"Transitions require effort," says ECG Principal Steven Cohen, referring to the words and phrases in any talk or speech that connect one idea or message to the next. "An effective one creates a conceptual bridge from the prior topic to the next and, at the same time, conveys why the next topic matters to the audience." As a transition links back and reaches forward, it benefits speaker and audience by showing not only that ideas are connected but how they connect. Finding an effective transition helps the speaker refine that connection and helps the listener understand it.
It follows, then, that a transition should be audience-centered. Too often, transitions waste words, delivering little value or substance to the audience. Cohen warns that words and phrases that focus more on the speaker or on the act of speaking are especially weak; they fail to establish connections between ideas. Such transitions often include or imply the word "I" or "we," as in "Now I'm going to talk about …" or "I need to explain …." Equally unproductive are transitions that use "us" or "we" such as "Let's take a look at …" or "We need to first understand …." These phrases weaken a speaker's message because they act like fillers, taking up space and time but adding no content or direction.
Instead, choose transitional words and phrases that act as signposts for your listeners. Use them to help build the context the audience needs to follow your presentation. When you use "consequently" as a transition, for example, you are preparing the listener for a cause-effect relationship between your last topic and your next one. But when you use the transitional phrase "on the other hand," you are readying listeners for a contrast, for an opposing idea. If your ideas are moving chronologically, you might use "to begin with" or "later" or "after" to keep your listeners with you in the sequence. (If you're using slides, you'll need other kinds of transitions to guide your audience.)
Transitions do take effort; a speaker must consider the flow of ideas in her presentations and select transitional devices that will show how the ideas relate. Cohen recommends writing transitions along with messages, consciously choosing a word or phrase that will assist your audience in making the connection you have made. He also notes that planning for transitions often sharpens a presentation because it forces the speaker to consider the order and arrangement of ideas. Many speakers and writers keep a list of transitional devices handy to help them incorporate those that best capture the relationship between ideas in a particular oral presentation.
Cohen also stresses rehearsal as a way of getting transitions right. With sufficient practice, of course, any talk becomes easier to deliver because you become accustomed to the ideas and words. You have a chance to revise those that seem awkward or unclear. It's no different with transitions. As you rehearse, be aware of places where transitional words or phrases might express the relationship between your ideas and then consciously use them. Listen for repetition, for too many transitions, for too few.
Transitions require effort, but they're worth it.