How to Begin and End a Speech


  1. Read the section in your textbook about how to begin and end speeches.
  2. If you want to see how it's done in real speeches, go to the library, find old bound copies of Vital Speeches.


The first task of a good communicator is to get the attention of the person or audience to whom you are communicating. Thus, beginning a speech in a way that gets your audience's attention is of major importance. It is also often difficult. No doubt you have experienced the difficulty of writing and introduction for a paper or a speech. Writing beginnings is one of the most difficult, but important aspects of rhetoric. Usually, we should write the body of a speech first and then worry about how to begin and end it. However, we can¹t do that in this class. It¹s been my experience over the years that, if left to their own devices, many students will begin with, ³My speech is about ....² That is unacceptable because beginnings ar e too important to begin by boring your audience. A beginning should make the audience interested in your topic as well as introduce your topic. We will examine eight types of beginnings and almost that many endings.

First analyze the audience

We first need to ask ourselves if the audience will be interested in the topic, or if we will need to work hard to get their attention. If they are uninterested, you might try a zippy beginning, but make certain that it¹s not too corny. In his spe ech on the Information Highway, Al Gore­noted for his wooden speaking style­ had Lilly Tomlin give a little skit. Unfortunately, we can¹t hire professional actors to kick off our presentations for us.

We also need to ask if the audience will be aware of our qualifications, or must we establish our expertise? Often, speakers are introduced by a master of ceremonies or someone who functions in much the same way. If so, the person who introduces us ca n establish our credibility. If you establish your own credibility don¹t downplay your accomplishments, but also remain humble. I remember listening to a couple of speakers who bragged about how much money they made doing nothing. A bit of that sort of thing may be appropriate, but dwelling on it may loose your audience, especially if they are motivated by higher level concerns. The best way to establish credibility to be prepared, well organized, and knowledgeable. However, if you are giving a spe ech on clear cutting of forests, it might serve you well to recount an anecdote about when you worked for the Forest Service or Champion International.

Speeches that are for special occasions demand that recognize the occasion and people who make or have made the occasion important. For example, if are asked to give a speech at a small liberal arts college on the Founders Day of that college, we should certainly mention the founders, the glorious history of the college, and the current president and deans, etc. An after dinner speech at the local Optimists Club should make a reference to the mission of the club.

We should also ask if we need to create goodwill, or if the audience will be on our side of the question. Our study of communication theory tells us that people exercise selective perception and retention. That is, if they don¹t like us or what we have to say, they won¹t listen, and if they do, they¹ll be going over a list of objections in their heads or thinking about our loud tie or dress or looks. Thus, we will have create good will. The problem here is that the audience might see our efforts as a ploy and will reject them. Here the nature of the situation will determine how you go about getting the audience to a least give you a hearing. Whatever you do, don¹t try to alienate your audience by being defensive or by picking a fi ght.

Finally, we need to ask if the audience will be able to follow our speech easily, or if we will need to forecast major themes early? In a long, complicated presentation, we need tell the audience what we are going to tell them, tell it to them, and the n tell them what we told them. In such a situation a brief outline, overview, or abstract is appropriate. For example, an hour long informative presentation on the biological basis of learning and individuality will require an overview.


There are more than eight ways to begin a speech and some of the ways may be combined. Nevertheless, for purposes of this class, here is a list of eight:
  1. Refer to the subject or problem.
  2. Refer to the occasion.
  3. Extend a personal greeting or make a personal allusion.
  4. Ask a rhetorical question.
  5. Make a startling statement of fact or opinion.
  6. Use an apt quotation.
  7. Relate a humorous anecdote relevant to topic.
  8. Cite a real or hypothetical illustration.

Referring to the Subject or Problem

I consider this the least effective way to begin. For one, it boring. I one lacks imagination or is just plain stuck, such a beginning can do. Here is an example:

My talk today is concerned with the plight of our country's forests--particularly the forest of the Cascade Mountains. I will be presenting what I call a bill of emergency measures that must be enacted to save our western forests from extincti on as surely as Mt. St. Helens layed waste to millions of acres of forest in Southern Washington State.
Use sparingly, and only when audience is in tune with you and interested in the subject.

Personal Reference or Greeting

Discuss your relationship to the topic or audience in your introduction.
It¹s a special pleasure for me to be here today. No cause is closer to my heart than reducing heart disease for every American. I, myself, have had one heart attack and a four-way bypass. And there is no group that cares more about that cause than the administrators and trustees of America¹s community hospitals. All of us here today share a sense of common commitment to reducing heart disease.
This kind of beginning can be effective when audience knows and respects you, but if they don¹t, watch out. Such a beginning may backfire. For example, if the above beginning is presented by a representative of a group of tobacco growers or ic e cream manufacturers who see a call for the control of heart disease by such a representative as lacking in credibililty, we have a problem. Such a beginning may set off defense mechanisms within the audience. In other cases, if the audience doesn¹ t know you well, don¹t be too personal. The audience may think that it is being manipulated.

Rhetorical Question

A rhetorical question is one that is asked without expecting an immediate verbal response. All that we do is hope the audience will consider question and answer it in their mind. Don¹t ask people to raise their hands or give an answer. Used sparing ly, rhetorical questions can focus attention to subject and involve listeners. The main thing is to make questions relevant to the audience.

From our country¹s earliest colonial days, education has been the keystone to progress. Yet increasingly large numbers of Tennessee youth seem to be indifferent or hostile to education. One in every five Knoxville high school students dro ps out before graduation. Today, the question I would like to ask is: Are Tennessee youth experiencing a crisis of faith in education as the best pathway to the future?

Don¹t ask questions that are cliché. Make certain that your rhetorical questions are put in context. Notice that in the above example the question is put at the end after the speaker leads up to it. The speaker did not open with the rh etorical question. Think of it as a punch line.

Startling Statement

Shock technique is useful when listeners are apathetic.

There¹s a disease sweeping our country. None of us is immune. there are no miracle drugs to combat it, although Americans spend millions each year trying to combat it. The disease can affect all ages, all economic classes, all ethnic gr oups. It can cause permanent bodily damage, shorten your life span, and even cause death. Some of you here may already be affected; most of you in some way will be touched by the disease. The disease is obesity; the cure you. Today, I will examin e the causes of obesity and suggest some preventive measures.

Don¹t overplay the startling statement. Don¹t begin with an obviously ridiculous statements such as ³A nuclear missile has be launched by Iraq and will arrive in the U.S. in twenty minutes.² Audiences are disgusted by silly sta rtling statements, false drama, melodramatic stories, and bad shock techniques. Also don¹t bring a pistol into your class as part of a speech on gun control. Firearms are illegal on campus. I mention this only because it has happened. I had a studen t once bring a three foot longCayman Alligator to class for a demonstration speech. I reluctantly accepted it because she was an animal science major and the gator was a friendly fellow. The idea is to aim more for suspense than at shock.


Quotations should be simple and succinct.

³The Constitution is an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing foreign policy.² That is Edward Corwin¹s famous description of the Constitution, and the history of executive-congressional interplay in the area of f oreign policy is replete with examples to prove his point. Last summer, normal life stopped as the entire nation watched the spectacle of Colonel North defending the Executive against an enraged Congress. a reminder of Watergate days, the spectacle of Se nators and Congressmen engaging in televised dispute with members of the National Security Council is evidence of the extent to which U. S. policy abroad has been made hostage to the competition between the President and Congress for dominance in foreign policy. Surely such a situation was not envisioned by the framers of the Constitution: and invitation to struggle is not a declaration of war. Corwin¹s phrase implies a good deal more civility than either the Congress or the President have lately manifested.
The current stalemate offers proof that something is wrong with our foreign policy process.

Quotations provide an initial thought or theme on which to hang speech. Preachers often hang their sermons on a quotation from the Bible. As with the rhetorical question, put the quotation in context. Also, make the quotations original. By tha t I mean, don¹t get up a begin by stating, ³Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.² Also, don¹t quote your mother or brother¹s unoriginal sayings. A quotation should lend authority (credi bility) to your thesis by being a statement made by a famous person in a particularly original way.

If you are wonder how to find an apt quotation, the answer is to do some research. The library has many, many books of quotations. Hodges Library has more than 70 books of quotations. You can find a shelf of them at Bookstar or Davis­Kidd. Newsp apers have them everyday. By clicking here you can find some old quotations. You can begin by keeping a computer database or notebook of quotable things that you read or hear. In a couple of years you¹ll have enough material for a book of quotations. If you need a quotation, research, research, research.

Humorous Anecdote

An humorous anecdote (not antidote) is a funny story that makes a point. Be sure the story is amusing, otherwise you will embarrass self and audience. Also, be sure the anecdote is relevant to your presentation and is in good taste. I¹ve had studen ts tell downright dirty jokes, somehow deceiving themselves into thinking they told a humorous anecdote, and getting themselves an F for their efforts. Also, be careful about trying to use humor with a hostile audience or an audience that expects you to be serious. I¹ll let you provide your own example here, since most of my stories are met with blank stares.

Beware of telling off color stories.

So where do we find them? The answer is the same as for quotations. The library has over fifty books of anecdotes. The problem is that humor often becomes dated fast. Do like Milton Berle did, copy down jokes and keep a file of them. Be careful abou t ripping stuff off the latest MTV , HBO, of Comedy Central comedian. Many rely on four letter words which loose shock value with overuse.

Real or hypothetical Illustration

A real or hypothetical illustration is a story from real life or what could be real life. Like the quotation and humorous anecdote, an illustration should make a point that is appropriate to the theme of your presentation. It may be a story from litera ture. Make sure it is interesting to the audience.

John Pontier, of Boise, Idaho, was turned down for insurance because a reporting agency informed the company that he and his wife were addicted to narcotics, and his Taco Bell franchise had been closed down by the health board when dog food ha d been found mixed in with the tacos. there was only one small problem. The information was made up. His wife was a practicing Mormon who didn¹t touch a drink, much less drugs, and the restaurant had never been cited for a health violation.

We get such stories by reading and by observing. There are lots of horror stories about government repression of people for real or suspected use of marijuana that have the same theme as the above story. I¹ve read two of them in the week that I 5;m writing this. One was in the Wall Street Journal, the other in the Atlantic Monthly. This suggests that you can find current stories by using InfoTrac, the Reader¹s Guide to Periodical Literature, newspaper indexes, etc. Need a story about leg alization of gambling? Do some research in the library, gopher, or the Internet. You will find something.

Combination of Techniques

Because intros have multiple goals, there is nothing to keep one from combining the above techniques.


Ending the presentation well is important. You want the audience to leave agreeing with you and remembering what you have said. Don¹t just end with, ³Well, I uh guess that¹s about it, uh.² In other words don¹t give your audienc e a Beavis & Butthead ending.

Questions to ask

  1. Do I need a summary? Yes if content is complex or lengthy.

  2. Does the content lead naturally to a ³so what² question? If so tell the audience about why your subject is important. I usually feel that my students leave my lectures asking, ³so what,² especially when the lectures have to do wi th theory. Beware, however, even when you to the audience what¹s so, they often times don¹t get it. Thus, you need to appeal to your listeners¹ interests.

  3. What mood do I want my audience to be in at the end of my speech?

  4. How should I signal that my speech is ending? It¹s better to say ³In summary...² than ³Finally....² Make certain, whatever, to signal the end of your presentation, and then end it. I once had to listen to a college preside nt who would build up to a rousing climax, the drop down and build up again, and again, and again. This usually happened before lunch time and went well into the lunch hour. You can imagine how interested his audience was in what he had to say.

Types of conclusions

  • Issue a challenge or appeal to audience

  • Summarize major points.

  • Provide an appropriate quotation.

  • Epitomizing point with an illustration.

  • Offer an additional inducement for accepting or acting upon the proposal advocated.

    Challenge or appeal

    This kind of ending is good for persuasive presentations. As we will see later, it is the action step of the Motivated Sequence.

    You and your parents are the ones who pay for your education. You control the purse strings. If you want to improve parking at UT, you must stand together. You must let the adminstration know that if they don¹t do something about parking , you will. Sign the petition as you leave here today.

    Summary of Major Points

    The summary is especially good for long, complex speeches or speeches that are divided into a few specific points.

    Remember then that there are five key ways to improve grades. First go to class, that¹s a third of it. Second, take efficient notes. Third go over them every day. Fourth, budget your time. And finally, get a good night¹s sleep befor e an exam.


    Same as in intro. The concluding quotation should brings things to a head and say it better than you can.

    Epitomizing Illustration

    See the section on illustrations above. The concluding illustration should be inclusive and conclusive. You may, instead, include a humorous anecdote here.

    Additional Inducement

    Give one or two additional reasons for accepting the belief or taking the actions you propose.

    Expression of Personal Intention or Endorsement

    In a speech attempting to persuade people to get a hepatitis vaccination, you might offer the audience additional inducement by saying that you are going to the student health center right after class, and invite classmates to go along with you. This one is not effective, unless you plan to make a real sacrifice, endorsement, etc.

    Outline your intros and conclusions just as you would any other part of your speech

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