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Grab Your Audience! — 12 Foolproof Ways to Open a Speech

Jun 3rd, 2012 by Gary Genard

You've finally been invited to pitch to that audience of decision-makers. It's what you've been waiting for: a high-stakes, high-reward appearance. You've put together a killer-app presentation that should knock their socks off. (To learn how to motivate and inspire a group like that, download my free cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience.")

There's just one problem: you have no idea how to start the thing out with a bang. You're wondering, in other words, how to open a speech strongly and professionally.

You know that's something you need to do. You're just not sure how . . . or for that matter, exactly why.

When it comes to influening listeners in speeches and presentations, two concepts explain why your beginning and ending need to be particularly strong. This article will discuss both concepts, and then provide some powerful tools for your opening gambit: your speech Introduction. Part Two in a separate piece will deal with the other end of your presentation: your Conclusion.

Why You Need to Start and End Strongly

The two concepts are primacy and recency. Primacy states that people remember most vividly what they hear at the beginning of a speech; and recency says those same people will strongly recall what you say at the end. In terms of public speaking, of course, this translates into your Introduction and Conclusion.

Here are three reasons why your Introduction needs to be engaging and interesting immediately:

(1) Audiences make value judgments about you, your organization, and your message in the first 30-60 seconds of your presentation. After this point, you'll be able to change those opinions about as easily as you can change a hamster into a ham sandwich.

(2) Your opening sets the entire tone of your presentation (including whether you'll be interesting or not).

(3) The first minute is when you introduce your message and tell the audience why they need to hear it.

Your audience, in other words, needs to be both fully engaged and predisposed favorably toward you and your message. Neither will happen unless you can grab their attention sufficiently enough that they're ready, willing, and able to listen to you spin your verbal magic!

You Can Be Creative, Can't You?

Achieving this objective takes thought, a bit of imagination, and yes, a little creativity. The good news is that since you know your topic well and you're psyched up for the big game (it's an audience of decision-makers, remember?) you should be well positioned to succeed.

Primacy won't have much of a chance to operate, for instance, if you use the dreary "Today, I would like to talk about . . ." approach in your opening. This is a dreadfully boring way to begin, and I invite you to remove it from your public speaking toolbox permanently.

A few minutes of focused thinking should be all you need to come up with an opening that leads intelligently into your topic without sounding like everyone else's presentation in your line of business.

And remember to avoid "introducing your Introduction," thus: "Let me start out with a story . . .", or, "I heard a very funny joke the other day . . . " Just tell us the story, the joke, or the in-the-know reference that will delight these listeners. By signaling your effect beforehand, you water its potency down to a thin drizzle.

As a springboard to launching your presentation with verve and originality, here are a dozen devices that can be used as grabbers or speech hooks:

  • Question
  • Story
  • Quotation
  • Visual
  • Statistic
  • Startling statement
  • Personal anecdote or experience
  • Humor
  • Expert opinion
  • Sound effect
  • Physical object
  • Testimony or success story

You could literally think of dozens more from your own expertise and experience or that of your audience. Remember, the best grabbers engage an audience immediately, both intellectually and emotionally. Coming up with the best one involves some work on your part. But the rewards if you're successful more than justify the effort.

Want some examples? Here are some of the best, all illustrating grabbers listed above:

Jesus, Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Startling statement.)

Bill Clinton, 1993 speech in Memphis to ministers (after having heard himself introduced as "Bishop Clinton"): "You know, in the last ten months, I've been called a lot of things, but nobody's called me a bishop yet. When I was about nine years old, my beloved and now departed grandmother, who was a very wise woman, looked at me and she said, 'You know, I believe you could be a preacher if you were just a little better boy.'" (Humor)

Jane Fonda in "Life's Third Act," a recent TED talk: "There have been many revolutions over the last century, but perhaps none as significant as the longevity revolution. We are living on average today 34 years longer than our great-grandparents did. Think about that: that's an entire second adult lifetime that's been added to our lifespan." (Statistic.)

Patrick Buchanan, 1995 speech announcing his presidential run: "Three years ago when I came to New Hampshire, I went up to the North Country on one of my first visits. I went up to the James River paper mill. It was a bad day, just before Christmas, and many of the workers at the plant had just been laid off. They were sullen and they were angry and they didn't want to talk to anyone. So as I walked down that line of workers, I will never forget: Men shook my hand and looked away. Then one of them, with his head down, finally looked up, and with tears in his eyes said, 'Save our jobs.' When I got back to Manchester that night, I read a story in the Union Leader about the United States Export-Import Bank funding a new paper mill in Mexico. What are we doing to our own people? (Story)

Key takeaways from this blog:

  • "Primacy" states that people remember best what they hear first.
  • "Recency" means people also strongly recall the end of a speech.
  • The best way to open a speech is to use a strong grabber or hook.
  • Choose a grabber based on your subject knowledge and the audience's.
  • Be creative, since you want your presentation to stand out from the rest!

Dr. Genard's previous blogs related to this topic:

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