Module VIII: Public Speaking

Section 7: Introductions and Conclusions

After completing this section, students should be able to:

  1. use the Primacy-Recency Effect to explain the importance of introductions and conclusions.
  2. construct an introduction fulfilling the purposes of an introduction.
  3. select, develop, and use an attention-getting device.
  4. identify methods to build speaker credibility.
  5. employ methods to enhance speaker and topic relevance.
  6. develop a summary of the speech.
  7. employ a concluding method to end a speech.


Regardless of how well developed the body of the speechSee Module VIII, Section 5. is, the speaker has to be able to grab and keep the audience's interest. The speaker gets them to want to listen. How well a speaker starts and ends the speech will significantly affect how the audience attends to the message and remembers the message.

The Primacy-Recency Effect

A phenomenon called the primacy-recency effect is a theory that argues we are most struck by and retain as most memorable the first and last things we experience about a situation, person, or event. Primacy refers to the first things we experience. We know first impressions are powerful and long lasting. They are our primary experiences with others, and set an overall tone for what to expect from this person in later interactions. Since we are so strongly driven to make sense of the world around us, once we make an initial assessment of what a person is like, it is very hard to change those initial perceptions. In public speaking, the introduction is the primary, initial encounter with the speaker. The audience quickly forms powerful first impressions of the speaker and the speech itself.

We know from our understanding of perceptionSee Module II, Section 2. that if our initial impression of something is positive, we then expect the subsequent experiences to likewise be positive. So if the introduction is strong, establishing a positive initial impression, the audience will assume the rest of the speech will be good. Since we are driven to find evidence affirming our expectations, the audience will tend to focus on the positive, minimizing the negative. The reverse is also true; if the beginning of the speech is poor, we then expect a poor speech, and we tend to highlight the speaker’s mistakes to prove our assumption to be true.
Introductions are important because they establish expectations of what the rest of the speech will be like. Due to the primacy-effect, if the speaker establishes positive initial expectations, the audience is more likely to see the whole presentation positively; if the speaker establishes negative initial expectations, the audience is going to expect a poor overall speech.

The recency-effect also addresses conclusions. The conclusion is the last impression, and is often the lasting impression the audience has of the speech. By ending on a powerful note, the audience is more likely to take away an overall positive impression of the experience.

Introductions and conclusions are very important parts of the speech. Unfortunately, they tend to get far too little attention, being left to be quickly tossed together at the end of the speech development process. Instead, time needs to be spent on creating and practicing high quality introductions and conclusions.

The Purposes of the Introduction

Introductions have five purposes. In the initial 10% of the speech, the speaker wants to make sure they establish the best possible conditions for the reception of the body of the speech.

1. To Get Attention:

At the beginning of the introduction, the speaker needs to verbally grab the audience so they are ready to attend to the message. We need to move the audience from not paying attention to focusing on us. Attention getting devices are tools we use to accomplish this, and they will be addressed later in this section.

2. To Prepare the Audience for the Thesis

Since the audience likely does not know what exactly the speaker will be addressing, the introduction can serve to start broadly and funnel the audience's thinking toward the specific thesis. This would also include providing the audience with any relevant background information to get them "up to speed," so to speak. For example, if the speaker is addressing drinking and driving, they might reference any recent alcohol related crashes in the area to aim the audience's thinking a specific direction. For informative speaking, since we want to start at the audience's existing knowledge and move them forward, the speaker may remind the audience of what they already know to prepare them to move forward. For example, "You already know the internet is just a large web of interconnected computers. But do you know where this all came from?"

3. To Establish Relevance

For an audience to really attend to the speech, the speaker needs to show the audience how the topic is relevant to them, their lives, or their concerns. The speaker needs to connect the topic to the audience in some manner. For example, "As college students, the web is a crucial communication tool. We use it to research assignments, for entertainment, and to connect with our friends. Since it is such a core part of our lives, it makes sense we have a better idea of where it all came from."

4. To Set Expectations for the Speech and Speaker

The introduction is the first moment in which the audience begins to establish expectations for the presentation.  Two areas of focus are tone and speaker credibility .

The introduction establishes the overall emotional tone for the presentation. If the speech is serious, the introduction needs to establish the need for seriousness; if the speech is lighthearted, the introduction needs to establish a humorous tone. It is very important the tone of the introduction is consistent with the rest of the speech.  According to perception theorySee Module II, Section 2., the power of expectations causes us to focus on expected stimuli; when a speaker begins in a humorous tone, the audience will be looking for things to laugh at.  When beginning in a very serious tone, the audience will expect a serious presentation throughout and may miss any attempts at humor.

Decorative: A woman speaking.
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The audience will also establish expectations for the speaker and develop a sense of the speaker’s credibility. A strong beginning typically establishes positive expectations and high credibility, and a weak beginning has just the opposite effect.  Consider the first day of class in a semester.  Students go to a class, the instructor walks in, and in a manner of moments the students will make a series of assumptions as to the nature of that class.  Because of perceptual influences, we know first impressions are difficult to change.  Good speakers want to begin their speech with a sense of confidence, preparation, and audience-centeredness to establish positive expectations for the speech.

A concept that comes into play with speaker credibility is grace.  In religion , grace refers to a forgiveness of sins.  In public speaking, grace refers to the audience’s ability to overlook minor mistakes the speaker makes.  Again, due to how we know perception works, if a speaker begins a speech in a strong, confident manner, the audience assumes the speech will be strong and minor errors get overlooked.  However, if the speaker starts weakly, giving the impression they are not prepared, the audience expects a poor speech and will look for evidence fulfilling the expectation.  Each mistake, even minor, is noticed as it proves the audience’s expectations were correct.  Speakers want to start off establishing positive expectations to receive grace from the audience.

5. To Give the Thesis/Preview

At the end of the of the introduction, the speaker gives their thesis and preview, telling the audience specifically what the speech is about and how the speaker will approach the topic. As addressed elsewhere, a good thesis is concise, simple, and direct, and a good preview is brief and clear. At this point, the thesis/preview is not only telling the audience the specific purpose of the speech, it is also serving as a transition into the body of the speech.


A common mistake novice speakers make in fulfilling the five purposes is to think of them as five sentences which is a completely erroneous approach. Whether the introduction is 30 seconds long or 10 minutes long, the functions need to be met, regardless of how many sentences it takes. Furthermore, except for the thesis/preview, the functions do not have to be handled separately. The attention getting part of the speech can certainly aid in preparing the audience for the thesis, establishing relevance, and setting the tone for the speech. The speaker needs to consider these in combinations, not singularly.

Attention-Getting Devices

To get the audience's attention, we use attention getting devices. Attention getting devices, or AGDs, are techniques speakers use to grab the audience's focus and get the audience intrigued by what is coming up. They aim to get the audience to want to listen. There are a variety of attention getting devices, and they can be used singularly or in combination.


The speaker can use either responsive questions or rhetorical questions to gain the audience's attention. Responsive questions ask for an actual response from the audience.  A "show of hands" is most commonly asked, but with smaller audiences could include verbal comments. Response questions can be extremely effective as they require the audience to become involved immediately, reducing the likelihood of them acting more passively. Important guidelines for asking a responsive question are:

  • Use the response. When the audience responds to the question, incorporate the response immediately. Otherwise, the audience may be left wondering what the purpose was for the question. Even a simple phrase like, "That's about what I expected," acknowledges their input.

  • Use short questions. If the question is long and involved, the audience will not be sure what they are responding to so they are less likely to respond if they are not sure. If needed, ask a series of short questions versus a single long, complicated one.

  • Use safe questions. Consider where the audience is and what they would be comfortable disclosing in front of other audience members. For example, to ask a question such as, "How many of you have an alcohol problem" would be a very unsafe question in most settings. Also, consider the wording. "How many of you have quit using illegal drugs?" is a bad question; there are only two possible responses: a) “I used to and now I do not,” or b) “I still use illegal drugs.” The wording of the question traps the audience.

  • Encourage the audience to respond. Audiences will virtually always assume a question is rhetorical, not response. The speaker should either say something like, "I'd like to see a show of hands," or use nonverbal regulators, such as raising their own hand, or a combination of the two, to let the audience know they really want a response. Sometimes speakers need to be fairly blunt in encouraging a response.

Rhetorical questions do not call for a specific response. They are asked to trigger the audience to think in a manner consistent with the focus of the speech. A good rhetorical question takes time and careful thought to develop. They can be deceptively simple. For example, if a speaker is going to argue against drinking and driving, to ask, "How many of you have heard of drinking and driving?" is not a good rhetorical question; it is too simplistic and obvious.  Something like, "How many of you realize getting killed by a drunk driver is the most common form of death on a late Saturday night?" is more thought provoking and directed.


The speaker tells a story or gives an example related to the topic. These can be very effective in that audiences tend to relate much better to stories about real people; such stories create a much greater sense of empathy and identification.  For example, Jason might start his speech about pediatric nursing with a story from his sibling's experience with cancer.  Emma could begin her speech about organic farming with the story of her family's work shifting from conventional to organic methods. If using a narrative, deliver it in a manner which "tells the story." Use vocal variety to aid the audience in imagining the seriousness or the humor of the situation. Giving a narrative in a flat, monotone style negates the impact of the story.


The speaker can begin the speech by quoting another person. The quotation selected should be used because of its intriguing or insightful nature. As with testimony as evidence, the speaker can use lay, prestige, or expert quotations, and should always make sure the source is cited.

Some things to consider when using quotations:

  • Quoting verbatim.  While the speaker could paraphrase the quotation, typically opening quotations are given verbatim.  The speaker needs a quotation that is worded well, or funny, inspiring, and ear-catching.  The quotation needs to have a special quality that makes it meaningful and interesting for the audience.  Quotations should be carefully introduced and cited.  Speakers should avoid using a gesture to make "air quotes" while speaking.

  • Known source.  When selecting the quotation, if recognizing the source of the quotation is important, be sure the audience is likely to be able to do so.  Years ago, a social commentator, Will Rogers, was well known.  He was a forerunner of humorists such as John Stewart or Stephen Colbert, focusing on politics and current events.  However, today virtually no one would know who he was, so even though his quotations might be quite relevant, given the audience does not know the source, using his words may not be as effective.

Startling Statements or Statistics

The speaker begins the speech with a statement that, for some reason, takes the audience aback and makes them want to hear more. Whether a statement or a statistic, it should be something that triggers interest and curiosity. However, it should not be shocking. Swearing, yelling, telling off-color jokes, or other over-the-top comments should be avoided so as to not create a barrier between the audience and speaker. A classic example of this approach goes as follows:

"Last year in the Sudan, over 10,000 people die every month from starvation. That's a very shocking number. Even more shocking is that you don't give a shit. What's more, you were more shocked when I said shit than you were when I told you 10,000 people were dying every month."

While it does use a mild expletive, the impact of the attention-getter is quite strong. Depending on the audience, such a startling statement and statistic could be quite effective, while other audiences may be too repulsed by the use of "shit." As with everything, appropriateness is all based on the audience.


Decorative: A woman speaking using a microphone.
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An old adage says, "Always start a speech with a joke." This is absolutely wrong. Starting a serious speech on child abuse with a joke would be offensive, not engaging. However, if appropriate for the topic and audience, humor is fine, if the speaker is adequately prepared for what may happen. Specifically, the speaker needs to:

  • Make sure the humor is actually funny. There is nothing more discomforting than watching a speaker attempting to make jokes they think are funny, and the audience is not responding. Preview the joke with a trusted friend, and urge them to give an honest opinion, and take their opinion to heart. Too often enthusiasm overrides thoughtfulness.

  • Be careful to not offend. In today's culture of sensitivity to racial, ethnic, gender, and physical diversity, it is very easy to tell a joke that will offend someone in the audience.

  • The safest object of humor is the speaker. Self-deprecating humor (making fun of oneself) is generally a safe tactic, as long as the speaker does not overdo the humor and impact credibility. While poking fun at oneself can be good, if taken too far it can suggest a lack of confidence in oneself or ones message.

  • Consider what to expect. Often, the best humor elicits a chuckle, a smile, or other subtler responses. To expect boisterous laughter is usually unrealistic.

  • Be prepared for the humor to fail. Be emotionally prepared for the audience to not laugh. If that happens, simply go on. Attempting to restate the joke or explain the humor emphasizes failure and makes the speaker look weak.

Reference to Audience/Occasion

The speaker can begin the speech by making a reference directed at the makeup, interests, or unique characteristics of the audience, or by making a reference to the event at which the audience is in attendance. For example, if giving a speech to college students on financial aid, a speaker may start by referring to the perpetual need for college students to find more money. When opening a commencement address, speakers often refer to the honor of being selected to speak at such an important occasion.

Building Relevance

The audience needs to have a sense of how or why the topic is relevant to them.  In the introduction, the speaker should work to build a connection between the topic and the audience’s needs or concerns.  Relevance building has three pathways:

  • Refer to obvious relevance.  At times, the value of the topic to the audience is self-evident.  Speaking to a group of parents of college freshman, a topic such as financial aid and paying for school is clearly relevant, so a brief reference to the importance of the topic should suffice.

  • Refer to a current but unknown relevance.  Quite common for classroom speeches, a speaker has a topic that is current and of value to the audience, but the audience may not be aware of the relevance.  For example, if attempting to persuade a classroom audience to support a bill pending in the state legislature, until the speaker lays out the impact of the bill on the audience, they will not see the topic as relevant.  When building relevance, the speaker can appeal to a serious need, like paying for college, or that something should be of interest, such as how to snowboard.  Regardless, the speaker needs to make sure the connection between audience and topic is clear.

  • Refer to future relevance.  A more difficult task is to connect an audience to a topic that will be relevant to them in the future but is not relevant at the moment.  This is a common issue for teachers, trying to convince students that learning the content will benefit them in their future.  Regardless, it is the speaker’s job to show the audience the value of the topic, even if the value is not realized until a later time.

Building Speaker Credibility

Decorative: A woman speaking into a microphone.
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As mentioned previously, during the introduction, the audience is developing a perception of the competence and credibility of the speaker.  It is very important to understand the speaker’s credibility is something the audience gives the speaker.  Credibility is the audience’s perception of the speaker’s competence and believability.  The speaker needs to offer evidence to the audience the speaker is prepared, confident, and believable.  Some ways to influence the audience’s perception include:

  • Strong delivery.  Strong delivery factors can add significantly to communication confidence and assurance. These include:
    • Good eye contact
    • Clear, confident vocal factors
    • Open gestures
    • Skilled use of visual aids
    • Minimal anxiety displays

  • Content comfort.  Displaying confidence in the topic itself and being able to speak about it easily, without hesitation or uncertainty.

  • Use of sources.  One of the benefits of using sources is credibility transfer, when the credibility of the source cited becomes part of the speaker’s credibility.  Citing sources, especially ones the audience already holds as credible, will enhance the speaker’s believability.

  • Personal experience.  When addressing a topic the speaker knows well, letting the audience know about that experience can influence credibility.  For example, if Brittany is giving a classroom speech on the culture of South Africa, telling her audience she spent a year as an exchange student in Johannesburg lets us know she has relevant experience.  When attempting to persuade an audience to become organ donors, Jack sharing a personal experience of a loved one receiving an organ enhances his credibility.


While the introduction establishes the overall tone and expectations for the speech, the conclusion provides the audience the lasting impression.  The conclusion is about half the length of the introduction, with two primary purposes:  to summarize, and to provide closure.

First, the conclusion offers a summary of the speech.  In the introduction, the speaker previewed the points right after the thesis in a short, concise manner.  Here, the speaker should review the main points, albeit in a slightly more involved manner than the preview.  Remind the audience of the key points, but do not over-summarize.  Generally, touch on what the main points were and, for a longer speech, some of the major sub-points.  However, do not get so detailed that it sounds as if the conclusion is repeating the body of the speech.  Do not make any new points in the conclusion.  Gently remind the audience of what the speech addressed.

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The second purpose of the conclusion is to provide closure which is more than simply ending the speech.  Providing closure is to end the speech on a powerful note which gives the audience a feeling the speech is finished, and is finished appropriately and comfortably.  Without the sense of closure, the audience feels the speech ended abruptly, as if it was cut off, without a sense of finality.  Given how important the ending of the speech is, a good speaker will take time to plan the last few lines to make sure they provide closure.  Most of us have had the uncomfortable experience of reaching the end of a speech and realizing we do not have a good, final line.  Some basic preparation can avoid such an awkward situation.
There are a range of options for a speaker in ending the speech. 

  • Use any of the attention getting devices:  end with a quotation, a reference to the audience or occasion, or any other technique that ends the speech in a comfortable manner. 

  • Use a reference to introduction.  The speaker ends the speech by referring to how it started.  For example, if a speech on child abuse starts with a story of an abused child, the conclusion might bring us up to date on where the child is now.  If the speaker started with a response question, they may reference back to how the audience responded and make some sort of observation about how, after hearing the speech, their response may change.  The positive effect of referencing the introduction is that it ties the speech up in a nice, neat package.

  • End with a challenge.  Especially for persuasion, end the speech by challenging the audience to engage in a specific action to fix a problem or situation.  In effect, the speaker attempts to motivate the audience to set a goal and work to achieve it.  For example, at a commencement address, it is common to hear the speaker challenge the students to take risks and to strive hard to achieve lofty goals.

  • Call for action: Especially for persuasion, end the speech by reinforcing the steps the audience can take to implement the solution. For example, if the speaker is working to persuade the audience to exercise more, they may end with something like, “So when you leave here today, find that exercise, that physical activity, that thing you do that makes you feel good, and just do it.”

Key Concepts

The terms and concepts students should be familiar with from this section include:

Primacy-Recency Effect

The Purposes of the Introduction

Attention Getting Devices

Building Relevance

Building Speaker Credibility