Riding off into the Sunset—How to Close with a Bang, not a Whimper

 The opposite of the happy ending is actually the unsatisfying ending.”

―Orson Scott Card

In my last blog, I told the story of my mother being trapped on the second floor with two babies while the first floor was engulfed in flames. I deliberately left the story hanging—almost literally a cliffhanger, since my mother was standing on the roof when last we saw her.

fire_flames_building   I was one of those babies, and I was thrown off the roof to a neighbor, who, thank God, caught me. He also caught my brother, also safely. But what about my mother? Surely she didn’t fling herself into the neighbor’s arms as well?

Here’s the truth of the matter: I don’t know how she got down.

There’s something about ending the story this way that is dissatisfying. How the heck did she get down?

We’re missing some pertinent facts that could tie up the loose ends of a dramatic story. And this brings us to today’s blog. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing an article, giving a podcast, or delivering a lesson in a course, at the end, your audience wants to feel satisfied.

We want to feel our time and money was well spent. We want to have learned or felt something that tickled our imaginations or expanded our understanding. We want to have something we can try. We want to feel empowered with our new knowledge.

Why are beginnings and endings so important to articles and especially to online courses? It’s simple. If the beginning is good, we care about the topic, so we keep reading, watching, or listening.

If the ending is satisfying, we tell other people. We rate it highly. We return to the writer/professor/subject matter expert for more. This is hugely important. Downstream spending comes from the level of satisfaction at the end of the experience. So make it count.

Professors have a particular challenge with ending a class or course on a strong note, for a very practical reason. They are used to students packing up their laptops and books during the last ten minutes of class and preparing to leave. As a result, professors tend to rush through those last precious moments when they are trying to wrap up the key points, give the assignments for the next class, and fit it all in before the bell rings.

They actually have a similar challenge with how they open a class, since they are used to students straggling in late, making a lot of noise as they settle in their seats, and resenting the professor if they’ve missed any important material. (Go figure.)

When I work with professors to create online courses, one of the first things I must do is to help them rethink the way they handle openings and closings. In their first drafts, they tend to ramble through the introductions, careful not to say anything of significance. They then dash madly through the conclusions.

No, no, no!

Every word counts. We’re not playing horseshoes, where getting close is good enough. We’re going for the ringers. How, then, do we give our audience that lovely feeling of riding off into the sunset?

Your ending needs to do several things:

  • Tie up loose ends, making sure you’ve brought each discussion point to its natural end. This is like wrapping up the subplots and main plot in a novel. It’s satisfying when everything comes together; it’s frustrating when anything is left unexplained or unfinished from the body of the work.
  • Help us understand what we’ve learned, now that we have all the pieces of the puzzle you’ve unraveled (or constructed) for us.
  • Recap if necessary to reinforce or remind us of the points you’ve made.
  • Smack us with something powerful and memorable so we feel satisfied.

It’s this last point that I want to unpack a bit, since it’s the hardest thing to do. Here are techniques to try:

  • End with a provocative question.
  • End with a cliffhanger—pique their curiosity with the big question, “What happened next?”
  • Set up the next lesson, episode, or article with a teaser. A teaser is not the same as saying, “In the next lesson we’ll cover x, y, and z.” A teaser teases. It asks a question or poses a problem that you want to know the answer to. It’s similar to a cliffhanger, but a cliffhanger sets up a story in particular.
  • If you’ve used a bookend (aka “frame”) to set us up, bring us back to the story so we know how it ends (back to the case study, medical mystery, whatever). Closure is satisfying.
  • Structure your recap in the form of a “toolkit”—things we know now that we can put to use.
  • Take the toolkit a step further and suggest things to try that will reinforce or demonstrate the content in “real” life. Shape your points into a call to action. For example, at the end of each lesson in Fundamentals of Photography, Joel Sartore set up “field assignments” like he might do for National Geographic. He’d done all the same assignments in the lesson.
  • Put your recap in the form of “key takeaways” that remind us of how much as well as of what we’ve learned. This can be intellectually satisfying. Key takeaways can also be tied to a call to action.
  • End with a dynamite anecdote or story related to the content that illustrates your key points and/or demonstrates why the information matters.
  • End with an outstanding quotation. Quotations are tricky; often people think they are better than they really are. Try yours out on other people before you use it to wrap up.
  • End with a fabulous line or lines that motivate and inspire us.
  • Demonstrate some principle from the content.
  • Surprise us.

Which technique you use doesn’t matter so much as what you say and how you say it. Readers/viewers/listeners want to have something they want to share, mull over, wonder about, do….

When crafting your conclusion, remember the 6 principles of “sticky” ideas—the ideas that don’t die, the ones that go viral—as described in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. They found that the ideas that keep rumbling in our minds have one or more of these characteristics:

  1. Simplicity
  1. Unexpectedness
  1. Concreteness
  1. Credibility
  1. Emotions
  1. Stories

Obviously, you can integrate these elements at any point in your writing, but using them at the closing will ensure that your ideas resonate.

Did you see or read Randy Pausch’s, “The Last Lecture”? He was a much-loved professor at Carnegie Mellon who died of cancer. He presented a final lecture on “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” before he left the university to spend time with his family.

It’s an incredibly moving lecture, and he used every one of the “sticky” principles from start to finish. In his conclusion, he managed to demonstrate one of his principles for living while also surprising us. Here’s what he said and did.

How do you get people to help you? You can’t get there alone. … Tell the truth. … Be earnest. … Apologize when you screw up. … Focus on other people, not on yourself.

And I thought, how do I possibly make a concrete example of that? See, yesterday was my wife’s birthday. If there was ever a time when I was entitled to have the focus on me, it might be the last lecture. But no, I feel very badly that my wife didn’t really get a proper birthday, and I thought it would be very nice, if 500 people [sang to her].”

He brought out a cake, and everyone sang before he gave his last takeaways. It was a powerful demonstration of his point to focus on other people.

From there, he moved to a recap of his most important principles, and with each point, he made a joke, told a little story, or said it in such a way that it was truly memorable. For example, one of his last lines was, “Luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity.” That’s the kind of line that makes me want to tweet it right now.

And he kept giving zingers: “It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.” All shareable, all profound, all emotionally satisfying.

Finally, he gave a twist at the end, one last surprise: “Have you figured out the second head fake? The talk’s not for you, it’s for my kids.”

Sunset at White Sands National Monument  

Now that’s a man who knew how to ride off into the sunset.

You can watch Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo

Tune in next Friday for Issue #6 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” I’ll wrap up this 3-part series on structure, with “What to Do with Saggy Middles.”

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About Marcy McDonald

Marcy on assignment in Siena, Italy

Marcy on assignment in Siena, Italy

Online Course Producer



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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