Knowing how to start and stop
If you have to give a public performance of some kind – from a wedding speech, to a presentation at work, all the way up to a play or musical performance – I would suggest that starting and stopping are the very hardest bits to get right.
It sounds simple in theory, but there’s really a lot going on!
The beginning is the most important part of the work.Plato
The ritual of starting a public performance of any kind has two challenges: people turning up late, and drawing attention to the starting moment. This applies to a speech or presentation, but also to a gig or play, a sporting performance, or even a pre-recorded work such as a film at the cinema.
For the ‘turning up late’ problem, the default strategy is to deploy some form of less consequential entertainment, for a duration in proportion to how late people are likely to be.
With scheduled TV programming (which is still apparently a thing), people are likely to be pretty much on time, so a 30s-60s opening sequence works just great. It has a distinctive soundtrack so other people in the house who might want to watch can also hear it starting and rush to the sofa.
For a film at the cinema, people have to travel to get there so are likely to arrive later than planned, and then realise they really need the toilet, or find the queue for the popcorn is longer than they anticipated. So there’s quite a margin of error; a 15-25 minute period of adverts and trailers is about right, and of course has other benefits to the theatre.
For a gig, the calculus gets blurrier still: the venue wants to make money from drinks, and the performers want a full, warmed-up crowd, so a warm-up act of some kind about an hour before the main performance is perfect.
There are two areas where I feel like society has not happened upon an adequate solution. First, attending a theatrical performance has the same challenges as the cinema, but I’ve never seen that liminal time between arrival and performance filled well. Second, and of more direct interest to me, in a work presentation – and especially an online one – there’s an awkward period of 2-5 minutes between the first arrivals and the latecomers.
Back when we still went in to offices, I solved this problem for a particular weekly meeting by using the TV method: I played a ‘theme tune’. This had the nice effect of raising the energy level, and also signalling to those elsewhere in the office that the meeting was about to start so they should get a move on – precisely the same benefits as a TV show, but a 2-3 minute song is about right instead of 30s-60s.
Now that these meetings take place remotely, we still have that same space of time, but a theme tune does not work well at all. There’s no ambient way of reminding those who haven’t joined yet, and the music would stifle any conversation between early attendees. I still don’t know how to solve this. My very partial solution is to set my video background to something I’ve been interested recently as a soft cue for small talk!
Calling attention for the start of the performance
Since we have a gap between the early arrivals and the latecomers, we then have the second problem: signalling the true start of the main performance.
Indoor public venues have a great cue for this: lighting. Dimming the lights is instantly noticeable and clearly signifies the audience to pay attention to the stage. At the Brussels Puppet Theatre I saw a particularly powerful version of this idea: you hear three quick, sharp knocks (which quickly silences almost all of the audience), followed by three slower knocks, each of which is precisely synchronised with some, then most, then all of the house lights going out. Attention is rapidly and tightly focused!
Cinemas have a harder time deploying the lighting trick as they have generally already engaged ‘movie mode’ to show the adverts and trailers. Some will transition from partial house lights to darkness (not a particularly dramatic change), and in some European cinemas an automatic curtain draws closed over the screen and then re-opens to mark the change – kind of pointless, but effective! In other cinemas, more notably, they play a very distinctive and loud descending run of three chimes, reminiscent of the puppet theatre’s three taps.
Without those tricks, the opening moments of the film itself can also do the job. In the UK at least, after the near-continual sound from the trailers, the moment of silence while the age certification is displayed forms part of the ‘things are starting’ signal. The animated logos of production companies do the final part of focusing attention, especially when accompanied by significant sounds – 20th Century Fox’s fanfare being particularly effective.
Occasionally films may deviate from the logo pattern, at their own risk. Dancer in the Dark (2000) was intended to open with the Overture playing while curtains remained drawn across the screen; in the UK and US, where auditoriums generally lack such curtains, it instead plays out over a black screen, to the confusion of the audience.
(Side-note: for Things readers interested in all things ‘meta’, Dancer in the Dark is notable for tacitly inviting the audience to leave before the film ends. Although I consider it an excellent film, I fear everyone will experience some form of regret whichever choice they make.)
More recently Dune (2021) forces audiences to sit up and pay attention by opening immediately with a (subtitled) quote in an alien tongue; very effective in the screening I attended because the volume was so loud!
Returning to the office setting, cueing the start is another problematic area. There is at least a well-defined approach for a more formal presentation, in which a host of some sort introduces the speaker, but there is one crucial rule such hosts must know: audiences are primed to clap after hearing a name. A successful introduction therefore follows the pattern: “Please welcome serial victim, unknown assailant, and universal stand-in, the enigmatic… John Doe” <applause>.
I frequently see hosts destroy this moment simply by reversing the order: “Please welcome John Doe” <scattered uncertain claps>, “who needs no introduction” <disconcerted silence>.
For a single presenter, there does not seem to be a universal method of kicking things off, which is unfortunate. They simply have to try interrupting everyone with a generic opening remark like “May I have your attention please”.
In less formal and more raucous settings, I was introduced to a fantastically effective alternative by – I think – Tim Sheppard: you say “If you can hear me, clap” – and then you clap. You repeat this a second time, and now roughly half the audience should join you in the clap. This gets the attention of the rest of the audience, so on the third repetition, everyone joins in, and is instantly giving you their full attention. I note this also echoes the rule-of-three seen earlier with the puppet theatre’s knocks, or the cinema’s chimes.
The end is important in all thingsYamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
Endings are a little easier: there’s only problem to address and that is the ambiguity of whether or not the show is over. But perhaps because it is less problematic, this can end up less decisive in many contexts.
In film and TV, the end-credits can make this very clear – although this is currently opening up into a battleground for new norms, as streaming services lean in to automatic credit-skipping (to the delight of some and horror of others), and as the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular is normalising the idea of the mid- or post-credits scene.
The theatre can make wonderful use of their curtain, and there’s a delight to be had in the ritual of the actors coming out to take a bow – but after that, the audience and actors both have the difficult problem of judging whether continued applause can or should be deployed to bring on further rounds of bows.
Musical performances such as a gig are very neatly divided into individual songs; the ambiguity then becomes about judging which song is the last. The level of enthusiasm an audience is likely to display is also a little too much for a band to feel comfortable standing there and accepting. Both these problems are resolved with the odd but completely accepted ritual of the band leaving the stage, then after judging the performatively correct length of applause, returning for an encore. Any real ambiguity is ultimately resolved by the raising of the house lights, which signals the ‘true end’.
I have seen this defied just once, in Björk’s 2016 performance at the Royal Albert Hall (written up nicely here). Despite performing the standard encore ritual with a radically re-worked version of Pluto, the crowd was not satisfied, I suspect because unlike other London performances, at no time had Björk addressed the crowd directly.
Despite the universal signal of house lights returning, the applause continued, and from the stalls the crowd began to sing the repeated, unresolving five-note refrain from Pluto, the song they had just heard. The singing spread through the crowd and sustained, as the Uncut article notes, “a demonstration so overwhelming that it forces Björk back out of her dressing room to offer further benedictions and thanks.”
Ending a talk or presentation, like beginning one, is much more difficult. Just as introducing a speaker by name creates a perfect moment for an audience to welcome them with applause, the audience is similarly primed to applaud at the end – but the cues are far less well-defined.
One obvious pattern to avoid: do not smoothly segue into a Q&A section. By explicitly asking the audience for something other than applause, you deny almost any chance of it!
The guiding principle to end satisfyingly is simply to ensure the audience is confident you have reached the end. If you can pull that off, and have performed well enough, a small silence while maintaining eye-contact can cue the applause. My favourite way to signify the end is to make a callback to something you mentioned at the very start; that and other ideas are nicely summarised here.
A much more overt method is to symbolically bringing your own hands together, as you deliver your concluding remark, as if clapping yourself. I saw this used by a guest-speaker in a talk about giving talks (a meta-talk); the second guest-speaker completely destroyed the applause-cueing effect by launching into a question before the applause could begin! (That guest-speaker received their comeuppance at the end of their own talk, when the first speaker vindictively deployed the very same trick).
Finally, in an online presentation, as with beginnings, endings are even more difficult than the real-life version, notably because applause simply does not function. The audience is deprived of that cathartic acknowledgement. I’m not sure there can be any substitute for it, so you must instead figure out how to reasonably wrap up and cue the audience to leave the call. Even this is not trivial to do well.
In a Google Meet call, I had some success with a radical method: since participants can kick one another off the call, I invited everyone to play an impromptu form of battle royale by kicking off as many other participants as they could, until only one remained. Precise rules and their enforcement are difficult in such a game, but it seems to work well enough – the only problem is I fear it’s so intense and interesting in its own right that the participant’s feelings about the talk itself risk being lost entirely.
Conclusions for online presentations
Despite not being my intention when I started to gather these thoughts, this leads me to a very significant conclusion: in an age where remote work seems likely to become the new norm, we really need to solve the problems of beginning and ending in online presentations!
So I’m going to propose some ideas, inspired by what works elsewhere, and will try them out myself when the opportunity next arises. I suspect that over time manual solutions will emerge, and that these will ultimately be implemented by the platforms that host online calls themselves.
Waiting for latecomers in an online presentation
While one could deploy a song or video at this point, the way it eliminates any chance for banter among early arrivals is a big problem. But I’ve not seen group call service that can neatly accommodate multiple people talking at once, so you really have to lean into that.
- Welcome each new joiner (even if you’ve already started!)
- Engage arrivals in some light banter. This is of course the default option, but can be hard to pull off, especially for a less confident or outgoing presenter. So…
- … you could explicitly have someone with a suitable personality act as the host, welcoming everyone in, leading the conversation, and cuing the main presenter when the time comes
- … or you can use my trick of setting your background to something interesting to deliberately provoke small-talk
- More radical options: you could tell a story one word at a time; each new arrival must add a new word, and everyone can give a recap of the story so far by saying their own words in turn. Sounds fun, but probably doesn’t work at small or large scales… and possibly nowhere in between either?
- Challenge arrivals to name something (e.g. an animal that begins with ‘P’) that nobody else has so far said. This tacitly encourages early arrival and penalises latecomers, possibly a good thing. Again, may not work at small or large scales, but a middle-ground where this works is a bit more plausible.
- Hold an informal vote on something low-stakes and binary; ask each member their vote as they arrive and keep a tally (e.g. “Cats vs dogs” or “Time is endless vs Time is finite”)
- Sing a song that works in rounds; each new participant can join in at the right moment. Probably requires a very specific group of people for this to work, but perhaps if you established it as a routine…
- Somehow have people arrive directly into small break-out rooms; then with a timed warning bring them back to the main room and begin!
Signalling the start of an online presentation
Depending on which method was chosen above, this may become easier… or harder. Given the way attention is divided, I think an audio cue is most likely to work.
- Deploy the rule of three. Clapping or knocking seems too aggressive; playing a recorded three-note chime could work (like this). Judging the volume level correctly may be a challenge, but perhaps you test that out with the very first arrivals?
- A more elaborate version of this would be to deploy an actual (brief) musical intro, probably more in the style of a Radio Jingle. This again has the volume challenge, and also requires more manual preparation – but perhaps for a meeting that repeats every week it could work well
- You could deploy a ‘manual jingle’ – by singing something sweet and short! Sure to gain attention, but not an approach that would work for everyone.
- Try to replicate the ‘if you can hear me, clap’ trick… replicating it exactly may or may not work; perhaps something more like ‘if you can hear me, touch your nose’ would be better? It depends on the default visual layout of the call, I suppose.
- Failing all these, one could perhaps develop a very specific introductory sentence, long enough that any excess banter could be shut down, but banal enough that it doesn’t matter if you miss the first half of it. I’m not sure there’s a way to do this that wouldn’t come across as rude though. Perhaps something like “I’m going to begin the presentation in 8 seconds, in 7 seconds, in 6 seconds, in 5 seconds I’m going to begin the presentation, 3, 2, 1, now. Hello!”
Signalling the end of an online presentation
Other than notes on how to end a talk in general, the key problems here are to replace applause, and to cue the final end of the call.
- If you started with a short musical cue, perhaps you could also signal the end the same way
- “So, if you learned something from this presentation, please show that by waving at the camera – but if you’re still wondering about something I said, instead please stroke your chin and say ‘hmmmm'” (this gives a ritualised group activity and also segues nicely into Q&A)
- Lean into the format and just say “mike drop!” and leave the call abruptly – either by walking off, or hanging up. Maybe re-join 5 seconds later for Q&A.
- “That’s the end! Please show your appreciation by rapidly turning your video feed on and off”
- Not repeatable, but for fun you could look off to one side and say “that looks like smoke…” under your breath, then deliver your final line in a slightly hurried way with an unconvinced smile before running off camera.
Ed pointed out to me that streamers address these problems online in a few interesting ways – running other videos as warm-up entertainment, or conducting text-based games for the waiting/arriving audience. However, these are quite specific to the streaming set-up, and I don’t think they can easily be used for the online work meetings I’m trying to solve for.
A new and much harder the challenge is also becoming more common: presentations where the audience a mix of those physically present and others joining online. In the absence of good online solutions, I don’t know where to start with solving the start and end of these meetings.
Finally, a side observation: arriving late to online meetings doesn’t feel as bad as arriving later to a physical one. However, the irritation at someone arriving late to your meeting is just as bad either way.
Consider arriving for online meetings early!