The Close is the second most important part of your speech or presentation, after the opening. In fact, it could be argued that it is the most important, as it is the part most likely to be remembered. So just as it is a crime to waste that first precious ninety seconds with inanities such as thanks, apologies and senseless waffle, it is also one to waste that last, final chance to hammer your message home.
As with the Opening, let’s start by looking at how most speakers close. In other words – badly!
The most common way of closing is to dissolve, where the speech or presentation just hesitantly fades away into nothing. Sometimes the speaker says, “OK, I guess that’s it,” or “Well, if there are no questions, I think that just about wraps things up.” Maybe they turn to a co-presenter and ask, “Have you got anything else to add? No? Looks like we’re finished, then.”
Then they stand there for a bit, as if they don’t know what to do, before gathering their things and shuffling off.
The second most common is the dead halt – the kind that would hurl you into the windscreen if you were a passenger in their car. One minute they’re speaking, the next minute they’re not.
“Thank you for listening,” they say, or “That’s me finished,” or “I see my time is up,” or “Any questions?” or simply, “Thank you,” and just stop and stand back from their lectern, or even walk off stage.
The third common way is to telegraph it from a mile away by using the dreaded words, “In conclusion,” or “To summarise.” As soon as you say this, some of the audience will check their watches, look at the conference agenda to see who is next, or start to gather their belongings if it is just before lunch.
Whatever they do, you have lost their attention while you make your closing remarks. Even worse is to say “In conclusion” and then prattle on for a further ten minutes! But we’ve all heard that happen.
So how should you close?
1. Call To Action
One way is to end with a call to action. If an audience has invested 20, 30 or 60 minutes listening to you speak, you have a fantastic opportunity to get them to actually do something - buy something from you, change their behaviour, do something different when they get back to work, or put their hands in their pockets and give some money to charity. It could be anything! But it must be something.
What is the main objective of your presentation? Whatever it is, that should be the crux of your close. Many speakers forget this, and their close has nothing to do with their main objective.
Ask yourself the question: ‘What do I want my audience to do as a result of this speech/presentation?’ If your objective is purely to entertain, end on a belly laugh. If it is to educate, give them food for thought. If you are trying to raise money for charity, ask them for money.
If you are trying to win new business, ask for the business.
Secondly, there is humour. If you walk off that stage to applause and laughter, there is a far better chance that you (and your message) will be remembered. BUT …. you can’t close with humour if your entire presentation has been serious to this point. Your humour would be incongruous, and people wouldn’t know if they were meant to laugh.
Whilst you can give a humorous talk and finish on a serious note to great effect, you can’t do it the other way around!
Thirdly, (and despite my comments above about 'telegraphing' being a poor way to close) you can summarise. But do it by saying something like, “We’ve covered a lot of things today; we’ve done x, we’ve looked at y and we’ve seen z. But if you only remember one thing from my talk, I want it to be this ……” You’ll not only have them listening avidly, you’ll also have a great opportunity to call for that action!
Fourthly, you can use an anecdote. However, make sure that it is RELEVANT to your speech/presentation, not just a great story that you happen to like. See '8 Tips For Adding 'Oomph!' To Your Stories'.
Finally (and probably most powerfully), you can build to a climax with a piece of rhetoric, profound statement or a clever line that makes them think about the main theme of your speech. If you are only going to use one rhetorical technique in a whole speech, use it at the end. Make that final sentence or phrase memorable.
A climactic close can be especially powerful if you have used humour throughout your speech or presentation. The contrast is deliberately dramatic, and reinforces that you are deadly serious about the subject, even though you have taken a light-hearted approach
Here's a couple of famous examples of climactic closes.
Many of Sir Winston Churchill’s most famous sayings were the climaxes to his speeches. When informing the nation about the fall of France and presenting the grim outlook for the people of Britain, he roused them to defiance with the following climactic words:
“If we can stand up to him (Hitler) all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands; but if we fail, the whole world, including the United States … will sink into the abyss of a new dark age …. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bearourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’ ”
Nelson Mandela's finished his closing statement from the dock at his trial in 1964 trial by saying:
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
When General George Patton gave a pep talk to his troops prior to the Normandy Landings, he echoed the sentiments (if not the words) placed in Henry V’s mouth by Shakespeare on the eve of the battle of Agincourt by saying:
“There's one great thing you men can say when it's all over and you're home once more. You can thank God that twenty years from now, when you're sitting around the fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the war, you won't have to shift him to the other knee, cough, and say, "I shovelled shit in Louisiana"
And finally, how can anyone who has listened to Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech’ forget its rousing climax? (This manages to combine the retorical techniques ANAPHORA, ALLITERATION, PARALLELISM and DIACOPE in a single sentence – surely a record! see 'Rhetorical Techniques' for these and many more rhetorical techniques.)
“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”