TEDx Talk: Never Laugh at Live Dragons

I’m excited to finally be able to share this video of my TEDx presentation last year in Hickory, NC.  Unfortunately, due to a number of technical issues apparently caused by my appearance on the stage, it took the team a long time to get the video to its current state of mediocrity.  But, you can see and hear it well enough to get the point.

It’s a fun excursion into the power of stories, and what they can mean to the tellers and the listeners.


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TEDx Talk

What’s the Best Way to End It All?

Now THAT's the way to do it!

Courtesy of Jonny Goldstein (flickr)

I realize, of course, that the title of this post is a touch morbid.

And, considering the scary uses to which Google gets put on a daily basis, I probably ought to change it.

But I won’t.

If you’re reading this article for any reason other than to learn how to create and deliver spectacular conclusions in your speeches, please hang in there.  It gets better, I promise.  As a matter of fact, just keep reading.  If I bring a smile to your face, you have over 100 other articles here that can do the same!

How important is an effective conclusion?

As a speech writer, I focus about 80% of my time on crafting effective introductions and conclusions for speeches.  And of THAT time, I spend about 60% of the time working on the conclusion.

In other words, if you’re spending $800 having me write your speech, about $384 is going toward your conclusion.  That’s just a hair under half my effort!

Why is it so important?

The answer is very simple:

The last thing your audience hears is often the first thing they remember.

So, when you’re putting your speech together, you need to be very clear about what it is you want your audience to walk away with.  That needs to be the basis of your conclusion and the focus of the speech that leads to the conclusion.

How to conclude a speech effectively

There are a few ways to conclude a speech effectively, depending on the circumstances and the subject matter:

  1. The Summary – This is probably the standby, and it’s most often the best method there is.  Basically, your conclusion consists of a quick review of the main points of your speech.  This is especially effective for longer speeches (more than 10 minutes) where a number of points were highlighted and you want your audience to walk away remembering those points specifically.  Remember, this must be handled with some flair, or it becomes a boring rehash of previous material.
  2. The Unveiling – In some cases, the purpose of a speech is to lead up to a climactic unveiling.  This works especially well in circumstances where the audience will be directly involved in using the item or service being unveiled, or where the unveiling is the introduction of the next speaker, a special guest or celebrity of some kind.  In this case, the speech should be relatively short (5 minutes or less) and should be slowly ramping up to the climax, to end in wild applause as the person or product is unveiled.
  3. The Thought-provoker – This works really well if your speech is on a heavy subject (global warming, a recent tragedy) because, while keeping the mood appropriate, it provides that little flair that sticks in the mind of the listener after you’ve left the stage.  A great way to accomplish this is to pepper the speech with powerful statistics followed by questions as to their meaning, then end with a similar, but expanded question.  (i.e. After noting a few examples of the effects of climate change on various places around the world, and what people in that area have or haven’t done about it, conclude with a shocking statistic or two about the local area.  Then conclude with the open-ended “what are YOU going to do about it?” question.)

Of course, there are at least a dozen other more obscure and specialized methods that will work for various situations, but these “big three” cover a lot of ground and are worthy of review the next time you’re looking to “end it all”.

So tell me, have you ever had a speech conclusion fall flat?  Ever manage to really nail it?  Let’s discuss in the comments!


Justin P Lambert is a professional speech writer and content marketing specialist who focuses on the audience with every word he crafts.  If you’re going to give a speech that could be important to your life and career, he can help you plan, write, polish and deliver it in the most effective way possible.  If you liked this article, you may be interested in these other selections from the Public Speaking University series.

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Just Shut Your Mouth

Courtesy of Purple Raiine (flickr)

Have you ever had the pleasure of being cornered by a non-stop talker?

You know the type: barely pausing to breathe between statements, seeming to have a long, drawn-out opinion on just about every topic imaginable, and completely oblivious to your building desire to scream,


We’ve all been there.  And because of that, it may not come as a surprise to learn that public speakers sometimes suffer from the same bad habit.

Don’t think your audience feels any different than you do in that situation if you get up on stage and start spouting words of wisdom, non-stop for thirty minutes.

When faced with that sort of barrage of ideas, the human brain has a very effective defense mechanism set up and in place, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.

It’s called tuning out.

If you’re speaking non-stop, barreling through your speech at Mach 4, your audience is going to tune you out within minutes.  They’re going to be thinking about what they’re going to eat for lunch today, whether or not they turned the toaster off, who that pretty new girl at the Starbuck’s was… anything but what you’re talking about.

Sure, they might tune back in now and then, catch a few phrases, maybe even take a note or two if it’s appropriate.  But if you’re still pushing ahead without noticing their disinterest, they’re just going to tune out again.

Like a guy lounging on the couch, clicking the remote, you’re just one of 150 channels they need to scan trying to find something interesting.

In effect, what they’re doing is inserting their own pauses in your speech.

Did you catch that?  Because it’s important.

They are inserting their own pauses in your speech.

So, logically, how can you disarm this potent mental defense?

By pausing for them.

You see, to keep command of your audience, you need to give them a chance to stay with you.  You need to anticipate where they may start to tune out and help them not to do it.


Well, there are plenty of things you can do to keep things interesting, and we’ve talked about some of them already.  But one of the most important things you can do is to pause at appropriate times during your speech to make sure your audience is still with you.

So how do you do it?

Brief pauses should come naturally with practice and relaxation.

At the same points where a written message would contain commas, periods or paragraph breaks, a good speaker will put brief but noticeable pauses in, just as we generally do when we’re speaking to each other face-to-face.

Preparing your speech well enough to get up there and speak naturally is a goal of any public speaker.

But there are other reasons to insert meaningful pauses into your speech.  Here are a few to consider:

  1. For a change of thought: When combined with the effective use of transitional phrases, such as “Next, consider this” or “point number two is”, a significant pause works well to mark the point where one main point has been covered and you are moving into the next.  This pause silently tells the audience, “that’s it for that point, tie a bow on it and set it aside, we’re moving on.”  If anyone is taking notes, they’ll love you for this.  Just make sure not to make the pause awkwardly long or people will wonder if it was just a really bad conclusion.
  2. For emphasis: Dramatic pauses can do amazing things for emphasizing points you want to make.  For example, if your speech material includes a particularly powerful statistic, one that exemplifies the urgency of the solution you’re about to explain to your audience, don’t just blow right through it!  Lead up to the statistic, give it to them, then pause.  Long enough to look at one or two individuals specifically.  Just a second or two will allow that incredible nugget to sink down into their minds and memories.  Or, if you introduce your topic by means of a series of questions, a short buy poignant pause after each question allows the audience to actually ask themselves the question, mull it over a moment, and look forward to how your speech is going to answer it.  Because, now that they’ve had a moment to personalize the answer, they’re more vested in finding out why you asked the question!
  3. When circumstances require it: Hopefully, this won’t happen.  But, sometimes it does: some sort of disturbance erupts right in the middle of your speech.  Something that’s guaranteed to take your audience’s attention away from you.  Maybe a baby starts screaming, or someone’s loud and obnoxious cell phone goes off.  Maybe you choke on a swallow of water.  Awkward?  Possibly.  But it’s even more awkward for everyone involved if you try to ignore the fact that no one’s listening any more and you try to keep speaking as if nothing is happening.  Just pause for a few moments until attention comes back to you.  If what you have to say was important enough to get you on stage, it’s important enough to wait until the bozo turns off his phone.  Don’t embarrass anyone, just politely wait until the rest of your audience is back with you, then move on.

Have you ever had to sit through a speech where the speaker didn’t know how to pause?  How effective was he/she?  What other reasons for pausing can you think of?  Fill up the comments!

Timing is Everything, Even When You’re Giving a Speech

Courtesy of morguefile.com

While creating and delivering powerful introductions and conclusions is vital to the success of your speech, and all manner of little tricks and skills can greatly improve how you look, sound and feel on stage, it’s important that you don’t forget about some of the basics that your audience cares about.

For instance, dinner.

Or the movie they’re going to see tonight.

Or the next speaker on the program. You know, the one they actually came to hear…

It Comes Down to Timing

Just like many things in life, success with a speech will often come down to timing.

You see, if you’re a competent speaker (i.e. you pay attention to what your audience wants and needs to hear, and you give it to them with some personality,) you’re 90% of the way to walking off the stage to a standing ovation.

But, if you over-stay your welcome, you’ve lost them.

And if you bolt off the stage five minutes early because you blew through your presentation at Mach 4, you’ve also lost them.

It’s not just a matter of giving them what they want, it’s also a matter of serving it up in an appealing and appropriate way.

The Five-Hour Four-Star Dinner

Picture yourself eating dinner at a fancy-shmancy 4-star restaurant with a $60-per-plate minimum. No matter how fantastic the food is, would you enjoy it as much if the waiter brought you everything at once?

Shrimp cocktail, soup, salad, steak and cheesecake, all at the same time?

It’s also not fun to sit through a five-hour dinner because they’re giving you an hour between courses.

If you’re shelling out that kind of money, you’re automatically expecting the experience to be timed right.

Your speech is no different.

Everyone in your audience is spending the most valuable thing they have, their time, not to mention any money they may have plunked down if you’re speaking at a paid event.

In exchange, they’re automatically expecting not just stellar content, but excellent timing as well.

Don’t dissappoint them.

How Do You Do It?

Timing is a touchy thing because it’s fluid. A lot of factors can go into making sure your speech hits the right time span, and only some of them are in your control.

So, the first and foremost thing you can do is take care of those things that ARE in your control:

Write It Well - By writing the speech in such a way that you’re sure you can hit all of your key points with adequate emphasis, not short-changing anyone, and still keep it loose and engaging, all while keeping within your allotted time, you take away that scary rush that turns off an audience like a cold water firehose.

Practice - Once you’ve created a stellar speech that you know hits your points perfectly, you need to pull out the old stopwatch, stand in front of the mirror, and give it a go. Then again. Then again! Practice until you’re sure the timing isn’t going to be a problem. Not that you want to memorize to the point that you’re a robot on stage, but just to the point that you’re not going to feel the need to add five minutes of ad-libbed fluff to one section, then scrap the next one to make up for it.

Relax - When you’ve finally gotten to the point of getting up on stage, if you’re confident that the speech is written well and you’re as prepared as you can be, just relax. Nothing screws up your timing worse than a bad case of nerves. A relaxed speaker puts the audience at ease. A relaxed audience puts the speaker at ease. See how that works?

What’s Not In Your Control

You can’t control how well the other speakers on the program are at controlling THEIR timing. If one or more speakers before you has gone overtime and you’re speaking right before lunch, you may be asked to cut your speech short.

Sucks to be you.

But you know what? It’s your audience that matters. And you’re never going to successfully compete with a grumbling stomach.

So do what you have to do graciously and make sure everyone knows how to get a hold of you for more details later on.

Similarly, if other speakers have left you more time than you expected and you need to stretch things out a bit, don’t get nervous. This is a great opportunity to add back in a few interesting tidbits you had to nix in the writing phase, or maybe a personal anecdote or two.

Even better, if a Q&A is included in your timespan, give the extra time to your audience! They’ll love you for it!

You also can’t account for every little technical glitch you may run into.

If the projector blinks the blue screen of death in-between slides 17 and 18, make a joke, move seamlessly into slide 18′s content and do your best to stay on track while someone handles the snafu for you (hopefully!)

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this:

To achieve maximum effect, a speech needs to be timed right: long enough to satisfy your audience’s reasons for listening, but short enough to satisfy your audience’s interest in everything else in their life.

If you can accomplish that, they’ll invite you back.

What are your secrets for nailing the timing of your speeches? Any tips you can share in the comments?

Can You at Least Make it Look Like You Want to Be There?

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For obvious reasons, this guy’s not going to win any Toastmasters awards.

Hopefully, no matter how nervous, unprepared, or ill-at-ease you are speaking in front of people, you’re able to put forth a little more effort in two natural tools to improve your speech: warmth and enthusiasm.


Warmth refers to how appealing your voice and manner are to your audience.

Of course, it needs to be appropriate for your subject and your audience, but generally a warm speaker is going to smile, speak with understandable and appropriate emotion, and not scare anyone with weird eye contact or gestures.

It’s a matter of comfort level.

For instance, if you’re overly nervous when you give your speech, your voice will be tense, shaky, tight.  This puts across an uncomfortable, irritating vibe to your audience.  They’ll lose some or all of what you say behind the stammering, the throat-clearing, the lack of eye-contact.

It’s no fun to listen to, and it’s even tougher to learn from.

To generate warmth in your speech, try these pointers:

  • Smile: guaranteed to lighten your mood and your audience’s, plus it relaxes your face and throat, which relaxes your voice.  Try it! You’ll like it!
  • Breathe:  By breathing naturally, your voice will find it easier to move up and down in the natural speaking voice you use every day as opposed to the tight, nervous voice your brain seems to whip up for these occasions.
  • Be Prepared: Preparation cures all your ills.  If you’re prepared well ahead of time, you literally have nothing to worry about.  You can just step up on stage, smile at your audience and launch warmly into whatever you’ve got to say.


Enthusiasm has more to do with how you feel than how you look or sound, although if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject, it’ll show on your face and in your voice.

Enthusiasm comes across to the audience in the excited and convicted way you discuss your topic.  They can tell it really means something to you, so naturally, it means something to them too.

It’s based primarily in your own personal conviction that what you have to say is of importance and is worth hearing.

If you find your presentations tend to lack enthusiasm, consider these pointers:

  • Do you care? Enthusiasm is tough to fake, and transparent as heck.  If you really don’t care about your topic, why are you discussing it?  If, for some odd reason, you HAVE TO talk about it, isn’t there something about it you can latch onto to get excited about?
  • Why should they care? Even if you’re already into the topic, ask yourself why your audience should care about it?  Are they going to be able to come away from your speech with some solid actionable items they can do to improve themselves?  Or are they going to learn something that’s going to make them feel better, or let them help someone else?  These are all valid reasons to get fired up about your topic, because it’s going to help your audience to hear it, and to hear it right!
  • Be Prepared:  Not to be a broken record, but once again, preparation comes into play.  If you’re prepared, you’ve had time before your speech to think hard about the two questions above and any number of other points that should help you really understand completely how important and exciting it is that you’re on this stage right now speaking to these people.  And, as a bonus, you’ll be less nervous and therefore you’ll be able to speak, look and act more naturally, which lets your enthusiasm shine through.

So the moral of the story?

Pick a topic you deem important, prepare well, then get up there and give it all you’ve got in a natural, warm and enthusiastic way.

The best part about these two skills is that they are so easily and automatically mirrored by your audience, which is a great reward for doing it right!

Can you think of any other ways to generate warmth and enthusiasm in your speeches?  Let me know in the comments.


Making Music With Your Words

Courtesy of geishaboy500 (flickr)

Have you ever heard someone play ONE NOTE on a saxaphone, over and over and over again for half an hour?

Would you want to if you could?

No.  It’s not music.  It’s weird and boring at best, downright irritating at worst.

Which helps to illustrate the absolute necessity of sense stress and modulation in your public speaking repertoire.  This is how you make music with your words:

Sense Stress

Sense stress is the way you say certain words or phrases to stress their importance or color their meaning, making sure the sense of the thought is accurately conveyed to the audience.

It can be as simple saying the key word in your statement a touch slower, with more emphasis than the others, putting it in verbal BOLD type.  Sometimes, laying the proper stress on a thought requires some involved combinations of pausing, eye contact, gesture and facial expression along with changes to the voice.

Just as a note or musical phrase played louder and with more force brings attention to itself, a word or thought conveyed with the appropriate sense stress is similarly easier to understand, appreciate, and remember.


Modulation involves changing the pitch, the pace and the power of your voice to bring your words to life.

Much like the huge range of notes available to a skilled musician, the human voice is capable to changing pitch fairly widely within the ranges of normal conversation.  In other words, you can speak pretty high or low without sounding ridiculous.

These changes in pitch add flavor to our words as well as meaning.

A simple example is the slight rise in pitch that accompanies the end of a question.  That seems overly simple until you realize the errors that failing to do so could cause.  As an example, read these two statements as shown, and note the difference:

We don’t have any food.

We don’t have any food?

The meaning is colored pretty significantly by the inflection at the end.  The statement can be matter-of-fact or resolute.  The question can be amused or even frightened.

Modulation would also include slowing your pace and/or lowering your voice to inject seriousness and a solemn tone to what you are saying.  Or, on the other hand, speaking faster and with a lighter voice if what you’re saying is meant to be taken lightly.

Speaking quickly, but with intensity, creates excitement!  Loud and slow: simmering anger.

You can play with this for days and still find new and interesting ways to combine the slight fluctuations in your voice and manner that create lasting emotional impressions on the audience.

The music isn’t hard

That saxophone, in the hands of talented saxophonist, can fly all over the musical spectrum with different notes, different intensities, length of pauses and length of tone, weaving all this together to create a beautiful piece of music. Your speech can do the same thing!

What’s important to realize, though, is that this stuff isn’t that hard.

It may seem like it when it’s analyzed in an article like this, but the fact is all of us use sense stress and modulation in our everyday speech without even thinking about it.  Some more so than others, of course, but all of us do it enough to be understood when we’re speaking to friends and family.

The real key to applying this lesson to your public speaking is to get comfortable enough speaking in front of a group that your natural, relaxed self can come out and just do it.  If you can get to that point, sense stress and modulation will come out with the ease of a beautiful melody played by an expert musician.

Don’t Be a Blind Guide

Courtesy of rappensuncle (flickr)

Imagine yourself as a guide, providing safe passage through dangerous surroundings, showing people the beauty and wonder around them and getting them home for dinner.

Obviously, these people who have paid you to guide them are interested in seeing the sites and living to tell about it.

But how much are they going to appreciate your expertise if you lead them all over creation and back again on the most mind-bending bass-ackwards route you could imagine?

You see, there’s an unwritten, unspoken understanding between the guide and the guided that the guide is going to know the best way to go, and the guided can be confident they’re taking that route.

As a public speaker, you’ve been asked to guide your audience to a full understanding of your topic.

If you’re speaking in front of a crowd, especially if they’ve asked you to come or they’ve paid to listen to you, they’re most likely interested in your subject.  This is good.  Makes things a lot easier on you.

But it’s not the end of the story.

You can still lose them.


By being a blind guide.

Don’t be that guy.

Make sure you show them the best route:

Make sure you cover the material in full

If you’re traveling through difficult or dangerous terrain, as a guide you need to be prepared.  You need to know the area well, know its dangers, its available resources, where you can go for help, and who you can trust.  You also need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your clients so you don’t carry them in over their head.

That way, you can plan a route that accomplishes the goal in a way everyone can appreciate.

In previous posts, we’ve discussed the importance of picking your main points and covering them adequately.  This is vital to make sure you don’t overwhelm or bore your audience.

Don’t allow extraneous points to work their way into the talk just because you like talking about them.  It’s not the best route.  You’re guiding them the wrong way.

You want to cover the material in full, but you need to remember that the audience is the final judge of your success in that area.  For the topic to be covered to the audience’s satisfaction, not just your own, you need to make sure every point you highlight is necessary, and that its necessity is obvious.

Make sure those points are in the right order

Planning your route through difficult terrain requires a serious eye for efficiency.  God forbid you get 2/3 of the way through the desert, then run out of water.

In the same way, while you may be able to confidently confirm that every single point you intend to cover is necessary and beneficial.  But if they’re in the wrong order to be logically understood by your audience, you’re heading the wrong way.

Think of it this way:

When Moses led the Israelites wandering through the wilderness for 40 years, he may have been pretty sure of what he was doing, but how did his audience feel about it?

Use adequate transitional phrases

Finally, if you have all the points you need and no more, and you have all those points in the most logical (efficient) order, you just need to tie it all together to make sure your speech is coherent and easy to follow.

What are transitional phrases?

  • also,
  • in addition,
  • furthermore,
  • moreover,
  • likewise,
  • similarly,
  • hence,
  • thus,
  • for these reasons,
  • therefore,
  • in view of the foregoing,
  • so,
  • so then,
  • thereafter,
  • however,
  • on the other hand,
  • on the contrary
  • etc…

All of these words and phrases (and many more like them,) tie thoughts together in a logical way that the human brain latches onto very easily.

They serve as markers to the listener’s mind flagging down the conscious mind and letting it know we’re moving forward, and this is the way to go.

In other words, they serve as directions from an expert guide.

So, as you’re developing your speech, give thought to the depth of coverage of your point from the audience’s perspective.  Make sure all the right points are included, and nothing they don’t need.  Then, make sure those points are in the right order to logically and efficiently take them from their current state to full understanding.  Finally, make sure those points are tied together with effective transitional phrases to make sure they follow you the whole way.

Just like the expert guide you are.

Speak Like You Write?

Courtesy of jonny goldstein (flickr)

Does that seem backwards to you?

It’s true that writing a speech is a completely different animal from writing for print.  A lot of the power of a speech can be in the delivery, whereas the printed word needs to provide its own delivery.

But, if the writer is experienced already at writing like he speaks (which is advice almost as old as written language itself,) he’s that much closer to being able to write a powerful speech.

Based on this connection, which speechwriter would you prefer to have in your corner?

The guy who writes nothing but speeches, or the guy who also pounds out high-quality copy, articles and brochures?  Or the guy who writes books?  Or the poet?

Here’s my take:

If your speech is generic, no frills, no selling necessary, no need to impress anyone, then go for the specialist.  He’s written a thousand speeches, and he’ll not doubt do a bang-up job with yours.

Because it’ll sound just like the rest of the speeches he’s written.

But if you want something new, vibrant, fresh, with killer story, poetic sensibility, the ability to sell a product, a service or just an idea, then I’d go with the Uber-generalist.

Because it’ll sound like YOU.  You amplified.

This is why I thrive on spreading myself thinner than most.  Because every writing skill I have enhances and strengthens every other skill.

The new Holistic Approach Manifesto will be out on Saturday!  Are you ready?

It’s going to be awesome.