Opening and closing a speech is the hardest thing to do.

Because people remember you based on first and last impressions, what you say in the first and last twenty seconds will ‘make’ or ‘break’ your reputation as a speaker. If you get the last bit right, what you say at the end will most probably linger on long after your speech is over. Words produce an after-taste. So learn to end your speech powerfully.

Here, I want to demonstrate the importance of using good source materials to close your speech. You can close your speech with visions (e.g. “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King), stories, memories, quotable quotes, or poems.

Very few speakers I know actually use poems, which is why not many speakers, in my opinion, are ‘elegant’ in their speeches. This explains why Les Brown stands many heads above all the known speakers today. In my opinion, even Tony Robbins pales in comparison when it comes to elegance and class.

The beautiful thing about poems is its cadence, rhythm and rhyme. When we are children, we recited nursery rhymes – and had fun doing so.

One two, buckle my shoe.
Three, four, open the door.
Five, six, pick up sticks. […]Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down, and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

But when we become older, we tend to chuck this aside, dimiss these as ‘childish’, and go for ‘more’ factual, non-fictional adult prose (which is a mistake!). You see, poems connect on a deeper level. It does not connect just on the cognitive level, but on a very human, soul-to-soul level.

If you think about it, lovers often write poems to each other – because poetry is known to reveal secrets of the heart. And if you want to engage your audiences and win them over, you need to speak from your heart. And poetry is the best method for it.

Poems are meant to be said aloud, and if performed with the right pauses and emotions, they generate sensual images and imprint them in the minds of listeners. In this particular example, Les Brown, one of the most influential motivational speakers of our time, spoke to a stadium of people many decades ago. I cannot verify what event and year this was spoken, but as he ended his speech, he spoke this poem (with a few misses and additions here and there).

To listen to Les Brown’s audio recording, click here.

The Will To Win

If you want a thing bad enough
To go out and fight for it,
Work day and night for it,
Give up your time and your peace and
Your sleep for it

If only desire of it
Makes you quite mad enough
Never to tire of it,
Makes you hold all other things tawdry
And cheap for it

If life seems all empty and useless without it
And all that you scheme and you dream is about it,

If gladly you’ll sweat for it,
Fret for it, Plan for it,
Lose all your terror of God or man for it,

If you’ll simply go after that thing that you want.
With all your capacity,
Strength and sagacity,
Faith, hope and confidence, stern pertinacity,

If neither cold, poverty, famished and gaunt,
Nor sickness nor pain
Of body or brain
Can turn you away from the thing that you want,

If dogged and grim you besiege and beset it,
You’ll get it.

~ Berton Braley

Here are my tips on choosing the right poem:

1. Choose one with themes that you like. In the above example, it is about perseverance and a dogged determination to go after your dreams. What you like is very subjective. You might like it because it generates a feeling of happiness, or maybe a pensive and reflective one. Whatever it is, you must like it – because it often encapsulates everything that you have said in your speech.

2. Find one that you can easily memorise. Speak aloud repetitively until you don’t have to look at the poem any longer. Try it out in front of the mirror, in the car, or talk to your dog or cat. Learn it by heart first. Once the words are correct in its order, you can then go to the next step, which is to feel.

3. Poems often conjure up feelings. So in order to feel the tone of the poem, try to vary the pauses, find where the words might rhyme. By the way, not all poems rhyme. You should read it with ease and flow. What happens if you pause on a word for two breaths? What effect would it have? Try new ways of reading it with feeling. Can you read it with anger? With joy? With grief? When you know when to pick up speed or slow down, you would have made that poem your own interpretation.

4. Lastly, poems tend to have open readings, especially in a Literature class. But in a speech, you want to inspire your audiences in a certain way towards a more definite, closed interpretation. This is because you have the responsibility to show ‘the way’. Even if ‘the way’ is to open up new possibilities, you should be able to use that poem to inspire new thoughts and make new behavioural changes in your listeners.

Till the next post, here’s my closing from a Greek philosopher, Plato:

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.
Those who wish to sing always find a song.
At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”

© 2010 | EDMUND CHOW