Like a great novel a great speech hooks you in from the first words. Whether you are giving a presentation to your team or a speech at a work conference you need to grab attention immediately.
Let’s look at some ways to do this
Many of the best speeches begin with a simple question. Why? Because a good question immediately engages your audience. It also provides your speech with a simple structure. You have asked them a question and can then go on to answer it yourself with your speech.
Sometimes an entire speech structure is simply: ask the audience a question of significance, answer it by discussing three key points and then sum up. I began a recent speech by asking: “Which is the world’s happiest country?” Other openings I’ve used over the years are: “What do you believe is Mankind’s greatest achievement?” and “Did you choose your career or did your career choose you?” All are designed to arouse the interest of the audience.
Clearly, the more interesting, intriguing and relevant the question you begin with, the more your audience will be engrossed by it.
Best of all, you can ask the audience a question about themselves. What has been the most frightening moment of your life? If you could go back and change one decision in your life, what would it be? When was the last time you stepped outside your comfort zone? People are immediately interested in questions about themselves.
People love to hear a story. It is particularly helpful if you can start your story with a dramatic incident. If you open it with: “I have never believed in ghosts, until recently when I stayed in a 17th century hotel that was rumoured to be haunted.” If you begin by taking your audience straight into an interesting story, you can be pretty sure everyone will listen from that moment on.
If you have a dry and serious subject to talk about, your need for a personal story to enliven it is all the greater. Suppose you’ve been asked to speak about the economy and that your audience includes many economists. You might open your speech by remarking that coming to speak about the economy to a room full of economists feels a little like venturing into the lion’s den. You can follow this up by saying you’ve never had a close encounter with a lion, but you did once have a scary moment with a shark. Then you can tell the story about your close encounter with the shark as an entrée to your speech and refer back to that story several times during the speech.
A startling statement of fact
A startling fact can have the same effect on your audience as an interesting question. It wakes them up!
Think about a presentation on public health. You might begin it with: “Tobacco has killed more people worldwide than the First and Second World Wars combined.” You can then go on to comment on ways public health can be improved and the important role of preventative medicine.
Whatever the subject you are speaking about, try unearthing a startling fact on this subject and opening your speech with it.
Begin with a quotation
If you want your speech to carry extra authority, it can be helpful to open it with a quotation from a respected figure. For instance, you might open with: “Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.’ I’ve always believed that’s true: each of us has within us a vast well of untapped potential.”
Or have some fun by playing around with a learned quote. Offer your audience a fresh ‘take’ on a familiar quote. How about the following, as an example of this?
“Einstein once remarked that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ He explained that knowledge tells us everything we already know about the universe, whereas imagination points us towards everything that has yet to be discovered. Speaking personally, when I heard that imagination is more important than knowledge, I immediately felt a whole lot better about my own schooldays. All those happy hours I spent in History lessons, gazing out of the window and dreaming I was a professional footballer…”
Use associations with the date
The date on which you are delivering your speech will certainly be significant in some way. Look it up online as it may be the anniversary of a historical event such as the first Moon landing, a famous battle or the birthday of a famous figure. Or it may be a National Day of some kind, as most days are. Here, for instance, are just a few National Days in the UK: National Men Make Dinners Day, National Parents as Teachers Day, National Philanthropy Day and National Day of Listening.
Find a way to reference the occasion at the start of your speech and you can then weave that reference into the narrative of your speech.
Begin with something unexpected
For example, I once began a speech with: “I have a confession for you tonight.” I explained that I belong to a group which is in a small minority within the population and that people like me have been persecuted over the ages. All eyes were on me and the room was silent. This was a speech about left-handedness and how, thankfully, we are no longer persecuting left-handed people as was the case in the Middle Ages. At that time, left-handers were sometimes accused of witchcraft and put to death. The opening led me directly into the key point of my speech: a plea for greater tolerance of those in our society who are different.
This has been an article about how to begin your speech in an impactful way and hook audience attention from the start. In my experience, the most common of these approaches is to begin with a question. However, we all know one great example of how not to start a speech: “Er, does anyone know how to get this laptop and projector to work?”
I hope these suggestions have been helpful and that your next speech or presentation will open with impact.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gordon Adams is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org