It is imperative to state up front the message of intent of your speech to give the audience something to grasp. I once gave a speech with a surprise ending: the apparent “speaker” was actually my dog—the entire speech was from the perspective of my dog reading a letter to us, his owners. I chose not to let the audience in on the surprise as I meandered through the story. I forced the revelation onto the audience as my last action in the hopes of a climatic conclusion. It did not illicit the reaction I had intended. Using this speech in a Toastmasters club contest with only two other competitors, I finished in third place. The feedback I received was that although audiences like surprises, twists, and turns with storylines (these keep listeners interested and engaged), audiences rarely like having the walk-away message and theme sprung upon them with no warning.
Audiences enjoy surprises within a story, but they still want to understand how these surprises relate to the overall message. I found that waiting until the end, unfortunately, made my audience think too hard trying to guess the next twist or understand what I was trying to convey. Springing your message on a group at the end of your speech typically won’t work; it becomes too heavy for the audience to absorb in one sitting. An audience wants the key points of a message supported with stories that become memorable days, weeks, and even months after the presentation.
My original dog story was nice, but rambled before it got to the eventual message I wanted the audience to absorb: to support adopting rescue animals. The message was also supposed to be simple. Unfortunately, it got lost in my attempt to surprise. The actual surprise was on me, because I lost my audience and never got them back. However, I was lucky enough to move on to the next competition because of scheduling conflicts for the other speakers, and I quickly revamped the introduction and body of the speech. I stopped worrying about surprising the audience and made the message obvious. This time, the audience was able to clearly see the intended message from the outset.
Once the audience had a chance to grasp the message, they could then enjoy the story and anecdotes more. The reinforced message left them with two actions to consider: either adopting a rescue animal or finding ways to support the Humane Society. The speech became one of my stronger competitive speeches, and I reached the Toastmasters District 45 Finals. I learned two lessons: First, clear messages and actions are a must for effective speeches. Audiences want to clearly understand the message as soon as possible and know what action is being asked of them. Second, the changes needed to make this happen are not as hard as you think. Go back to some of your past work, and see if a little re-working can change the whole presentation. The facelift I gave my original speech was simply a matter of reorganizing the structure with a clear message rather than rewriting the entire presentation.
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):
- Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
- Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
- Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
- The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
- From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
- The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood
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