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Beginning and Ending Well: Developing Your Opening and Closing
By Rich Meiss • Sunday, January 6, 2008

Designing & Delivering Powerful Presentations Series:  VII

Most presentations don’t open and close – they just start and end! 

Imagine yourself having the opportunity to attend the Olympics – either the summer or winter games.  You spend hours and hours researching the events to attend, plan out your itinerary, purchase your tickets, and spend lots of money on airfare and hotel room.  You travel a long distance to reach the Olympic destination, and get settled into your hotel. On opening night you travel to the Olympic site and find your seat in the huge stadium with tens of thousands of other spectators - all filled with eager anticipation.  Your eyes are on the huge platform in the center of the stadium.  Suddenly a man walks out, bangs on the microphone a couple of times, and asks: “Can you all hear me?” When the crowd responds “yes,” he says: “Well, we’ve got a lot of events to get through here in the next couple of weeks, so we’ll be getting started early tomorrow.  Have a good night, and we’ll see you tomorrow morning for your first event!”

Imagine the frustration of the crowd – maybe even the disbelief or anger!  People have sacrificed time, energy, money and effort to make it to this great event.  And that is all there is to the opening?!  Of course, this would never happen.  But this IS often what happens in the opening and/or closing of presentations.  The presenter says:  “Well, we’ve got a lot to cover today, so let’s get going!”  And the closing lines at the end are often something like this:  Well, I see our time is up.  Thanks for being here!”

Take AIM for a Powerful Opening

Olympic organizers recognize the tremendous power of the opening and closing ceremonies.  They invest heavily in making sure these two events are powerful and flawless, acknowledging that they are the “bookends” that frame the entire Olympic experience.  Even if there is a mistake or two in the middle of the games, spectators will most remember the opening and closing ceremonies.  Presenters could well learn from this example. 

So how do you make your opening powerful?  Here are three ideas that will help you take AIM for a powerful opening:

A –Attention                Get the positive attention of the group.  
I – Involvement           Involve the group mentally and physically.
M – Meaning              Create meaning for the audience.

Popular speaker and motivator Zig Ziglar has said:  “I could walk out in front of an audience in the morning in the nude, and I’d sure have their attention.  However, it may not be POSITIVE attention!”  Make sure that the first thing you do is to get the positive attention of the group.  Here are a variety of ways to get a group’s positive attention.

Compliment – Pay a compliment to the group, or individuals in the group, IF you can do it sincerely.  Few things will make individuals or groups smile and warm up to you as much as a compliment sincerely given.  On the other hand, if it sounds contrived, a compliment can backfire.

Promise – Make a promise to the group that you can keep.  “Today I am going to share some information with you that may well have a major impact on your health in the next ten years” is a good attention getter, and the audience will really appreciate it IF you can then back up your claim.  If you make a promise, be sure to keep it!

Question – Start with a question.  “What are the three things that will most impact the morale of our organization in the next year?” is a good question to use when reporting on an employee survey.  This is a more powerful opening than simply saying:  “Today I am here to report to you the results of the recent morale survey we took here at XYZ.”  Use one of the 5 W’s or 1 H to craft a good question:  What, When, Where, Who, Why or How.

Quote – Start with a quotation that grabs the attention of the audience.  I heard a speaker recently begin his presentation this way:  “3% of the people actually think.  7% of the people think that they think.  And the other 90% of the population is waiting for a slogan to come along so they don’t have to think!”  After the chuckles in the crowd died down, he then looked at his audience and added this compliment:  “And today, I am excited to be with the 3% of you who really do think” and he stated the purpose of his presentation.

Story – A well-rehearsed story that relates to the topic of the presentation is a good way to focus an audience’s attention.  The best stories come out of the life and experience of the presenter.   Or you may use a story that happened to a friend or colleague.  True stories relate best, since no one is able to argue with a real life experience.

Theme – If it is a special time of year or there is a special occasion going on in the place where you are presenting, you may consider starting with a theme.  I was giving a presentation in Atlanta in 1996, just shortly before the summer Olympics came to town.  I wrapped my five key points around the Olympic rings, and used that theme throughout the presentation.

By using one or more of these methods you will grab the positive attention of your audience and draw them into your presentation.


Be a STAR Closer

Use the acronym STAR to remember the elements of a good closing:

S – Summarize
T – Tie things together
A – Apply the new information
R – wRap up:  close with power!

A popular phrase in college speech classes (at least when I was in school) was:  “Tell em what you’re gonna tell em, tell em,  and then tell em what you told em!”  The concept was that to get our message across, we need to repeat key concepts and ideas several times.  Researcher Albert Mehrabian, a professor at UCLA a number of years ago, did some studies about learning and retention.  His research suggests the following:

-  If people hear something one time, they will remember less than 10% after 30 days
-  If they hear it six times, especially with interval reinforcement, they will remember as     much as 90% after 30 days.  (Interval reinforcement means that they hear the information at different intervals, rather than hearing it six times in succession.)

Based on these statistics, it is important to think about ways to cover your key points several times in the presentation, and then summarize those points again as you end.

Tie things together by circling back to the beginning of the presentation.  Help participants recall how you began, and close the circle for them.  There is a great example of this idea in the movie Forrest Gump.  In the opening scene, a feather is blowing through the streets, and it ends up by the foot of Forrest, who puts it in his Curious George book and sticks the book in his briefcase.  At the end of the movie, as he is putting young Forrest on the bus, he hands him the book and the feather breaks free, blowing gently through the streets again.  The story is complete.  Good closings bring completion – they tie things together.

If you want your participants to apply what they’ve learned during the presentation, it is a good idea to give them some time to reflect on the content.  You might even give them a minute or two to write down what they are going to do differently – to get different results in their lives.  Good Pastors, Priests or Rabbis often use this technique.  At the end of the sermon, there is an application moment – a time to reflect on what the audience member can do to apply the lesson taught.

And the wrap it up – with power!  Here are some methods of closing that have worked well for presenters.

Call for Action – I call this the “Nike” close.  When I want to motivate the attendees to take some action based on my presentation, I repeat a key statement as my closing sentence and then say, “So in the words of Nike, (pause……) Just Do It!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, in this presentation we have discussed the reasons to switch your health policy from ABC to XYZ.  We have shared the benefits to you of making this switch.  So let me conclude by saying this:  In the words of Nike … JUST DO IT!  Thank you very much for your time and attention this morning.”

Circle Back – Take your audience back to the beginning of your presentation, and wrap up by tying it all together.  One way to do this is to share “the rest of the story”.  Popular radio announcer Paul Harvey will often begin a story sometime in his newscast.  He will tell a part of the story, then continue on with the newscast, and at the very end will say:  “And now, for the rest of the story!”  He then relates a powerful ending to the story he had started earlier.  This is a great way to tie the beginning and ending together.

Poetry – I call this the “artsy” close.  A poem, song, dance, or other dramatic ending can be very powerful if done well.  This type of close should inspire your audience, motivate them to take action, or reinforce your main points (its even better if it can do all three).  The caution here is that you need to really practice these to do them well.  Because audiences are used to professional entertainment today, they will expect no less from you.

Question and Answer – Although usually handled poorly, a good Q and A session can be an appropriate way to bring a presentation right up to the closing statement.  Unless you really don’t want any questions, avoid asking:  “Are there any questions”.  This is a closed question and usually “closes up” the audience.  Besides, this question is usually saved for the end, and most people don’t want to prolong a presentation at the end.  Let participants know up front when you will take questions.  If appropriate, take them during the session, although you have to be careful to watch the time when you use this method.  For most short sessions, the appropriate time IS at the end of the session.  Here are several methods to do Q and A well:

“OK, we have about 5 minutes for a few questions at this point.  What questions do you have?”
(Note that this is an open question that usually “opens up” the audience for involvement.  An alternative is to ask:  “Who would like to ask the first question?”)  Your body language and voice tone will also signal to the audience that you really are welcoming questions – or not.
A second option that works well if you have a little extra time and want to get some REALLY good questions is to say to the audience:  “We have about 15 minutes for some Q and A time, so please turn to a partner (or your small group members) and take two minutes to brainstorm a question you may have about the content.  Then we will spend some time answering your questions.”  This method almost always generates good questions.

Recap – This technique involves having the audience talk about the key points they learned in the presentation.  Although it will not work for all audiences (depending on time, group size, etc.) it is a powerful way to reinforce the key points of the message.  Have attendees turn to a partner or form a small group of 4-6 people, and give them a way to appoint a group leader (person from furthest distance, person with newest car, person with the most pets at home). 

Have the group leader draw out of the group the 3-5 key things they heard/learned in the session.  If there is time, you may then ask group leaders to report out some of the comments from their group.  In large groups you would need a roving microphone for this, or you may listen to the comments and repeat them into your microphone.  You may also follow this small group discussion time with a question and answer session.

Rhetorical Question – This is a powerful method for closing when you want to leave the group hanging on your final question.  “So ladies and gentlemen, today we have talked about five different ways to help your team get outstanding results.  Isn’t that what you really want???  Thank you.”

Story – End with a short story that makes a dramatic point or drives home the key message of your presentation.  The best stories come from your own life experiences, but you may also draw from stories or experiences of colleagues or others.  There are lots of resources for good stories available today, from the world-wide web to books and magazines to the daily news.  Weaving a good story into the wrap up of your presentation can have a powerful impact.

To wrap up this section on openings and closings, let me share how much emphasis Olympic organizers put on these two events.  The opening includes music, dancing, the parade of the athletes, the lighting of the Olympic torch, fireworks and much more.  And the closing is pretty much a repeat of this grand event, with the exception that the athletes are now showing off their medals and the torch is snuffed out in anticipation of the next Olympics – four years away.    And the Olympic stadium is always sold out – tens of thousands of enthusiastic spectators attend these events.

And what does it cost to attend an Olympic opening or closing.  According to statistics in USA Today, the recent winter games ticket prices – we’re talking one seat at face value (not scalpers prices) – ranged from $400 to $1350.  That’s an average price of $850 per ticket!  If Olympic organizers are smart enough to create outstanding openings and closings for which they can charge that kind of money, wouldn’t it serve us well as presenters to do the same?
Check out my new book - S C O R E! 
Super- Closers – Openers – Reviews – Energizers for Enhanced Training Results on our web site

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