When I’m presenting to a large audience, I have three internal states:
“I’m screwed.” I have not yet begun the presentation, but I’m imminently starting. This phase sucks. Every possible screw-up I’ve ever performed or could perform is running through my mind and my gut instinct is a sensible “just fucking run for it”. This state does not end when I walk up on stage and begin talking. In fact, this phase doesn’t end until…
“I’m really just glad that I don’t appeared to be screwed.” After a few minutes, after I’ve stepped through the introductory slides, gotten the audience to laugh once, and have a sense of the room, I pass into the second state, which is a presentation steady state. I’m still operating at very high nervous energy because I’m a nerd introvert standing in front of a room full of strangers, but I’ve had enough success that I believe I can make this presentation happen. My practice has paid off and this is the state I operate in until…
“The end.” After all of the build-up of all potential screw-ups, plus my very high energy, and the multiple sleepless nights that led into this presentation, this final state used to show up with a calming sense of relief: “Whew, I’m like three slides away from escaping the firing squad. Didn’t think I’d make it without taking a header off the back of the stage.” I take a deep breath and then race towards the ending, and when I get there, I blast by it and stand there lamely wondering why everyone isn’t clapping. The room is full of exactly four seconds of dead air. What happened?
Either the audience did not know I was at the end, or maybe they had no idea what I just said, or worse, they had no idea what was important.
The End of the Beginning
The sister studied communications in college, and one break she returned full of interesting points about the construction of movies. A point that stuck: a movie has a well-defined point when the beginning is over. The main character has been introduced, the dramatic premise has been established, the dramatic situation around the premise has been constructed, and with a single defining action, the scene changes, and you’re done with the beginning.
Try it. Next time you’re watching a movie, watch for when the beginning has ended. Be warned, once you start, it’s hard to stop. It’s been years since I learned about the endings of beginnings and I still compulsively measure for when the beginning has ended.
We spend a lot of time worrying about the importance of beginnings: first impressions, great opening lines, or the perfect handshake. The theory is that a huge amount of context regarding a person, place, situation, or thing just shows up in the first few seconds of interaction. I buy that because people like to believe they understand what is going on long before they do, and with experience, sometimes they actually do.
A good beginning grabs your attention. The great opener elegantly and simply explains why you should listen. The well-played handshake instantly physically connects you to a person. Any of these beginnings, well executed, focuses you on the task ahead of you and asks you to listen, but what have you actually learned? Nothing. All a good beginning does is open you up to possibility.
The bulk of learning comes in the middle of the story and there’s a lot to be said for great middles. The middle is the bulk of the plot of your life, it’s the meat of the conversation, and it explains the intent described by the beginning, but I don’t think middles are easy to screw up. I think we’re inclined to explain our agenda, but I think we’re undervaluing the power of the ending.
You sit down for coffee at Philz with a co-worker. Your go-to beginning with co-workers is something lame and innocuous like, “How was the weekend?” It’s a verbal handshake of a question intended to create a sense of familiarity. You have an agenda, he has an agenda, so you spend the middle wrangling through your agendas, making decisions, creating next steps.
Then, when the agendas are all done, there’s a pause where each of you is clear that you’re somewhere near the ending. Like the way I used to close a presentation, I finish these types of meetings with a hurried declaration of “cool”. But inside of that “cool” I’m making some massive and incorrect assumptions, including:
- The idea that every single thing important to me is at the front of your mind.
- Every action we’ve agreed upon is clearly assigned and ready to go.
- Everything that was a professional issue that arose between us during this time (unless otherwise flagged) is fully resolved.
“Cool” covers none of this. “Cool” is just another crap ending.
A good ending, whether it’s a meeting, a presentation, or an article:
- Introduces itself, invites the audiences to the stage, and acknowledges receipt.
- Reminds everyone what was actually important.
- Says one more thing.
An introduction, an invitation, an acknowledgement. Whether you’re filming a movie, running a meeting, or writing a presentation, each is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The first responsibility of the end is to remind everyone involved what parts of the story we’re supposed to care about and you need to tell them when the ending has begun.
The introduction of the ending varies depending on the medium. In a presentation, I stop before my ending and count five alligators and pace. In those alligators, the audience wonders, however briefly, “Did he forget where he was? Did he lock up?” I didn’t. I just wanted your attention before I told, “Everything important that just happened is about to happen again. Quickly.”
With their attention in hand, you need to change perspective. What was the point of this speech, meeting, or article was yours — now it needs to be theirs. A good ending is a selfless act where you put everything important squarely in the audience’s lap. Whatever your point was, it’s now their point, their lesson, their view of the story. The invitation is a question: “How can I make this theirs?”
Do you have a friend who sucks at goodbyes? You stand up, walk to the front of the bar, shake hands, and they walk off. You stand there with a strange emptiness, wondering, “Did anything we just talk about actually matter?” Of course it did. You’ve known them for years and they listen hard and they debate hard, so what happened? They suck at goodbyes, at endings. The last part of an ending is deceptively simple; it’s the audience acknowledging, “Yes, we heard you”. They clap (or they don’t), they repeat the most important part, or they sit there, tilting their heads slightly to the left with a half-grin, and psychically project: “Yes, I understood what you just said.” The act acknowledges receipt of the ending and you’ve got to ask for it.
A reminder. As I write, I find myself staring at the beginning of a lot of endings. I’m clearly at the ending because the last thing I said was the last thing I wanted to say and I’m now staring at nothing. The easiest trick in the book regarding the absence of an ending is to look at your beginning. It’s likely been long enough for both you and your audience that a quick repeat of the beginning is just the thing to starting an ending, but it’s just a start. You said some important things in the middle, too. How about synthesis of that, too? Yeah, that’s looking good.
Ok, throw it away.
A pure repeat of the high points of the beginning and the middle is a total cop-out. You need to find a different way to say the same thing. It’s a different story, a slightly different perspective. Sure, you can use the same pictures or bullet points, but the words that you use need to be different. What you really need is…
One more thing. The beauty of a good ending is that you can’t find it until you’ve written, spoken, or built a good part of your beginning and middle. For me, that’s the high in building a thing — the moment of clarity when you’re hopelessly lost somewhere in the middle and you suddenly discover the slide, the paragraph, or the design that immediately and simply encompasses everything you’ve just been trying to say. You need to save that discovery for the end.
The ending compliments the size and type of story. If you’re drunk with Paul in the bar, the ending is small and it’s social. I’m shaking his hand… with both hands because we talked about some shit and while I won’t remember any of it, I want us both to remember that we did. The email ending is written and deliberate. If I sign this ‘Sincerely’, I will obliterate everything important I just wrote. So, I will choose “In related news, you rule…” The meeting ending is more formal. The action items aren’t world changing, but your ending, the reminder that we actually love working here, explains to everyone that there is no crap work when you’re doing what you love.
If your ending feels empty, perhaps you haven’t said anything. Perhaps you have no story to tell or perhaps you don’t what what that story is, yet. If your ending is full, if your ending is an invitation to remember what’s clearly important, and if your ending leaves them with just a little extra, you’ve succeeded, it’s a story told.
One more thing. Remember, they never remember the beginning. They only remember how it ended.