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Bookending Your Speech: A Master Technique

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Keith Kennedy asks:

At my Toastmasters meeting last night, one of the speech evaluators recommended that the speaker should “bookend her speech”. I’ve never heard that term before. What does it mean, and is it something you recommend?

In this article, we’ll define what it means to bookend your speech, and give a set of tips for exercising this wonderful technique.

Bookending Your Speech: A Definition

Picture a pair of bookends — that is, matched objects that are used to bound a series of books on a shelf. From a practical perspective, bookends support the books to ensure that they stay together. Aesthetically, however, they do much more. Bookends neatly (and often artistically) provide visual symmetry for the books on display. In doing so, they draw more attention to the row of books, and give the impression that these books are special and to be admired.

When you “bookend your speech”, you provide similar support for the body of your speech. By opening and concluding your speech with a common element, you neatly (and often artistically) provide cognitive symmetry for the speech which you have delivered. You draw more attention to your words, and give the impression that your message is special and to be accepted.

Bookending your speech is an elegant technique, and conveys the impression that your speech was crafted very carefully with a precise attention to detail. This boosts your credibility as your audience will be more likely to conclude that your entire speech was crafted with similar care, and therefore can be trusted.

Ways to Bookend Your Speech

There are a variety of strategies which you can adopt to bookend your speech. Choose the one which best fits your speech. Make sure that whichever strategy you use, your bookending element is closely related to your theme. Bookending your speech with random elements would be like bookending a set of classic literature novels with a pair of baseballs — functional, but not particularly meaningful.

  1. Tell two halves of a story.
    • Open your speech by introducing a story. You should not tell the whole story… just enough of the story to establish some conflict and introduce a character. Then, you proceed with the core of your speech.
    • At the end of your speech, pick up the story where you left off, and tell it to its conclusion.
    • Be sure that the story is intimately tied to your speech content. For example, if your speech is about following your dreams, you might tell a story where the main character follows her dreams. (The first half would explain that she is following her dream; the second half would tell how it turned out.)
  2. Ask a question, and answer it.
    • Open your speech by posing a question to the audience.
    • Conclude your speech by providing the answer.
    • For added effect, you can hint that the answer will come at the end.
    • A twist on the question-answer theme is to issue a challenge or a puzzle, and provide the solution.
  3. Use the same (or similar) quotations.
    • Open your speech with a quotation.
    • Close your speech with the same quotation.
    • This works best if your speech message has breathed new life into the quotation. Your goal is to have the audience reinterpret the quotation in light of your speech.
  4. Use contrasting quotations.
    • Open your speech with a quotation.
    • Close your speech with a quotation that opposes the original quotation.
    • Just as when using the same quotation as bookends, you want the audience to reinterpret the opening quote. Perhaps the opening quote is a commonly held belief, while the closing quote is a disruptive idea which your audience will now be more likely to accept.
  5. Use contrasting concepts.
    • Open your speech with a concept or theme.
    • Close your speech with a contrasting concept or theme.
    • For example, you might open with a story about birth, and close with a story about death.
    • Or, you might open with a story about being a student, and close with a related story about being a teacher.
    • Or, you might open with a story taken from your youth, and close with a related story about your own child.
  6. Use humor.
    • Open your speech with a humorous story or statement.
    • Close your speech with another humorous statement which either builds on the first, or references it in some way.
    • When using this bookending strategy (and the others too), be sure to use the same keywords both times so your audience “gets” the humorous reference. (e.g. if you open with a joke about a “red handbag”, don’t close with a joke about a “ruby purse”)
  7. Use a prop.
    • Open your speech with a prop.
    • Close your speech by using the prop a second time.
    • This strategy works best if you combine it with other strategies. For example, when introducing the prop, you might pose a question about it. Then, in your conclusion, you can answer that question.
  8. Use a slide.
    • Open your speech with a visual slide.
    • Close your speech with the same slide, or perhaps a slightly modified version of the first.
    • This works if the the picture you are displaying can be reinterpreted by your audience as a result of your speech message.
    • As a twist, your opening slide can be cropped to hide part of the image, while the concluding slide can reveal the full image. Again, this allows your audience to reinterpret the original image.
  9. Use any other common element.
    • Open your speech by referencing a fact, a word, a phrase, a movie title, etc.
    • Close your speech by referring back to the same fact, word, phrase, movie title, etc. in a meaningful way.

Bookending your speech is a master technique that is easy to apply, whether you are a professional speaker or a novice. Just today, I attended a Toastmasters meeting where a new member was delivering his first speech. He opened his speech humorously by “confessing” that he detested umbrellas. He then closed his speech by declaring his dream that umbrellas be banned by legislation. (The overall speech was humorous, and this particular humor fit well.)

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Comments icon4 Comments

  1. Great examples of Bookending, Andrew!

    The concept goes hand-in-glove with the Law of Primacy and Recency: The first and last things the audience sees and hears will be the first things they remember.

    Have a Strong Opening and Strong Closing. Bookending can do it!

    Thanks for the Post!

  2. Tim says:

    Thanks Andrew. I’m giving my Ice Breaker 12/19/2011 and this article inspired an idea for bookending the talk. I think it’s going to be quite impressive now.

  3. Conor Neill says:

    Great examples. Great to have you back blogging 😉

  4. Michael says:

    Thank you, Andrew.
    As a professional speechwriter, I often use ‘bookends’ when writing speeches. It’s similar to many classical music pieces where the theme is played at the beginning and repeated at the end. It works very well in speech writing too. In both instances, it’s a signal to the listeners that it’s the conclusion. So you don’t have to say ‘thank you’ or ‘in conclusion’.

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