When it comes to moving audiences, your most important element is your opening. Here's how to start a speech powerfully and successfully every time!
Let's talk about how to start a speech. When it comes to persuading, inspiring, or influencing an audience, your opening is by far the most important moment in your performance.
So how do you begin a presentation in ways that will get an audience on your side and start you on the road to speaking memorably?
Let's imagine that you're finally pitching to that 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?
One surefire way to be a memorable speaker is by combining interesting material with powerful delivery skills. To learn how, download my free cheat sheet, "Great Speaking? — It's About Performance Over Content!"
How You Open a Speech Sets the Tone of Your Presentation
You probably already 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 Your Speech's Introduction and Conclusion Need to Be Strong
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."
In more practical terms, here are three specific 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. Here's more on how to begin a presentation: the first critical 60 seconds.
(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 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 listeners. Here's 3 easy steps for organizing a business presentation.
How to Use Creativity in Business Presentations
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. And what about the advice of always starting out with a joke? Well, here's my take on the question "Should you start your speech with a joke?"
A few minutes of focused thinking should be all you need to come up with an effective opening like that described above. That means leading intelligently into your topic without sounding like everyone else's presentation in your line of business.
And remember to avoid that I call introducing your introduction. That sounds like this: "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 your listeners. By signaling your effect beforehand, you water its potency down to a thin drizzle. Instead, of course, you want to be completely focused and on your game.
Want more along those lines? How about ten techniques for presenting with enjoyment, energy, and excitement so you look and sound like a leader? If that prospect interests you, please download my cheat sheet, "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking."
12 Powerful Ways to Begin a Speech or Presentation
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:
- Startling statement
- Personal anecdote or experience
- 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 on 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.
Famous Speeches that Illustrate 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.
This blog was originally published in 2012. It is regularly updated.
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