October 28, 2010

How do you know when to stop talking?

One question I've always had for artists is, "How do you know when you're done?" Out of thousands of brush strokes, when does the realization hit that this is the "last one?"

Speakers face the same dilemma. How do you know when you've hit on that perfect line, that pithy quote or powerful statement that slaps you in the face and says, "Stop here!"

I would argue that closings are one of the most difficult aspects of a presentation. Knowing when to stop, feeling like you've said all you can say and punctuating your presentation with just the right ending frequently feel awkward. It's like when you're trying to leave a party and spend an extra half hour saying your goodbyes.

Here's a before and after example from a client's presentation in my group coaching program. Her speech is about how her husband hates to travel, so she finds a way to travel the world every Sunday morning -- through cooking.

Original ending:

"I know that tonight, when we sit down to dinner, he's going to say the same thing he says every night when we sit down: 'I'm the luckiest man in the world, because I get to eat in a different country every night.' And I feel lucky. So I've brought you all your own magic carpet ride. I hope that you'll choose to take one, and that we'll travel together someday at my house or yours."

New and improved ending:

"At the end of the night, my husband will join me in my travels when he sits down, and he'll say, 'Why should I buy a plane ticket? I eat in a different country every night.'"

In the first example, Suzanne wasn't quite sure where she was going with her ending. The quote by her husband was perfect, I thought. But then she continued on with a sort-of call to action, or invitation to try traveling through trying some exotic recipes ourselves. So what's the message? Too many endings and the message gets diluted, whichever one you choose.

Here's another example, from another coaching group client. Jessica's presentation was about health claims on food packaging and learning to differentiate between truth and marketing.

Original ending:

"I'm not telling you these things to scare you, but it's always good to know what you're consuming and to be able to see through the veil of marketing."

Revised ending:

"Next time you're cruising through the aisles and boxes and bags of the grocery store, don't rely on the words that pop out of the package that make you think that they're healthy; actually look at the ingredients label, and you'll be better off."

In the first example, Jessica is asserting that it's a good idea to know what you're eating and to know the difference between truth and marketing. In the second example, she gives a clear call to action to read the ingredient labels to know what you're getting.

Both speeches were only given twice, so you can see how these endings could be improved and tightened up even more. But both speakers went from wishy-washy to straightforward conclusions with just a little effort.

In order to have a strong ending, you have to know the objective of your presentation. You have to create the presentation with the ending in mind. What do you want the audience to do as a result of your presentation? What do you want them to remember? What feeling do you want to leave them with?

Once you know that, it's easier to know what your strongest ending is and when to quit talking.

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