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!