5 Effective Ways to Open Any Speech

In their research for The Definitive Book of Body Language, Allan and Barbara Pease claim that up to 80 percent of an audience’s first impression of a speaker is formed within the first four minutes. When preparing your speech remember that the early period is the peak time of the audience’s engagement level. As a result the opening minutes of a speech are critical for engaging your audience.

Your mission with the speech opening is to:

  • Grab their interest
  • Establish rapport
  • Introduce the topic

In this article I outline five effective ways to open any speech or presentation. First some context.

What Usually Happens?

How often do you encounter a speech or presentation where the speaker begins by greeting the audience and expressing his/her delight to be there. They flick on the first powerpoint slide, a screen of bullet points which they plan to discuss during their presentation, and then dive straight into the main body of the speech. Can you see any problems with that approach? No audience engagement, no effort made to grab the audience’s interest, establish rapport or properly introduce the topic. Already the audience is starting to fall asleep!

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The Correct Way to Open a Speech

What should you do to ensure a successful opening to your speech? How can you start your speech with greater success? Here are 5 of the best ways:

1) A Startling Statement

Use an attention-grabbing statement, containing facts, statistics or some other unusual information. In order to be effective, the statement must be related directly to the main purpose of the speech. And most importantly, the statement must trigger a range of audience emotions. The most common way to open a speech with a startling statement is by using a statistic.

The Virtual Speech Coach has a great article on making startling statements stand out.

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Jane Fonda opens her popular popular TED talk Life’s Third Act as follows:

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, added to our lifespan.

2) A Personal Anecdote

Tell a short story. A personal story or anecdote could well be the best way to pass information from speaker to audience. The story should be so specific that the audience is able to relive it with you.

In his book Words That Work, political strategist Frank Luntz explains how it’s useful to paint vivid images in a presentation, to help your audience visualise the topic. The introduction seems like a natural place to create this imagery, immediately placing our audience into our world, visually and emotionally.

Finally by starting the story somewhere in the middle, we can grab our audience’s attention, prompting them to wonder who, what, where, whey, why, or how.

Steve Jobs, in his engaging Commencement Address at Stanford University, opens:

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?

3) A Powerful Question

Good conversations start with a good question and all good presentations should feel like a conversation. Opening your speech with a powerful question is a great way to engage the audience. Asking a question helps create a climate of audience participation from the start. Questions that ask “why” and “how” are generally considered to be the most effective, allowing you to tap into the audiences natural curiosity to understand the world around you.

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Simon Sinek, in his excellent talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action asks:

How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example: Why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, after year, after year, they’re more innovative than all their competition. And yet, they’re just a computer company. They’re just like everyone else. They have the same access to the same talent, the same agencies, the same consultants, the same media. Then why is it that they seem to have something different?

4) An Interesting Quotation

By using an interesting quote to open your speech, you can inspire, motivate or challenge people with someone else’s words. If the quote is well known it can help you to tap into the audiences memories and associations with the words and transport them to the message of your speech in a powerful way.

  • It is important to keep the quote relevant to your core message
  • You should also attribute the powerful words to the original speaker
  • Pausing before and after reciting the quotation can help the audience digest the meaning

You can search for interesting and useful quotes by topic at Brainy Quotes.

5) An Unexpected Prop

Using props for effective speaking can make all the difference when keeping an audience engaged. A presentation that I will always remember is Bill Gate’s TED talk about Mosquitos, Malaria, and Education. Why? His prop. The powerful reaction of the audience, as Bill Gates unleashes live mosquitos on stage, demonstrates the power of props, especially unexpected props.

It should be noted that any prop should, in some way, contribute to the objective of your speech. It is better to keep the prop hidden until you actually need it, adding to the impact at the big reveal. In this regard Gate’s prop was perfect: related to his message, unexpected, and entirely memorable.

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Learn how to use props effectively in your next presentation here.

Over to You

The opening of a speech should cause the audience to consider the benefits of your talk in an implicit way. So rather than beginning a speech with a bland “Hello ladies and gentlemen…” or “In the next 45 minutes, I am going to share with you…” begin your speech with a bang!

That’s the opening sorted! Now here are the 5 Powerful Ways to Close any Speech.