If a speech is a performance, at what moment does the curtain rise and the fun commence? Per Toastmasters rules a contest speech begins, for timing purposes, when the speaker says something audible or communicates nonverbally to the audience. But in reality, your performance starts as soon as you rise from your seat and take a step toward the podium.
Researchers have studied evaluations of college professors and conducted experiments to better gauge the power of first impressions. They found that "impression" was the right concept. It did not take long for the students to fix an image in their minds of what their professors were like.
The study compared students' regular, end-of-semester evaluations of their teachers to a different set of evaluations written by a group who'd seen that professor in action for only 10 seconds on videotape. Surprisingly, the two sets of evaluations correlated closely, right down to the detailed comments.
The study authors concluded that this was evidence of the power of first impressions. Their theory was that when human beings are presented with something new - data, events, images or people - we tend to instantly categorize what we've just seen. And from then on, the tendency is to interpret all further input within the framework of our initial assessment. In the case of the professor evaluations, the students had approximately the same initial impression and then shaped further evidence to fit that original judgment.
Other researchers on first impressions have concluded that people evaluate others on the basis of the first seven seconds of an original meeting.
"Expend far more energy and imagination on the first line than any other."
It is debatable whether the first-impression phenomenon is as powerful as claimed. Experience teaches most of us that good relationships sometimes get off to a bumpy start. And some experts point to evidence of the chance to form a "second first impression", after some time has passed from the initial meeting. Even so, the power of a first impression is important enough to consider as we give and listen to speeches, meet new people and evaluate others on the job or in other contexts.
If first impressions matter, how do you achieve the best possible start when making a speech? Realize that by the time you utter any first words, audience members are already forming judgments about you. A speaker is usually introduced and makes a short journey to center stage. Remember to project confidence during that journey! And a little smile!
There is a moment, after arriving on the podium, when the speaker has the laser focus of the audience in a way he may not enjoy again. It's during this window of opportunity when anticipation and absorption in the moment prevail. The speech title you've chosen should magnify that anticipation, teasing your listeners, implying the enchantments to come.
It's been said that a writer's job is simple: Create a first sentence that makes it impossible for the reader to not read on.
The same could be said for the speaker: Expend far more energy and imagination on the first line than any other. Ponder the mood, ideas and images you want your listeners to take home from your offering. Cast your net and draw them in. Make them crave to hear the second line more than they crave their next breath.
Perhaps a little time travel could help here. Imagine being wedged into a few standing-room-only occasions from antiquity and ponder these delicious openings from great speeches in history:
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter.
- Sojourner Truth
Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth.
- Eugene V. Debs
The trouble with many men is that they have got just enough religion to make them miserable.
- Billy Sunday
I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife.
- Theodore Roosevelt
The cultural influences in our country are like the floo floo bird.
- Frank Lloyd Wright
We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead.
- Bernard Baruch
When the mariner has been tossed for many days, in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm
- Daniel Webster
Say what? Who is that floo floo, and is he out of kilter?
These are not the bland throat clearings we hear from most modern politicians "" expressing deep wells of gratitude to the audience for the supreme kindness of their showing up, compliments for the fair city they find themselves in, even as they bungle its pronunciation. No, these opening salvos stir the half-awake ear to full attention. They promise a payoff.
And that's about all an effective opening can hope to accomplish. It's a humble goal, but every rocket needs a launching pad.
The accomplished speaker offers a gift: maybe a pulse-quickening insight, a proper tickling of the funny bone, a story that rouses listeners to storm the barricades (or volunteer at the blood bank). Soon after arranging herself in front of the crowd, the speaker should toss out an appetizer, providing the audience a reason to hunger for more and wonder what's next on the menu.
The first minute or so should be perfect, memorized without appearing to be so. I recall a debate held some years ago among candidates for a national office. One participant completely botched the opening statement, which should have been rigorously prepared well in advance. He tripped over his lines, mumbled, and generally looked as if he'd rather have his toenails plucked than perform under that spotlight. His night was ruined within the first half minute. With adequate preparation, this probably will never happen to you.
"The first minute or so should be perfect, memorized without appearing to be so."
Because seconds count, pay attention to some speaking axioms in the opening. Speak up, and speak distinctly. Display confident body language. Use a strong voice and calibrated gestures to show control. Smile as though you're glad to be there (even if you are not). All of these can improve your odds of receiving positive snap judgments from your listeners.
Another focus of research has been on how to make a positive impression when meeting someone new. Their results have relevance for the public speaker.
If a person is going to make a snap judgment about you on a first meeting, odds are it will be based on superficial evidence. Mom was right: We should attend to our grooming. (One consultant routinely advises clients to spiff up their haircuts.) Wear something sharp and appropriate for the occasion. Some research supports the theory that 55 percent of a first impression in social situations is based on appearance (including facial expression and gestures), 38 percent is based on vocal qualities, and just 7 percent reflects their reactions to what we say.
We may think it unfair if people judge our speaking on such a basis, but our tactics must adjust to the way audiences really behave. What good are brilliant words if no one hears them?
The time has come to flip this subject on its head. So audiences have this apparent tendency to make confident judgments about people they've seen for seconds. Shouldn't we work hard to resist that tendency? When listening to a new speaker or meeting someone for the first time, we can miss the insights they offer if we're distracted by their appearance or voice. And as a speaker, shouldn't we make use of this knowledge to create impact?
A little humility and suspended judgment are called for. We will probably never fully appreciate another person's abilities, strengths, weaknesses, potential, history, character, and courage. If we squeeze folks into pigeonholes created in our own imaginations, it's unlikely we'll ever know them well, at all. When we do that, we're not communicating. We're being lazy, complacent, and uncharitable. It can cause us to miss insights and meaningful friendships.
It is far better to search for the best in people, see their potential, engage their ideas, and, as Toastmasters, help them turn potential into reality. You can do this for other speakers and for yourself.
Give the other speaker a chance to finish strong despite a weak opening. And when it's your turn, wow them all with an opening as compelling as the floo floo bird.