If I’ve given my regular readers the impression that I hate “thank yous,” I apologize. I love it when speakers express gratitude—just not at the beginning of a speech.
You never want to give your audience an excuse not to listen to you. And what says “I’m not talking to you right now” better than taking three minutes to lavish thanks on 0.01% of the people present. That’s why I tell my clients—and my writing students—to integrate their thank yous into the body of a speech. Find a way that they can add value to what you’re saying.
Here’s how I used the technique at the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference last month.
Step 1—the set-up
I talked about how and why speakers shouldn’t open with a list of thank yous.
“When you get called on in a meeting, do you stand up and say, ‘I’d like to thank John for calling on me. And Josh for getting the bagels. And, Margie—great PowerPoint!’ Of course you don’t; you’d be laughed out of the room. People in a meeting want to hear your ideas. Your audience at a speech does too.”
Still, it’s appropriate to thank your hosts. And I said I would—when it would add value to my presentation.
Step 2—the recall
Maybe 10 minutes later, I reminded the audience that I promised to thank the college. After a beat, I said:
“No, I’m not going to do that yet. But you’re all waiting for it, right? That’s because I’ve created Mystery.”
And I discussed the importance of creating a sense of mystery when you tell a story. Chris Anderson, in his book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, talks about the power of framing your speech like a “detective story.”
Step 3—the surprise
Toward the end of my speech, I told a story about a meaningful experience I’d had at Smith, something profound I learned that’s served me well throughout my career. I showed a photo of the professor who taught me the lesson. He’s still teaching, all these years later, and his students and former students let out a small cheer.
“…And I would like to thank Smith for bringing me back here today so I could share this story with you.”
And the audience broke out into laughter and spontaneous applause.
As one woman told me the next day,
“We knew you were going to do it. You told us to expect it. But we never saw it coming.”
Express gratitude memorably
How did I get there?
Well, you can pretty much never go wrong when you use the Rule of Three: aim for a laugh on the third repetition of something. Could I have thanked Smith when I discussed thank yous the first time? Probably. I could definitely have done it the second time—but I enjoyed faking out the audience. I worried that by the third time the “thank you” would be as obvious as an 18-wheeler barreling down the highway. But apparently not.
Why not? How was I able to sneak the final set-up for my thank you into the speech? Because I embedded it in a story. And that story fit seamlessly into the body of my speech.
That’s what I mean by adding value with every element of your speech. By the time I got around to the obligatory thank you, it served three purposes:
- Express gratitude
- Highlight an important aspect of my Smith experience
- Demonstrate a speech technique
Your “thank you” might not accomplish all three of these things—I was fortunate to be speaking about how to give a great speech—but it can definitely do more than just express gratitude to specific people.
How can you use your gratitude to enhance your audience’s experience or their understanding of your material? It takes more thought up front, but your audience will remember—and appreciate—you for it.