The Call-Back: A Comedy Technique for Speeches

The Call-Back

Would you like a simple speech technique that will create a closer connection with your audience, help them remember your material, and possibly get a laugh?

Try using the “call-back.”

The call-back is a stand-up comedy term that means to refer to an earlier joke that got a laugh.

For example, at a recent Humor Mill Toastmasters meeting, Dennis Carney, a local stand-up comedian, had a piece about performing in Las Vegas.  He talked about how exciting it was to see his name on billboards and on the side of every fifth or sixth cab that went by.  “Of course, it wasn’t my real name.  It was my stage name: Prime Rib $9.95.”  That punch line, which he delivered better than I am describing, got a good laugh.  Later, he told another story about being in Las Vegas, and having a cop knock on his door.  When he answered the door, the cop addressed him as “Mr. Rib.”  That call-back to the previous joke got another laugh.

A call-back in a speech does not have to refer back to something funny in order to be an effective call-back.  It does need to refer back to something that will connect emotionally with the audience.  You can call-back to a previous story in your own presentation or to something that occurred previously at an event (something that happened or something that another speaker said that created an emotional experience).

The call-back can be an effective closing summary technique if you have structured your speech with a story for each main point.  In closing, you can refer briefly to the story and connect that with the story’s point. For example, in one speech, I have a story about how difficult my mother was when she was ill, but how I learned to “listen from my heart” as she lay dying.  At the end of the speech, I call-back to that story: “From my mother I learned to listen from my heart.”

Using the call-back to refer to something that happened or what someone said prior to your speech creates a connection with your audience because that comment is unique for them and shows you were paying attention.  (Tip for Toastmasters: this can be a very effective Table Topics technique).

Pay attention for moments that you can call-back to connect with your audience!

Create Winning Speech Habits: Don’t “Tell on Yourself”

habitsAfter finishing his speech, the young man, a high school senior in his school’s senior speech contest, rolled his eyes, shook his head and pursed his lips in that self-loathing attitude that communicates to others “I’m a little disgusted with how my speech went.”  He clearly knew that he hadn’t given his best performance.  And, so did the audience. Funny thing is that’s what I remember most about his speech—it was the very last thing he communicated.

One of the most important lessons I learned about giving a speech—don’t communicate negative feelings about your performance at the end—I didn’t learn while giving a speech.  I learned it in karate.

Part of karate training at the karate school I attended (and eventually earned my second degree black belt through in my mid-40’s), included performing forms (specified sequences of movements) “tournament style” as if we would be competing. Let’s just say I wasn’t very good and I knew it.  Early on, sometimes part-way through the form and often at the end, I would roll my eyes and sigh in disgust at my performance.  My karate instructor grit his teeth when I did that and one day told me, “Don’t tell on yourself!  If you mess up, just keep going, without reacting to it.  People might not even notice if you make mistakes.  Plus you will look more confident.”

Later, as I began to help others with their own forms, I realized that another problem with “telling on yourself” was that it could become a habit.  Any behavior, good or bad, repeated often enough will become a habit.

“Winning is a habit.  Unfortunately, so is losing.”—Vince Lombardi

So, when you are speaking, focus not on yourself, but on your audience and don’t “tell on yourself.”

Create the habit of a winning attitude.

Ending Your Speech with a Call-to-Action

When you give a speech, you want your audience to think, feel or do something differently than before, right? Even if your speech is primarily informative in nature, don’t you want your audience to do something with the new information? Don’t you want them to consider your ideas and apply them in some way?

In my opinion, almost every speech needs some sort of call-to-action. If I have somehow been changed by a speaker, I want to DO something about it.  The speaker does me a great favor by telling me what to do!

But don’t just commando in a call-to-action at the end of your speech.  You may have captivated your audience with your speech, but if you drop a call-to-action in out of the blue, they will feel like they’ve been taken prisoner by a poser, someone who seemed to be authentic until the end. You need to build up to a call-to-action with both logic and emotion. An effective call to action is the crescendo of your speech.

As you build toward that call-to-action in your conclusion, not only should you summarize the “logic” or main points, but you also should help your audience relive the powerful emotions they felt during a story or example earlier in your speech by referring back to it (or completing a story).  In many cases, giving your audience the exact next step to take is appropriate (“vote for me” “buy this program” “if you promise to never text while driving, stand with me”).

The basic steps to adding an effective call-to-action to your conclusion are these:

1. Transition from last point.

2. Summarize main points.

3. Pull the heart-strings.  Refer back to something in your speech that creates a strong emotion.

4. Call-to-Action

Craft your call-to-action statement with care.  Consider using rhetorical devices to create a memorable statement.

For example, at the end of President Kennedy’s inaugural address, he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”  Kennedy’s call to action was a call to altruism (collectivism)–to give more than to take.  He also used a reverse echo rhetorical device (reversed the words for a different meaning).

Your last words will probably be the first words your audience remembers, so give them a memorable call-to-action!

It’s a Wrap: Concluding Your Speech Completely

“Umm . . . I’m out of time.  So, I guess that’s all.  Thank you.”

We’ve all heard conclusions like that.  Maybe you’ve even done it yourself.  I call it the “aborted conclusion.”  Maybe that phrase, “aborted conclusion,” makes you feel uncomfortable because of the usual connotations of the word, “aborted.”  Good.  If you terminate your speech without a proper, complete conclusion, you have taken the life out of what might have been a unique, memorable experience for your audience.

Remember what you say last is most likely to be remembered best, so it is worth spending some time on your conclusion.  In fact, I suggest writing out your conclusion before you write the introduction.  Your conclusion should be the foundation that your speech rests upon.

A complete conclusion has 3 parts:
1.    A transition—Signal that you are closing.
You can use very obvious signals (which are better than nothing), such as:
In conclusion . . .
To sum up . . .
In closing . . .
Another way to transition is to simply pause, letting your final point sink in.  This is my preferred transition.  It doesn’t work in written communication very well, but it can be quite effective in a speech.
2.    A summary—Summarize your main points. Repetition is important for recall.
3.    A memorable closing statement—a call-to-action (for persuasive presentations), a quote, a very short story, bookending (tying back to the beginning) or encouragement/inspiration—related to the key message of your speech.  This is also a great time to use a call-back (referring back to a humorous bit).

Here’s an example from a speech that I gave at a Toastmasters demo meeting:

Last point: Tone of voice is important in communication, but body language is even more important.
Transition:  Long pause
Summary:  In order to be effective communicators, we not only have to pay attention to our words, but we also have to think about our voice and our body language, too!  Effective communication combines the three V’s—Visual, Vocal and Verbal for maximum effect.

Toastmasters is a great place to develop these skills!

Closing statement (which, in this case referenced an opening story):You may not change the world with your words, but you can change YOUR world. Change your world with Toastmasters!

If you offer a Q&A session, end the session with a second memorable closing statement.  Don’t just end by answering the last question.  Your ending is too important to leave it hanging on a question.  Leave time for a final statement to wrap things up.

What about saying “thank you” at the end of a speech?  There are conflicting opinions on this, so I’ll just give you my take.  It depends on the situation.  For a Toastmaster speech, the custom is to not say “Thank you.”  You typically end a Toastmaster speech with, “Mr. (or Madam) Toastmaster.”  For almost all other business speeches, especially sales presentations, ending with “thank you” is usual and customary.  You could insert your “thank you” just before your final words, too, as in “Thank you for your attention.  I hope you will use these tools of success to build a more prosperous life!”

The tools of success to build a strong conclusion are: transition, summary, closing.  Craft them with care and leave your audience with a message that lingers.

Bookending Your Speech: Tying the Introduction to the Conclusion

Bookending a speechBookends are designed to “buttress, or to support an upright row of books.” Usually, bookends also are a matched, mirror image set, providing visual balance.  Bookending your speech means that your speech introduction and conclusion support your speech in a way that provides balance.  You “close the circle” for your audience, wrapping up your speech in a neat package.

Here are 5 ways you can bookend a speech:

  1. End by referencing your opening.  Refer back to what you started with (movie, words, quote).
  2. Contrast concepts.  Like mirror-image bookends, your concluding words can contrast with your opening words.
  3. Ask a question/answer a question.  Open with a question.  Answer the question at the end.
  4. Use the same visual.  Use the same PowerPoint slide or the same prop.

Example:

Opening:  I held up a photograph of an actor portraying Frankenstein’s Creature and said, “Frankenstein’s Creature is a well-known image in popular culture—a grotesque monster—staggering and grunting like a simpleton.  However, that is a gross misrepresentation of creature as originally created.”

Closing:  I held up the same photograph and said, “Frankenstein’s creature was no simpleton.  I leave you with the question–Who really is the monster in this story?  The creature, its creator, or society?”

5. Story.  This is my favorite bookending method.  Start your speech with a story, but cut it off at the climax.  Close with the finish to the story.  This approach also keeps your audience’s attention.  People want to know how the story ends!  Just remember that the story has to be relevant to your speech content.  You can even weave the story throughout your speech.

Longer example (for a speech about dealing with difficult people):

Opening: I handed the old woman the Arby’s bag. She peered into it.  “But I asked for a Big Roast Beef Sandwich!”

“It IS the Big Roast Beef Sandwich.”

The old woman scowled and held up the sandwich for inspection.  “But I wanted the really big one.  This is puny!”

“Oh. . . .The choices were Big, Bigger and Biggest.  I just got what you asked for.  You said you wanted a Big Roast Beef Sandwich.”

“But, that’s not what I MEANT!”

I was frustrated. The old woman was cranky.  She was demanding.  She was . . . my mother. 

Middle:  I continue the story when I talk about having empathy with “difficult people.”  I reveal that my mother was struggling with a terminal illness.  I make the point about “listening from your heart.”

Ending: I finish the story about my mom by relating our last conversation, the day before she died, reinforcing the theme of “listening from your heart.” The speech ends with a variation on a quote from the book The Little Prince and an inspirational call to action:

As I walked out the door, I heard her voice, almost inaudible: 

“Di?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“I love you, Di.”

That was what was unfinished.  The words of love.    Those were the last words she said to me.  She died the next day. 

My mother listened with her heart and heard what I didn’t say.  What I didn’t even know I needed to hear.  They were the words in my heart that she heard with her heart.  They were a gift.  She was a gift.

In the book, The Little Prince, one of the characters says that

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

I might change that to be:

It is only with the heart that one can hear rightly; what is essential is inaudible to the ear.

Listen from your heart and as you face conflict this year, and you will, try to look for the growth opportunity.  Every conflict, every difficult person, comes with a gift, if you look hard enough for it.

Give your audience the gift of bookending your speech!

 

Opening and Closing your Speech with Jokes

Wouldn’t you love to get your audience laughing at the start of your speech or leave them laughing at the end?

Jokes can do the job, but use them with caution!  If you are using someone else’s material, you need to give credit.  The joke needs to be relevant to your presentation  (I hate it when presenters just tell a joke for a laugh, but it has nothing to do with their topic or the audience). Don’t tell offensive jokes.

Top tips on practicing and telling jokes:

1. Use funny material.  Did you laugh when you heard it?  Did other people laugh?

2. Remember it.  Record it.

If you just heard a joke and want to remember it, try writing it down right away.  You can also tell it into your cell phone’s voice recorder, which also gives you your first shot at telling it!

Save it in a joke file on your computer.  Or, if you have a blog, use it in your blog, but make sure it is relevant to your topic.

3. Rehearse it. 

I suggest starting out with short jokes—a short set up and then a punch line.  For longer jokes, visualize all the characters as you practice the joke.  Use body language as appropriate (moving your body will help you remember).  Practice the pacing. Don’t rush it. Remember to pause a little before and after the punch line.

Set up . . . (pause) . . . punchline . . . (pause)

If people laugh after the punch line, pause long enough to allow them to laugh.  Don’t step on the laughs.  Milk the laughs with your reaction—just don’t say anything.  Let your body and face do the talking!

If people don’t laugh after you have paused for a couple of seconds, you have a couple of options:

Option A:  If it was very obviously a joke, you can make a self-deprecating comment such as, “Well, my cat thought it was funny.”

Option B: Just move on.  Don’t react at all.

4. Practice in front of others. Practice on friends and family.  They will love you even if you bomb.   Nothing takes the place of practicing in front of others.   Record yourself if possible.  If someone laughs even a little, you can build on that.  Maybe you can punch it up with attitude and body language or just change a single word.

“Words with a ‘k’ in it are funny. Alkaseltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a ‘k’. ‘L’s are not funny. ‘M’s are not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomatoes is not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber’s funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny — not if you get ‘em, only if you say ‘em.”

said by a character in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys

 5. Sell it!  Tell the joke with ATTITUDE.  You must be very sure of the content, the order, the timing and most especially, the punch line.  If in doubt, keep it out!

Try out some jokes–it does get easier with practice!

Stories: Opening and Closing Your Speech with a Story

Stories are my personal favorite way to open a speech.  Stories touch our emotions and linger in our mind. Stories are a powerful way to captivate and connect.

Stories captivate us because we think in stories.  We can’t help it!

“Stories fill our lives in the way that water fills the lives of fish.”~Steve Denning

Stories connect because stories touch our emotions.  Tell stories that elicit one or more of the 7 basic emotions:  happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, contempt or surprise.

Stories also connect because they are concrete.  We create visual images in our own brains when someone tells us a story.  Stories create a virtual mind meld

And, perhaps most importantly, people remember stories! In the book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the authors tell a story about a class that one of them teaches.  Bottom line: Stories get remembered about 13 times better than statistics. Facts tell, but stories sell!

Also, when you place a story at the beginning or end of your speech, you also are taking advantage of of the primacy and recency effect of memory.  We remember best what we hear at the beginning and ending of information.

9 tips for storytelling:

1.  Use a storytelling format that leaves your listeners leaning forward.  A story usually only is interesting if there is CONFLICT.  Here is a standard story format:

(Main character) is in (Circumstance/setting) and needs to (Goal), but faces (obstacles/opponents) when (Climax/conflict at a high point) until (resolution—obstacle or opponents are overcome).

2.  Don’t always make yourself the hero in a story.  People will think you are arrogant.  Some of the most effective and endearing stories are when the teller discloses some personal flaw (but don’t get uncomfortably personal).  You can also reveal your own character (which is a quick way to build trust and intimacy) in your stories where you learn a lesson from someone else or are a supporting character.

3.  Ditch the back-story.  Provide just enough background to make the story relevant or understandable.  Get to the conflict as quickly as possible.

4. Don’t provide all of the details.  Let your listeners fill in some of the details with their own imaginations.  As the 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking, Craig Valentine says, “People buy-in to what they create.”

5. Limit narration.  Use just enough narration to set up dialogue.  Dialogue is the heart of an engaging oral story.  Make your characters come alive through dialogue.

7.  Be dramatic—the number one drama tool in storytelling:  the dramatic pause. Pause a couple of seconds before a climatic situation to heighten the feeling of anticipation.  “To be or not to be?”  (pause, pause)  “That is the question.”

8. Use primarily your own, personal stories!  They are uniquely yours, even if you are relating a common experience.  Especially good ones can be your signature stories. However, I am partial to using stories from popular movies to set the stage or provide an ending to a speech. But be careful in using stories from other sources (if you do, give credit).  They can be overdone. Please, please don’t tell The Starfish Story.

9. Act it out!  Let your facial expressions convey emotions. Get your body into the story.  Don’t just say “we pushed the car out of the ditch,” but actually act out at least the hand gesture of pushing.

To improve your storytelling ability, think “don’t tell, show.”  People will remember what they see more than what you say.

Tell a story!

How to Use Quotes and Poems to Open and Close Your Speech

The audience gazed in anticipation as I stood before them holding a large black cloth draped over my arm.  Then I threw the black cloth over my head.  After a brief pause, I quoted the opening lines of an Emily Dickinson poem:

“I’m nobody. Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?”

I then paused, and removed the cloth and continued with the rest of my speech.  The speech was about noticing the people around us.  It was for a Toastmaster contest several years ago.  I didn’t win (I think shrouding my head and face not only might have broken my eye contact with the audience, but also might have been too contrived).  However, quoting the poem, one of Emily Dickinson most famous poems, was a hit!

If you use a poem or quote to open or close your speech, you can inspire, motivate or challenge people with someone else’s words.  If the quote or poem is famous (and not too long!), you can tap into the audiences memories and associations with the words and transport them to the message of your speech in a powerfully moving way. The words may carry an emotional charge beyond their meaning.  For me the Emily Dickinson poem, “I’m Nobody” transports me to when I was a nobody in junior high school, and frankly, rather liked being a nobody.

The internet makes it easy to find quotes and poems!  Here are just a couple of sources:

Search for quotes by topic at Brainy Quotes.

Search for poems by topic at Poem Hunter.

Here are a few guideline for using a poem or quote:

  1. Short. Generally use short excerpts from longer works.
  2. Relevant. It must be relevant to your message.
  3. Attributed. Give credit.  If the author is unknown, you can say, “Someone once said . . .”  Don’t say the author is “Anon” (Anon= anonymous.  This is probably obvious to almost everyone, but I was at a high school speech contest and two of the contestants said their quote was by “Anon”)
  4. Pause. Pause before and pause after the quote, to give people time to absorb it.
  5. Practice!  You are using someone else’s words which may trip up your tongue if you don’t practice.

A fine quotation is a diamond on the finger of a witty person, but a pebble in the hands of a fool.  ~Author Unknown

How to Engage Your Audience with Questions

Why start and sometimes end your speech with questions?

Questions engage your audience by causing them to think.   Questions can tap into prior knowledge.  Questions can challenge assumptions.  Questions can be used as a bridge to the next segment of your presentation. Questions take your audience from passive listeners to engaged participants.

Here’s the top mistake that some speakers make when asking questions:  they don’t personalize the question. If you want to make your audience members feel as if you are speaking to them individually, use the specific  “you “and “your”  and not the general “anyone” or “anybody”  when you ask questions.

Say, “Do you want to make more money?”  and not,  “Does anyone here want to make more money?

Let’s look at two basic types of questions:  rhetorical and response.

Rhetorical Questions. A rhetorical  question is a thought-provoking question for which you do not actually want a response.  A rhetorical question can arouse curiosity and motivate people to try to answer the question, causing them to pay close attention to what you say next.  So, if I start a speech with “What does it mean to be human?”  I am using the question as a set-up.  I might even follow it with a series of rhetorical questions, “Does it mean . . .? Does it mean . . .? Does it mean . . .?” that I then answer in the course of the speech.   I might even end with a rhetorical question, “So, are you merely going to be a human being or are you going to be human?”

You can also use rhetorical questions as story openers to set the stage for a story.  “Have you ever stood up to give a speech in front of 200 people, looked at the audience and had your mind go completely blank?  That’s what happened to me . . .”

Audience Response Questions.  Here are a few types of questions that require a response:

  1. Raised hands. You can handle this by stating, “Raise your hand if you . . .” Or, “By a show of hands  . . .(and then raise your hand up high to encourage hand raising).  You can also just ask the question, “Have you ever . . . ?” and gesture to the audience with an open hand before you raise your hand.  The open hand appeal invites them to answer and the raised hand models what you want them to do. It helps to nod at the audience while you ask the question.

 2. Audience members answer.  Let’s say you want to have an audience member or two actually answer the question.  This can be risky, especially near the beginning and I don’t suggest it as on opening move if you haven’t already established rapport. Even if you have a good audience connection, make sure it is an easy question and extend your open hand toward the audience as you ask it.  What if nobody answers the question?  Definitely be prepared for that possibility.  You could seed the audience ahead of time with one or two people who will answer.  You could make eye-contact with someone, raise your eyebrows and extend your hand directly at the person and ask him or her specifically to answer (only do this if the person’s body language indicates high engagement).  You could say something funny like, “I’m not going to grade your answer!” which will loosen people up.

3. Audience echo.  This takes guts and practice, but can be extremely memorable when used throughout the speech and at the end.  Let’s say you have a short foundational phrase or even a single word for your speech that you want people to remember.  You can repeat the phrase or word several times as an answer to a question and then have the audience respond with the phrase or word when you ask the question.

For example, if I were giving a speech on sales attitude and I wanted to get the idea across that you can’t dwell on rejection; I might have a foundational word, “Next!”   I would probably tell 3 short stories illustrating 3 common sales situations in which I use the phrase “Next!” At the end of each story, I would have the audience practice saying “Next!” in response to a question related to that story.  At the end, I would wrap up with the same 3 questions, one right after another, gesturing to the audience as a cue to say “Next!”   And then make a concluding call to action using the foundational word/phrase.  “What do you say when you can’t get past the gatekeeper? . . . (audience) Next!  What do you say when someone says “No”? . . . (audience) Next!   What do you say when you want to quit? . . . (audience) Next!  Don’t dwell on the past, but look to the future and say,  . . .“Next!”(audience response)\

For your next presentation, engage your audience with questions!