As much as you’d like to, never begin your presentation with “Thank you so much for that kind introduction. I’ve really been looking forward to this evening, blah, blah, blah…”. It’s a fine opening if you want to be considered predictable and a bit boring, however I think most of us want something different for our presentations. We want to open with flair, style and impact!
The best way to start a speech is to jump right in to the topic and say something that grabs the audience’s attention, something compelling, humorous, shocking, or imaginative. Try one of the following devices:
A quotation from a well-known person can be a very effective opening. A quote from an obscure source isn’t as successful; part of the impact comes from the name recognition itself. For a speech that discusses effective time management: “Mark Twain once said, ‘Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.’ Well, that may be what Twain believed, but I’m here to show you how you can get the most out of today!” Or for a presentation on workplace civility: “’You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.’ That’s what Al Capone said, but it’s funny that nowadays we can’t even get a kind word.”
Rhetorical or Survey Question
This is my favorite way to open a speech. Asking a question immediately engages the minds of the audience members as they attempt to answer it in their heads or by a show of hands. “How many of you have ever considered plastic surgery?” “What is the most embarrassing thing your kids have ever said out loud?” Keep in mind that you’re not looking for people to actually answer you; you simply want to get their brains working. Accompany your questions with one hand raised in the air and the audience will be cued that you’re interested in a showing of hands, not verbal responses.
Opening with a bold, powerful statement is another good way to grab the audience’s attention. A startling statistic or bold claim can jolt them and set the stage for an educational or informational talk. “In the time it takes for me to speak to you tonight, twenty men will be diagnosed with colon cancer.” “The desegregation of American schools in the 1960’s was a bad idea then and still is today.” A shocking statement like this is often followed by a pause and then a disclaimer, such as “according to so-and-so in his book,…” or “or so I thought when I was growing up in the South.”
This type of opening usually begins with “Imagine…” and the goal is to create a scene for audience members to visualize in their minds. “Imagine yourself in Tahiti, sitting on a beautiful, secluded beach, a gentle breeze blowing…”. Remember that audiences rarely remember the words you say; they remember the pictures you paint for them.
You’ve probably already heard somewhere that you should never open a speech with a joke. That’s true, but it is okay to open with a short, amusing story, as long as it is both short and amusing. Find the funny, personal stories in your life and use them as your opening, making sure they relate to the theme of your speech. This device is a favorite of a minister I know. He often starts his Sunday sermon with a humorous story from his childhood or of raising his 4-year-old twins. Most of us instantly relate to the anecdote and our minds are then open to the broader message he has to share.
Think through these ideas as you develop your next presentation. Keep your eyes and ears open for interesting quotations, statistics and personal anecdotes; they’re all around you. And take time to review your old speeches. A fresh opening can breathe new life into an old presentation.
© 2010 Jill Bremer • All Rights Reserved