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How to Start a Speech — 12 Foolproof Ways to Grab Your Audience!

You're finally pitching to the decision makers. It's the high-stakes opportunity you've been waiting for, and you've put together a killer presentation. There's just one problem: how do you start the thing off with a bang?

You know you need to begin with power and purpose. You're just not sure how . . . or for that matter, exactly why. Well, one way is through a strong Introduction. Learn how to create one in my article, "Start Strong! Use a Speech Introduction Your Audience Will Remember."

Your Opening Gambit

When it comes to influencing 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.

Why You Need to Start and End Your Presentations 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.

Sound like a tall order? It isn't, if you use the right techniques.

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! Once they're engaged, be sure you have a well organized talk that hits home with these listeners. Learn how to make that happen in my article, "Organizing a Presentation—3 Key Steps for Business Success."

You Can Be Creative, Can't You?

Achieving the objective of a "grabbing" opening 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 boring! Be on the lookout instead for something that will pique the interest of your listeners, and perhaps surprise them. What about that business of starting out with a joke? Well, here's my take on that: "'Should I Start Out with a Joke?' . . . Well, Should You?"

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. Also, of course, you want to be completely focused and on your game. To achieve this critical skill, download my cheat sheet on "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking."

12 Powerful Ways to Begin a Speech

As a springboard to launching your presentation with verve and originality, here are a dozen rhetorical devices that can be used as speech hooks when you're wondering how to start a speech:

  • 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. Interestingly, these same devices can be used to similar effect to conclude in a way that keeps your audience thinking about what you said. For more on ending strongly, see my related article, "Bravo! How to End a Speech Vividly and Memorably."

Coming up with an exciting grabber and clincher involves some work on your part. But the rewards if you're successful more than justify the effort.

Great Examples of How to Start a Speech  

How about a few examples? Here are four great openings that illustrate some of the 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.)

Steve Jobs, 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford University: "Truth be told, I never graduated from college, and this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation. Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it, no big deal—just three stories. The first story is about connecting the dots. I dropped out of Reed College after the first six months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another eighteen months or so before I really quit. So why'd I drop out? It started before I was born." (Story, with a seamless transition into his speech.)

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!
 
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Comments

Sean Tyler Morphet posted on Aug 18th, 2014
Great post! Full of everything i needed for what i wanted.
Thankyou and keep up the great work.