thought. For example, let’s say you are delivering an informative speech about dissident writers in the former Soviet Union. You could end by citing this quotation from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country. And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers.”
Notice that this quotation underscores the idea of writers as dissidents, but it doesn’t ask listeners to put forth effort to engage in any specific thought process or behaviour. If, on the other hand, you were delivering a persuasive speech urging your audience to sponsor a child in a developing country for $40 per month, you might use this quotation by Forest Witcraft:
“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different, because I was important in the life of a child.”
In this case, the quotation leaves the audience with the message that monetary sacrifices are worth taking, that they make our lives worthwhile, and that the right choice is to make that sacrifice.
Conclude by Visualizing the Future
Here, you help your audience imagine the future you believe is possible. If you are giving a speech on the development of video games for learning, you could conclude by depicting the classroom of the future where video games are perceived as true learning tools. More often, speakers use visualization of the future to depict how society or how individual listeners’ lives would be different if the audience accepts and acts on the speaker’s main idea. For example, if a speaker proposes that a solution to illiteracy is hiring more reading specialists in public schools, the speaker could ask their audience to imagine a world without illiteracy.
Conclude by Inspiration
By definition, the word inspire means to affect or arouse someone. The ultimate goal of an inspirational concluding device is similar to a call to action, but the ultimate goal is more lofty or ambiguous; the goal is to stir someone’s emotions in a specific manner. This is done by sharing a story, poem, or quotation that appeals to the audience’s basic values and, therefore, appeals to emotions. Stories or allusions to “underdogs” who overcame obstacles to achieve something worthwhile or those who make sacrifices for the good of others can help inspire. You probably know of such stories that would be of value, as long as they are relevant to your topic and purpose. Poetry and Shakespeare is sometimes used to inspire, but you want to use a short passage (four lines or fewer) that is clear to the audience.
Conclude with a Question
Another way you can end a speech is to ask a rhetorical question that forces the audience to ponder an idea. Maybe you are giving a speech about the environment, so you end the speech by saying, “Think about your children’s future. What kind of world do you want them raised in? A world that is clean, vibrant, and beautiful—or one that is filled with smog, pollution, filth, and disease?” Notice that you aren’t actually asking the audience to verbally or nonverbally answer the question; the goal of this question is to force the audience into thinking about what kind of world they want for their children.
Conclude with an Anecdote or Personal Story
A brief story makes a strong conclusion. However, it must be relevant (and brief). Combining this method and the previous, you might finish telling a story that you started in the introduction as your clincher.
Conclude with a Reference to Audience or Audience Self-Interest
The last concluding device involves a direct reference to your audience. This concluding device is used when a speaker attempts to answer the basic audience question, “What’s in it for me?” (the WIIFM question). The goal of this concluding device is to spell out the direct benefits a behaviour or thought change has for audience members.
This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.