How to Get a Standing Ovation

First let us ask, have you ever actually gotten one? We’ll bet it was a memorable moment in your life if you did. (And we’d love to hear about it.) But we’re thinking that most people have only seen others getting one: actors in a theatrical performance, concert performers, State of the Union address givers (especially when the audience is in favor of both the state and the address giver), etc.

What is the science behind a standing ovation? What makes the audience members so overcome with emotion that they must leap to their feet? And how can any of this apply to those of us who do not end our presentations with the rousing “One Day More” chorus from Les Miserables?  (We are more likely to end with, “And that’s all I have. Thanks for coming.” How un-rousing.)

Two elements apply here:

  1. Powerful prose
  2. Pacing and timing

“And that’s all I have. Thanks for coming” is not powerful prose. Neither is “Are there any more questions? No? Well, OK.” This is powerful prose: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.” So is this: “. . . that this government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

But wait a minute, we can tell you’re thinking, I’m preparing a presentation on 4th quarter sales goals. Or a status report on the veeblefetzer repairs. Or a comparison of benefits in several health insurance plans. What powerful prose could I possibly use for ending a presentation on such mundane topics?

Here are a few ideas:

  • “As I said at the beginning of my presentation, our sales for this quarter showed a modest uptick in profits. For the first quarter of the new year, let’s forget about modest—let’s shoot for spectacular!”
  • “As the saying goes, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ The veeblefetzer will also take a bit longer to get up to optimum condition. But we are certain that all roads in this project will eventually lead to success.”
  • “Now is the time for us to decide: Do we want a health plan that will be cost effective and good for the company? Or do we choose a plan that will be comprehensive and good for our workers?”

The common denominator to all such closing remarks is that you plan them in advance. You don’t ad lib them, you don’t think them up in the spur of the moment. You write them out, as though you were composing a prose poem, where every word is carefully selected and the flow of the sentence(s) is carefully rehearsed. And then you practice them until you have them memorized. (This is why they should also be relatively short.) It’s not powerful when you read your closing remarks from a paper or the screen. You have to look your audience right in the eyes as you speak.

Which leads to the second characteristic of all powerful closings: pacing and timing. Before you say your famous last lines, take a (dramatic) pause, look directly at the audience, and then begin to speak, keeping your arms in an open position (hands raised to shoulder height). When you get to the last word, pause again, and then drop your eyes to the floor and drop your hands, thus signaling to the audience that you are, indeed, finished. The audience will then get the cue and leap to their feet in response.

Or not. But maybe? You certainly will never get a standing ovation with a weak dribble of a close. The second of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, according to Stephen Covey, is “Begin with the end in mind.” Excellent advice for presenters as well, especially when there are so many things that can go wrong in a live presentation: equipment can fail, audience members can be hostile (or even worse, unresponsive), you get questions you can’t answer, the fire alarm goes off, and/or the big cheese in the room suddenly gets up and leaves. With all of these possibilities to worry about, isn’t it nice to know that no matter what happens along the way, you know how you’re going to end, and you’re going to end WELL.

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