Listen for the callback

by Elizabeth Toohig
in Blog
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The callback is a simple tool that allows a speaker to deepen their connection with the audience. Furthermore, it often adds humour and helps to make your message stick.

callback techniqueI was asked to be the contest chair (emcee) for the finals of the Toastmasters International speech evaluation contest in the U.K. It would be the last event of a two day conference. Whilst needing to make sure I kept to script for explaining the contest rules, I also wanted to inject something to make it relevant to the conference and different from previous rounds. After giving it some thought, I decided it was an ideal opportunity to use the callback technique.

What is callback?

For the purpose of this article, I am defining ‘callback’ as referring to anything that happened earlier in the event or while you were speaking. If you are a speaker at an event or conference, using this technique is a great way to help you stand out from the other speakers and to deepen your connection with the audience.

The power of listening

Being a good speaker is as much about your ability to listen as it is about your speaking skills. This is especially true if you are going to use the callback technique effectively.

At the contest, I knew that I would need to be all ears and listen attentively, not only to what the speakers and presenters were saying, but also to the responses from fellow attendees.

Using callback

At an event or conference, using these two steps will help you develop your ability to use the callback technique. Like any skill, once it has been learnt and practised many times, you will find that it becomes an almost unconscious technique. However, if you do keep it on your conscious radar, it will certainly make you more aware of the audience’s reactions to other speakers!

Step 1

Three things to listen out for:

1. Things that generated a large laugh.

2. Memorable visual phrases used and repeated by other speakers.

3. Anything that links to your subject.

Step 2

The next step is to reflect. Ask yourself, “How can I weave that into my content?” Not everything will tie in, and it’s not a good idea to force it. It is a question of selecting what will work best. Two considerations are:

1. What is on everyone’s mind?

2. Which points can I reinforce?

Additional benefits

1. It shows you listened and valued the words of others.

2. It highlights your confidence. You could not have written a callback in advance of the event, so it shows that you’re comfortable in your position.

3. It shows that you have the agility to make links and weave it in to your own material.

4. It acts as a compliment to other speakers.

Callback in action

Using the steps that I detailed above meant that when the time came for me to take to the stage, I had a wealth of material to draw upon. Here are a three examples of how I was able to use callback in my role as emcee.

Learning in action

One of my tasks as emcee was to energise the audience and ensure they would give rousing applause to all the speakers. I had planned how I would do this, but my plans changed following my experience of a clapping activity in the ‘Laughter Yoga’ workshop. The activity had left everyone buzzing and laughing, so I opted to use it here. As I stood on stage, I could pick out those in the audience who had been in the workshop; their faces lit up as I spoke, knowing what was to come. An additional benefit of using this activity was that anyone who had not been able to attend the session got a chance to experience the ‘buzz’.

Generating humour

As emcee, one of the things I wanted to recognise was the skill and dedication shown by the contestants leading up to the finals. The callback technique gave me a chance to do this in a humorous way. Former world public speaking champion, Mark Brown, had opened the conference, and in his workshop he shared a story about a woodcutting contest which had a message about preparation. The winner was the woodcutter who took the time to ‘sharpen his axe’. At the start of the contest, whilst going through the housekeeping announcements, I included a health and safety warning: “There are seven people in this room with very sharp axes.” The audience reacted with laughter, as everyone could see that I was referring to the evaluation skills of the seven contestants. I had used callback and generated laughter to show that all of the contestants were examples of Mark’s message.

Reinforce the message

Rather than using just my own explanation of why speech evaluation is an important part of Toastmasters, I was able to weave in and credit two references from the keynote address given by Mike Storkey, the organisation’s International President. “Evaluation sets us apart” and “evaluate is an art”.

Callback, equally, will set you apart as a speaker, and is a bit of an art. It has an element of spontaneity, and cannot be pre-planned or scripted. Initially, it may feel a bit daunting to consider using this technique. However, the benefits gained from the deeper connection with the audience make it a technique worth mastering. Next time you are speaking at an event or conference, listen out for stand-out phrases or moments of laughter, then consider how you could weave those in to your presentation.


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