When it comes to opening and closing your presentations, you don’t want to emulate the Month of March; you want to both come in and go out like a lion, not a lamb.
An audience is usually completely with you at the beginning of your presentation, and it’s always a lot easier to keep an audience’s attention than it is to get it back. Therefore, your opening is the most critical part of your talk. You simply cannot afford to lose your audience during your first few sentences.
It’s always an honour to be asked to address any audience, so let them know that you recognize and appreciate this. If there is any reason why you’re especially pleased to speak to a particular group, be sure to tell them how pleased you are and why you feel this way. For example, if you’re giving a talk to a Shriners Club you could say how honoured you are to be associated, even in a small way, with an organization that’s done so much for children over so many years.
Another effective way to open a talk is to compliment your audience on something that they will be surprised to find out that you know. If you’re speaking to the oldest Kiwanis Club in the country, let them know that you know this, and congratulate them.
Find out what most of the members of the audience have in common and search for a way to fit yourself in. It may be something as simple as your having once lived in the city where you’re giving the talk. Or perhaps your father had been a member of the organization and you have fond memories of how proud he was of their accomplishments. Look hard for common goals that you may share with the audience.
A few words of caution on openers are warranted.
Never voluntarily mention that you’ve given the same speech before, even if it was two thousand miles away and two months ago. Each audience wants to feel special, so don’t spoil the feeling for them. On the other hand, if asked, never deny that you have given essentially the same talk before.
Never start with a joke. There are three compelling reasons for this particular caution. First, the odds are pretty good that some, if not all, of the audience will already have heard it; especially these days with the proliferation of jokes exchanged in emails. Next, unless you’re a master storyteller you’re not apt to enhance your reputation as a speaker by starting with a joke. The fact is that most people, contrary to their own beliefs, are not very good joke-tellers. Finally, there’s a strong chance that, no matter how benign the joke may be, it will offend someone in the audience. Why do anything at the start of your presentation that might cause you to lose even one member of the audience? I’m not suggesting that that you never use humour; but it should be humour that’s relevant to your content and that presents itself spontaneously, either while you’re preparing the talk or while you’re delivering it.
Spend no more than a few moments identifying with the audience and then get on with your formal presentation. Make sure the beginning of your formal content is relevant to your subject and is appropriate to the audience and the setting. You want the audience to be interested in hearing more of what you have to say; you do not want them deciding that they should have stayed at the office.
Just as the first minute or two of your presentation represent your “opening”, the last minute or two represent your “closing”. Because your closing will be the last impression the audience will have of you, it has to be equally as strong as your opening.
A closing technique that seldom fails is to briefly summarize your main points; but be careful not to repeat major portions of your speech. A closing summary should always be in point form. Just succinctly repeat your points and resist the temptation, no matter how strong it may be, to elaborate.
If you want the audience to do something, if you don’t ask you probably won’t get. You have to close by telling them exactly, and clearly, what it is that you want them to do. Then you have to remind them what the consequences of inaction will be.
Don’t be subtle when making important closing points. Use a sledgehammer! Don’t say, “This tax increase will have a negative effect on some people”. Say, “This outrageous money grab by the government will, for many of us in this room, cause our mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts to lose their homes!”
A closing technique that is sometimes appropriate, and always effective when it is appropriate, is to point out to the audience: here’s a problem that you have; here’s how to solve it.
You can sometimes survive a soft middle in your presentation, but a weak opener or a lame closing will be fatal.