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Michael Long is a speechwriter, author, educator, and award-winning screenwriter and playwright.

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How to Not Dig a Hole

Vanity, thy name is public speaker.

Billy Joel, the sage of Long Island, was onto something when he sang, “Leave a tender moment alone,” or to quote his across-the-bridge buddies, The Manhattans, “Let’s just kiss… and say goodbye.” Once you’ve hit the top of the crescendo, walk. There’s nothing you can add that will make that finish of seconds ago more effective, more impactful, more memorable, or more dramatic.
It’s a lesson speechwriters and public speakers should take to heart.
Here's a fact: the last thing people hear is the thing they remember best. That’s why Strunk and White admonish us to “[p]lace the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” Comedians know this in another form: Don’t step on the laugh. That means to write a joke so that the last thing you say is the thing that actually delivers the laugh. Any words that follow would cause the listener to stop laughing and go back to listening when there are no more funny parts coming.

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Similarly, the most important ideas in a longer piece are most impactful as a simple conclusion, but this doesn’t stop speakers from rattling on: We need your help. Please, vote yes on Amendment 24. Then there’s a beat, then, It sure has been great talking to you all today. I love it when I get to come back here and visit with folks I have known for so long. You know….

This happens because it’s fun to be the center of attention. Once you have a crowd listening to you, it’s tempting to milk that attention. The price of this vanity is burying of your call to action under self-indulgence.
Speakers don’t always get themselves in that hole alone. Speechwriters can push them. Sometimes this comes from the writer’s not knowing the power of a simple close. Other times it comes from a mistaken belief that persuasion depends more on volume than finesse, more on fact than feeling. Armed with this assumption, writers may get to the end of a talk only to tack on a coda of statistics, little stories, and encomia to the benefits promised way back on page one.

More words rarely improve anything.

By closing with an unaugmented appeal, a speaker pushes the audience to immediately consider the proposition. Think about the last time you bought a car. Chances are the salesperson talked for a while, then proposed a figure. She pushed it toward you, then sat back in silence. She did that to force you to consider it. She didn’t make that common speaker’s mistake of adding on what amounts to begging – she didn’t recap the high points, repeat herself, rehearse the material, ask you again in other words, or flatter you.

By laying out the request and keeping silent, she kept the drama high, the emotion focused, giving you no mental exit. In this way, and for this most important moment, all else you might have though about will fade. She is only serious now: This is not the time for idle talk. Let’s do business.
Words fix a few things. More words rarely fix anything. But focus is force, and judicious silence is an expression of confidence in the appeal.

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