The closing of a speech should be “stirring, inspirational, and upbeat,” says Robert Rackleff, former Jimmy Carter speechwriter.
“Even if the speech has scared the hell out of everybody with gloom and doom, you should always try to leave the audience with hope that salvation is possible.”
Here are some of Rackleff’s ways to dress up the ending.
An appropriate joke can let the audience relax and renew its attention to your remarks. “A laugh or a chuckle here can help signal the end of the body of a speech, and lets the audience shift gears for the rest of the ending.” One of Rackleff’s favorites: “I might want to show I’m smart enough to know when I’ve taken up enough time with this comment from the opera composer Rossini: ‘Richard Wagner has wonderful moments, but awful quarter hours.’”
2. Personal anecdote
“Ronald Reagan played this tune constantly. Each State of the Union address became an occasion for him to acknowledge what he called American Heroes. These were people he would single out for praise as living, breathing proof of how correct his policies were.” An anecdote might also reveal the personal association of the speaker to the industry group he or she is addressing, or the city where the speech is delivered.
“You figuratively turn the coin over and describe what will happen if you don’t do something—or if we do something that is both dramatically different and effective.” One succinct example: a quotation Rackleff has used in arguing for more spending for education, as an investment in savings elsewhere. “It comes from Derek Bok, president of Harvard: ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.’ That makes people stop and think.”
Rackleff describes this as “selling the sizzle.” “Coca-Cola doesn’t advertise carbonated, sugared water, it sells a way of life. Philip Morris doesn’t sell Benson & Hedges nicotine delivery systems, it sells lounging around, drinking fine wines, with sophisticated, good-looking people. Those are outcomes, motivators, and they’re what really count with people.” Whatever you’re proposing, end your speech by re-emphasizing its importance to your audience and how it will make their lives better.
5. The right word
Look for the word or phrase which crystallizes thoughts and moves people to action. When Franklin Roosevelt went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Japan, he marked out the phrase a day which will live in history, which his speechwriter had written, and wrote, a day which will live in infamy. “Infamy,” Rackleff repeats for emphasis. “That was the perfect word to express what had happened at Pearl Harbor.”
A more modem example comes from the Carter-Reagan debates: “At the end of his debate with President Carter, during his summation, Reagan asked the audience a simple question: ‘Are you any better off now than you were four years ago?’ That simple question crystallized the public’s fears, frustrations, and anger with President Carter, and the opinion polls showed a dramatic shift away from him the next day.”
A stirring, evocative, eloquent quotation can provide a lift that sends the audience out ready for action. If a speech has an appeal to conscience, for example, Rackleff uses this quotation from Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, then who will be? But if I am only for myself, then who am I?” Try for a quotation that will evoke strong emotions in your audience. It’s worth the effort.
This article first appeared on Ragan.com in Nov. 2011.