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

You're finally pitching to an audience of 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?

Well, one powerful way to do so is by combining your material with powerful delivery skills. To learn how, download my free cheat sheet, "Great Speaking? — It's About Performance Over Content!"

Your Opening Gambit

You know you need to begin with power and purpose. You're just not sure how . . . or for that matter, exactly why.

The answer is that 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.

Ready to set your audience on fire?

Why You Need to Start and End Your Presentations Strongly

how to start a speech

 

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.

Learn more about creating a memorable beginning in my article, "Start Strong! Use a Speech Introduction Your Audience Will Remember."

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.

(For a complete guide to launching your presentations with impact, check out my e-book How to Start a Speech.) 

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.

Want more along those lines? Here are ten techniques for presenting with enjoyment, energy, and excitement! Download my cheat sheet, "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking."

12 Powerful Ways to Begin a Speech

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.

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Comments

Gary Genard posted on Jan 15th, 2015
With regard to the recent questions about ways to start speeches on specific topics: Ask yourself what openings are appropriate for both the subject and the audience.

Your opening should start the process of accomplishing your purpose, just as it engages listeners as early as possible. The audience's make-up and the influence you're trying to achieve matter more than a clever introduction.

Rashelle Nicole posted on Jan 15th, 2015
How could i start a speech about journalism/newspaper in India? so far i have "It is health that is real wealth, not pieces of gold and silver." By Gandhi, and I'm not sure if that will work with my topic, or take away from the main thing. Please let me kniw asap!

Anonymous posted on Jan 15th, 2015
This was quite helpful if you something for introducing yourself when you're about to play a solo for a music teacher for a really important grade for finals . Thanks that would be nice.

Anonymous posted on Jan 14th, 2015
Thank You! this was helpful...would anybody know how to start a speech off with the topic Gluten Free?? thank I did it by Monday if that's ok......
Thank You again!! :) :)

Anonymous posted on Jan 11th, 2015
IMPRESSIVE! THANKS, IT IS REALLY HELPFUL.

Gary Genard posted on Jan 8th, 2015
Thank you so much for all of these great comments! Launching a speech well is such an important part of presenting successfully. I'm pleased that so many of you are aware of the need to "grab your audience at the opening!"

sukanya posted on Dec 30th, 2014
Its great . i like the references and steps in intro speech.
wow!
I will surely use these strategies .
Thank u v much !
sukanya.

Anonymous posted on Dec 10th, 2014
I liked your advice it helped in my school speech

Telishia Berry posted on Dec 5th, 2014
Thanks

Ronald Zembe posted on Oct 9th, 2014
Amazing post with great n' fantastic ideas..guess its true that great minds think alike. that help my mind 'think alike'..:-)

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.