You’re a best friend.  A proud mom or dad.  A favorite uncle or sister or cousin.  Perhaps you’re a community volunteer.  And you’ve been asked to speak at an upcoming special event.

You’re honored to be asked, and excited about the opportunity to address a receptive audience.  And a little nervous.  And worried.  After all, you’re no Abe Lincoln at Gettysburg, able to choose the perfect 272 words to deliver magnificently in only three minutes!  You just don’t want to make a fool of yourself at your daughter’s wedding, your grandfather’s ninetieth birthday party, or the fund-raiser you’ve devoted so many hours to chairing.

Getting the message drafted and on paper (or screen) is one thing, but there’s so much advice, so many rules out there about what to do with yourself while you’re delivering that message, you’re terrified about everything else you’re supposed to remember…like pacing, looking up from your notes, talking with your hands.  All that body language stuff.

There’s a hyper-awareness about body language in our lives and across the media these days.  Politicians’ body language is scrutinized, parents are warned what their actions as opposed to their words may convey to their offspring, and managers and colleagues are coached on how their non-verbal messaging is affecting their careers.  And with good reason.  According to Professor Albert Mehrabian, a recognized expert on body language, words convey only 7% of our meaning, vocal expression 38%, and body language an astounding 55% of what our audience will remember and believe.  Just by leaning to one side, you may be inadvertently conveying that you’d like to get the heck out of Dodge!  Rocking?  Insecure. Pacing?  Can’t wait to escape the torture of the speech you’re giving!

So do you really have to worry about hand gestures, pitch, tone and volume of your voice, eye contact, body position?  Well, yes.  You should. But here’s the thing.  If you plan your body language along with your words, and you’re well prepared enough that you’re confident, you shouldn’t have to think about it at all when your big moment arrives!

How do you get there?  Here’s my best advice, distilled into tips manageable for less experienced, more reluctant speakers.

  • Aim to be yourself….but a bit bigger. Imagine yourself exchanging conversation with a group of close friends.  Because you are comfortable, you will be gesturing with your hands, speaking perhaps a little more loudly than normal, looking from one pair of eyes to another to confirm approval, acceptance or understanding.  Do exactly that when you’re speaking!
  • Alan and Barbara Pease, co-authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, have found that members of an audience are more likely to accept your ideas if they are nodding and/or smiling. If you are nodding and smiling at them, they’re very likely to nod and smile back, signaling their acceptance of you and of your words.
  • Look into someone’s eyes. There is all kinds of conflicting advice to be found about how long you should visually engage with different audience members.  Concentrating on your delivery is your priority, but do mentally divide the audience into segments, and then find a different person in each segment to engage with your eyes at intervals throughout the speech.  Engage long enough that you feel them locked on you, but not so long that you’re staring and making them uncomfortable.
  • Stand like a Superhero. Amy Cuddy, a behavioral scientist at Harvard, has conducted studies showing that privately standing like a superhero before going into a stressful situation can actually stimulate hormonal changes in your body chemistry that cause you to be more confident and in-command. She recommends doing this for two minutes in an elevator, in a bathroom stall, at your desk, behind close doors, before stressful “evaluative” situations—like public speaking! Check out her terrific (and moving) TED talk on body language here.
  • Incorporate natural gestures. Keep your body open and your hands “unlocked” (not clasped, in your pockets, crossed in front or behind your back) so that your hands and arms are free to do their thing. The larger the audience, the larger the gesture should be, and the smaller the group, the more subtle you can afford to be, making use of facial expressions, for example, that a bigger crowd couldn’t see.
  • Slow down! Most people speak more quickly than normal when they are nervous; it is likely that you may not even realize you are doing this. Make a very conscious effort to speak more slowly than usual as you make your presentation (particularly when it comes to your key points), saving quick speech for when you want to add excitement or drama.
  • Ditch the lectern! I know this sounds radical, because reluctant speakers tend to rely on the presence of a lectern to shield them from the big, bad, threatening audience out there. But according to Brad Phillips, a media training professional, “speakers who hide behind lecterns separate themselves from their audiences and obscure parts of their body language that would otherwise help their audiences connect with them more easily.” (More excellent advice can be found from Mr. Phillips on his website, I also like his suggestion that you place your notes on a small stool or table positioned next to you instead, or, if the lectern is already position, you try swinging the microphone to the outside of it so that you are standing beside, rather than behind it.

The body language tips I’ve listed above are simple to incorporate for even a first-time speaker, particularly if you think about them in advance as you are rehearsing your speech.  Nail these, and you are well on your way to an energetic, confident demeanor that will engage your audience and predispose them to give you their attention.

And……postscript…..I just caught a one-on-one television interview of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commenting on his recent official visit to Washington, and the warm welcome he has received from the Obamas and the American people.  He was standing feet apart, in Superhero pose, with his hands loosely nested in front of him so that he could gesture appropriately.  Need I say it?  He was a star, and the content wasn’t nearly as important as the non-verbal messaging!

A recent post by Brad Phillips on “controlling dominant audience members” recently caught my eye.  Here’s what he said:

I recently conducted a presentation training workshop with five trainees.
After every point I made, one of the trainees—let’s call him Peter—would interject with a story, question, or opinion. At first, I welcomed his participation—his interjections were on topic and he had smart things to say. But he had far more of them than were appropriate to the format, and it quickly became clear that Peter was disrupting the flow of the session.
Worse, I watched as the other trainees started to disengage. It was easy to appreciate why they were getting the feeling that our training session was going to become a long day.
I tried to manage the dominant participant in a variety of ways—by (politely) cutting off his comments before they were finished, using body language cues to try to slow him down, and saying that our schedule was slipping and we’d need to hold questions until the end of the current section to catch up.
Nothing worked.

…In these situations, the session leader needs to take a heavier hand. The other attendees want you to exercise your authority—and if you don’t, they may hold it against you. The key is to exercise that authority politely, if firmly, without ever disrespecting the audience member.
Option One: Shut The Questioner Down
The next time the participant begins talking again, you could jump in and say:
“I’m going to ask you to hold on for a moment, Peter, because I’d like to get a few new voices in here. What do you think, Paul?”
You can continue to do that numerous times until Peter (hopefully) gets the message, perhaps allowing him to make his point on occasion so you’re not shutting him down 100 percent of the time.
Option Two: Enlist The Participant As Your Ally
Another option I’ve used in the past is to compliment the participant during a break—but in such a manner that helps you achieve your purpose.
“You know, Peter, you’ve been great about participating in this session. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been having a tough time drawing out the other participants. Could you help me after the break? If we allow there to be silence in the room after I ask a question, one of them might feel compelled to speak up.”

Good ideas, but what if your  “interrupter ” is more aggressive….and abrasive, than is appropriate?  Here’s a selection of techniques for handling hecklers.  You may feel more comfortable using some than others, or you may want to try a combination of several:

  1. Silence:  Don’t underestimate the power of the pause. Sometimes the simplest solution is  the most effective. If you stop speaking and  stare at the heckler, everyone else will turn to see what you are looking at. Most of the time, this kind of social embarrassment is effective in quieting  a heckler.
  2. Associate Your Response To The Event: You can remind people why they are spending their time with you…by referencing the event you  and the audience are there to support or inform/learn about.  For example, if you were speaking at an M. S. fundraiser,   and started to have problems with a heckler, you could say something  directly to the disturber like “Do you have a new cure for M.S.?  If not, perhaps you could let me finish my remarks? “
  3. Draft the Heckler Onto your Team: You can make an unexpected interruption seem to be a planned by pausing after the interjected comment and thanking your “scriptwriter/copywriter/joke writer”….etc., The audience will laugh with you, the heckler will feel complimented, and you can  hopefully proceed uninterrupted.
  4. Hand Over  The Mike: You can grab your portable mike,  approach the heckler and offer the interrupter the mike. Most of the time such people are embarrassed and  will decline the offer.  They will hopefully  get the point that this presentation is not all about them and relinquish the focus back to you.
  5. Think Outside The Room: Compulsive talkers, such as loud groups at the back of the room, can resist all efforts on your part to overcome them.   You can  try moving out into the center of the audience to  deliver your speech “in the round, ” or you can have those who are actually paying attention to you move their chairs in order to be closer to you.

Do you have other effective tips for getting audience members to “stop rocking the boat” when you are presenting?  Please share them with us!

Media Trainer Brad Phillips has produced some great written material about speech presentation.  I am indebted to him for providing this terrific list, with illustrationss, which was offered over three different sessions.  I’ve edited some of his commentary in order to compile his lessons into one digestible article. Thank you, Brad, for sharing this valuable info!

Eight Great Ways to Open a Speech

Almost every speaker I’ve ever trained begins their practice speech the same way.

They walk to the front of the room, say good morning/afternoon/evening, thank the audience for coming, and express their delight to be there. Then they turn around and flip to their first slide, a bulleted agenda of what they plan to discuss during their presentation.

What a bore.

The opening minutes of a presentation are often the most important. According to Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, the audience forms 60 – 80 percent of its impression of a speaker within the first four minutes.

First up:  the startling statistic and the anecdote.

Opening Number One: The Startling Statistic

Opening with a startling statistic is a terrific way of grabbing the audience’s attention from your first word. In order to be effective, the statistic should be related directly to the main purpose of your talk.

“Statistic” doesn’t mean the same as “data.” If you’re giving the audience a number, you should set it within a broader context to help infuse it with greater meaning.

For example, I occasionally speak to a group of part-time volunteers who are working to reduce the number of injuries suffered in house fires. I used this opening for one of my talks:

“I’m only going to speak to you for one hour this morning. During our hour together, someone, somewhere in America, is going to be badly injured in a house fire. By the time you begin lunch this afternoon, someone, somewhere in America, will die in a house fire. By dinner, another person will die. By the time you go to sleep, another person will die. As you sleep tonight, two more people will die.

I’m here today because I want to prevent that from happening. And I’m going to need your help.”

Opening Number Two: The Anecdote

A story, case study, or personal anecdote is perhaps the single most effective tool for transferring information from speaker to audience. In fact, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner once said that “stories are the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”

One of my favorite speech openings of all time came from Brian, a client who delivered a speech on a “boring” topic, new insurance products. But instead of putting his audience to sleep, he used a personal anecdote to give his talk greater meaning.

Brian told the story of a woman he met early in his career, a grieving widow named Pam, whose husband, James, had recently died. James had been sick and out of work for three years, so they had no choice but to stop paying his life insurance premium. As a result, Pam wasn’t going to get a penny from his life insurance policy, meaning she would struggle to make ends meet. But Brian discovered a loophole in the policy, and delivered a $100,000 check to Pam weeks later.

Click here to see the video of Brian’s speech.

Brian then transitioned to the body of his presentation by placing that story in context:

“When I think about the power of what we do, having been to retirement parties, having sent those kids off to college and shown individuals how to pay for it, that’s very powerful. But nothing was more powerful than delivering a check in the face of tragedy. That mindset, for me, changed everything.”

If,  indeed, an audience forms 60 – 80 percent of its impression of a speaker within the first four minutes, that’s good news, since it means you have at least a 20 percent chance of redeeming yourself if you blow the opening!

Here are three more ways to open a presentation or speech: asking a rhetorical question, asking a “show of hands” question, or speaking with your audience.

Opening Number Three: Ask a Rhetorical Question

In his book Words That Work, political strategist Frank Luntz writes that it’s critical to help audiences visualize your topic by painting a vivid picture for them. He writes:

“One word automatically triggers the process of visualization by its mere mention: imagine.”

Ask the audience to imagine something by using a rhetorical question. You don’t have to use the specific word imagine, but your question should trigger the same visualization process. For example, you might begin this way to a group of stressed out working parents:

“I’d like to begin by asking you to think about your typical weekday morning routine (pause for five seconds). I know it may be difficult, but I’d like you to try to picture what it would be like not to rush around on five-and-a-half hours of sleep every morning and enjoy a leisurely weekday morning routine instead (pause for five seconds). Today, I’m going to offer you three strategies for making the impossible possible.”

Opening Number Four: Ask a “Show of Hands” Question

I often begin my media training and public speaking workshops with a “show of hands” question. Those questions can increase audience buy-in from the very beginning, since members of the audience are able to see how their answers compare to those of their peers. Plus, you can use this device to lead people to powerful self-realizations and conclusions.

For example, I occasionally begin my presentation training workshops by asking:

“How many of you absolutely love public speaking?” (only a few people raise their hands, provoking laughter)

“How many of you actively volunteer for every chance you get to deliver a presentation?” (again, almost nobody raises their hands)

“How many of you believe it would be good for your careers if you could go into a room and deliver a knock out presentation to top leadership, key clients, or major donors?” (almost every hand goes up, demonstrating the disconnect between what they feel and what they do)

Opening Number Five: Speak With Your Audience

I often begin by asking questions to the audience at the very beginning of a presentation. Doing so helps create a climate of audience participation from the start. Plus, their answers are often useful for helping me better understand the audience.

When leading a media training workshop, for example, I might begin by going around the room (or selecting a single row or table, for larger groups), and asking them to share their biggest media interviewing fear with me.

“Rhonda, what’s your biggest concern with being interviewed by a reporter?”

Almost always, Rhonda’s answer will be something I plan to cover during the session. If that’s the case, I’ll refer back to her when I get there:

“Rhonda, at the beginning of the session, you mentioned that you were afraid of being misquoted. Let’s talk about that now.”

And if I wasn’t planning on covering Rhonda’s topic, her question provided me with great information; if I add just two minutes anywhere in my presentation about her primary concern, I’ve addressed an important issue that I otherwise wouldn’t have thought to cover.

And here are three final ways to open a presentation or speech: building off the conference theme, mentioning something in the news, and using humor.

Opening Number Six: Build Off The Conference Theme

You can build an open by using the name of the conference, program, or event (or something relevant about the city, state, country, or hotel where you’re giving your speech).

For example, I once provided media training at a conference being held in Indianapolis. The conference planners used the Indy 500 (a famous annual auto race) as a conference theme, which immediately made me think of the red, yellow, green, and checkered flags that are used as signals to drivers (those flags mean stop, caution, start, and end, respectively).

I used the flags as my opening. I discussed the moments when spokespersons are on safe ground (the green), how they begin to get into trouble (the yellow), and how they occasionally meet media disaster (the red). The problem for many spokespersons, I argued, is that they don’t know when to stop talking (the checkered).

Opening Number Seven: Mention Something In the News

It’s often easy to turn a generic speech topic into something immediately relevant to your audience.

For example, let’s say your presentation is about a new program that will help businesses store their data in a more secure manner. It’s not hard to imagine that a data breach of some sort has occurred recently (the more recent the incident, the better it is, at least for your purposes).

Do some research and try to find a current example you can use as your presentation opening. Along the way, you might find information you can use during the body of your talk, as well.

For example, you might begin:

“(holding up yesterday’s Wall Street Journal) “This is yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. On the front page, you may have seen a story about a major data breach at Bank of America. In total, 400,000 customer accounts were compromised, which will cost the Bank and its insurance company more than $2 million to remedy.

(holding up three other newspapers) These are articles about three other data breaches that affected three other companies last week. Those three breaches will cost the companies a total of at least $600,000 to fix.

Here’s the crazy part. All four of those incidents were preventable. Easily preventable. Had any of those four businesses been using our product, they could have spared themselves millions of dollars and spared their customers unnecessary worry.”

Opening Number Eight: Use Humor

I saved this one for last, because humor is the riskiest of the eight possible openings. Opening a speech with humor can be incredibly effective – but the humor should be directly tied to your main point.

Unless you’re extraordinarily funny, don’t attempt a joke similar to those often told by stand-up comedians. Share a humorous story, quote someone else who said something funny, or begin by showing a particularly funny cartoon. Don’t deliver your lines like you’re expecting a laugh – if the audience happens to laugh, that’s great – but if they don’t, just keep going as if that was the plan all along.

Here’s an example of a (hopefully humorous) true anecdote I once used to open a speech about communication disconnects:

“My mother once called her insurance agent and told her she wanted to insure art.

The agent asked, “Why?” My mother replied, “Well, you know, in case something happens.”

The agent replied, “But what do you think is going to happen?” My mother, by now thoroughly flustered that her insurance agent didn’t seem to understand the purpose of insurance, stammered, “I don’t know. Maybe get stolen? Or get hurt?”

“But why would someone want to steal art?” the agent testily retorted.

It was then, at that moment, that my mother realized what was going wrong. (pause)

My father’s name is Art. (pause)

Those types of disconnects happen in business all the time, so today, I’m going to talk about the best ways to prevent committing your own ‘insuring Art’ moment.”


There you have it;  Brad Phillips’s eight suggestions for speech openers.  They’re all excellent ideas, but you will need to match them to your goal and your audience.  For social speeches, rather than business or sales-oriented ones, the anecdote and the humorous opening are probably the most common and accessible.  The first is probably the easiest and the second probably the hardest to pull off.  So think carefully about what you are trying to accomplish (what’s the point?), who you are speaking to (who’s the target?) and how the venue might affect your choice of opening.  (small props  or demos –unprojected–won’t work in a large conference room).  Decide how best to hook your audience and maintain their attention, do your research, and start writing!

Do you have other effective opening methods that have worked for you?  Please let us in on your secrets!