More than the end

Lately, I have been thinking about endings because students are rehearsing and making presentations, ones that begin strong, build purposefully, and then break off awkwardly. At best, presentations seem to end with a gracious thank you to collaborators. Speakers perhaps wear themselves out, and when they’re done, they’re done.  Tough luck, audience.

Linda Flower (1979) described writer-based prose as an expression of the writer’s thoughts, for the writer, with no other purpose. Such prose is revealed in problems like a chronological process-based structure (first I did this, and then I did that) rather than an idea-driven one.  This kind of prose is not concerned with a reader’s experience; it is a record of the writer’s experience of thought, reading, or action. For my concerns about presentations, Flower’s theory of writer-based prose might be reframed as speaker-based speech. When I experience one of these presentations that simply break off — and, hey, I’ve occasionally made a few of these myself — I think what I’m seeing is an example of a speaker who has said everything she wants to say. Spent, she stops.

Stopping, though, is not concluding.

A good presentation has a story. At the every least, there is a clear beginning, middle, and end. In Resonate, Nancy Duarte says, “The ending should repeat the most important points and deliver inspirational remarks encompassing what the world will look like when your idea is adopted… The end of your presentation marks the next phase of the adventure for the audience” (44).

A few years ago, I participated in a Bard workshop on the essay. Although I enjoy crafting endings for arguments and proposals, I was struggling with endings for personal essays. I said to the workshop leader, “But life doesn’t resolve! Problems are chronic. Some wounds remain open.” She agreed, but she had a helpful writerly response: “The writer, in an ending, must leave the reader at least with a new way to think about the problem posed in the beginning even if there is no answer or reconciliation.”

The writer must leave the audience with a new way to think. Of course, it is up to the audience if they will accept this new way — this call to thinking action — but at least the writer has left it with them.

Presentations on scientific or engineering research projects can at least end with a “Future Directions” gesture, and they often do. The presenter has articulated a problem and examined it via inquiry and evidence; he leaves his audience with some ideas as to what could be done next. This can be a good way to conclude — much better than, “Questions?” — although often presenters are too thorough and end up proposing three, four, and even five next steps, as if to demonstrate their own thoughtfulness. Sometimes these four or five next steps are simply listed and seem unrelated; a presenter fails to continue to make the argument for the problem or for the research via the next steps. Only rarely do I see a presentation that concludes with any urgency, “We did this, and what must be done next is this.” Often the feeling is more, “Here’s a bunch of related stuff we could do.”

The reality is that scientific investigations, like life, go on and on. Scientists resolve one problem or one part of a problem, and some other scientists must validate that resolution and still some other scientists must tackle the next part of the problem. Engineers, software for example, make versions of products. In art, Harold Bloom has argued, in his 1973 Anxiety of Influence, that all poetry is a misreading — a “creative correction” and “willful revisionism” — of its precursors. In other words, we build on the work of the past by revising it, and in the future others will revise our work in the making of their own. Therefore, there can be no final proof, ultimate version, be all and end all.

And yet stories must end and presentations must conclude. Perhaps what endings and conclusions do is mark where my work as presenter ends and your work as audience begins.

The endings must in a way suggest a revision of sorts and, indeed, motivate the revision: of the problem, of an idea, of a way of doing something.

Endings should not, therefore, say Be here now. They might instead say, Be there next.

There’s a fun game that English majors and literature teachers like to play, and I’ll call it the first paragraph/last paragraph comparison. Look at the first paragraph of a story or novel and the last, and see what shifts and changes are visible in those two paragraphs alone. What do two paragraphs, set at opposite points of the narrative, tell you? In Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848), for example, the first paragraph of the first chapter describes Dombey himself at tending his newborn child, identified as “Son,” the two of them near the fire, with the little one toasting as though “a muffin.” This scene evokes patriarchal succession. In the final paragraph of the final chapter, however, the old and white-haired Dombey tenderly “smooths away the curls that shade [the] earnest eyes” of “Little Florence,” his daughter’s daughter, the focus of his attention. The two paragraphs describe almost symmetrical scenes — a man tending to his infant descendants — and yet there is a radical shift in the second one, for both the novel and the Victorian audience: the story has become the girl’s. Wow.

This can be an exciting exercise to lead literature students through after they finish reading a novel as remarkable as Dombey and Son. This, it suddenly occurs to me, would also be a useful exercise to lead presenters through in the rehearsal phase, or even do it for ourselves as we are rehearsing conference presentations. As we isolate the beginning and ending of a presentation (as slides or video excerpts), we could ask: “How has the seed of the beginning mutated in the closing remarks? And how has this been communicated to the audience?”

The speaker must be able to articulate an answer to the first question. And the rehearsal audience must give honest feedback that prompts audience-aware endings — effective ones, exciting ones, or ones that make them want to do something differently.
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Photograph, “Theatre at the End of the World,” by Kevan Davis on flickr via a Creative Commons license.

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