The Callback

I have it on good authority that proper use of callbacks when giving a presentation is one of the most powerful tools you can use to connect with your audiences. When used in conjunction with relevent stories, this technique can really take you to the next level.

I was able to witness the effect of this the other night, when I gave a test speech (sometimes called the target speech) at a Toastmasters evaluation contest. Of course, in a 5-7 minute speech there was only so much room for content, so it was tough to make too many callbacks to my own material. However, I had the good/bad fortune to be speaking immediately following our humorous speech contest. I say bad because I had to follow two of the best humorous speakers in all of Wichita Kansas (that’s right, I said it), and as a speaker you never want to come on after great speakers. I say good because their speeches provided me some excellent material for my callback practice.

If you had been there to hear the two speeches, you would have heard some very funny material. One speaker labeled a bottle of water as the bottle of youth, and did a great job giving us humorous reasons to choose it over other drinks. For his fact on coffee, he mentioned that 10 out of 10 coffee drinkers die.  For my callback, I asked the audience to raise their hand if they were working on a certain goal in Toastmasters. When nearly everyone raised their hand, I warned them that recent statistics I had become aware of said that 10 out of 10 people pursuing that goal die.

I doubt this comes off as very funny in print, but it did very well live. The reason this only works in a callback is if I tried to tell a random audience that 10 out of 10 of them would die, it would (at best) only generate a minor chuckle.

I also had the good fortune to speak for a couple of minutes earlier in the program, so I was able to set up some callbacks to my own material without needing to add to the 5-7 minute total of the actual speech. Again, the callbacks worked really well, as I saw the audience nod or otherwise respond as they made the connection with the earlier points, and with me.

The beauty of this process is if it can work for me, it can work for anyone. It didn’t take a special skill to see everyone laugh out loud at the 10 out of 10 die remark. Because I had been exposed to this important lesson, in this case from Craig Valentine, I was able to make that connection on the fly.

Here’s a key: if you’re going to speak after someone else, be there for the whole presentation and jot down a couple of notes where the previous speaker succeeded in connecting with the audience, or where an unexpected comment is made. You won’t even need to refer to these notes later, but the act of writing them down reinforces them in your mind.

One other key to consider: if you’re going to use callbacks from an earlier event, make sure it’s something that most of your audience was privy to. If not, your result will be like making an inside marketing joke to a room full of engineers. And those humans are a tough enough audience already.

Using the callback method can help your speech in a few specific ways:
1. Add humor without artificial jokes
2. Tie multiple parts of your presentation or multiple presentations together to improve retention by the audience
3. Build on earlier momentum

Do you use callbacks in your speaking? For your next presentation, think about how you can add just one or two to your speech, and see where it takes you. Before you know it you’ll be able to add in callbacks to other material as I’ve described. Try it, you’ll be glad you did.


  1. // Reply

    Hey Rob,

    Thanks for some background on the other night. You did an excellent job of using callbacks. This was a good reminder for me.

    I was leery about posting because I heard that 10 out of 10 people who commenter die.

  2. // Reply


    Great job with the call back. It did come across as funny in print. I recently attended a 5-day event that had multiple speakers and the absolute best one was the one who was there for all 5 days before he spoke. He was able to call back to everything from the previous speakers and that’s what made him and his message stand out. Thanks for your post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *