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Chapter 10: Starting on the Right Foot: Openings That Capture Your Audience


Things are always at their best in the beginning.

- Blaise Pascal

Powerful speakers start powerfully. They engage their audiences immediately. You must gain the audience's attention and interest the moment you walk on the stage. Without that attention, you won't get your message across, you'll have trouble sustaining whatever interest there is, and you won't have established your leadership and control - the keys to being a powerful speaker.

As a speaker, you are an unknown quantity, but only for the first 30 seconds of your speech. After that, everything you say will be heard in the context of that first impression, those first sentences. So it's very important to memorize your opening and practice it many times. Because this is your first contact with your audience, you need to keep from looking down at your notes, which does not help you seem warm, powerful, or persuasive. Your eyes are the most important way to keep people's attention, so make sure you know your opening well.

Grab This Time of Heightened Expectations

At the start of your talk, you have a big attention advantage. You've been formally and perhaps enthusiastically introduced; the men and women at your presentation are hoping it will be interesting, hoping they will get something out of it, and hoping it will not be a waste of their time. Your audience is in a state of expectation, and all you have to do is be reasonably confident, knowledgeable, and prepared at the beginning, and you'll have the audience on your side.

The opening is your appetizer; it is not meant to satisfy but to tempt, titillate, and arouse, and whet appetites for the next course. If you fail to get your audience's attention at the very beginning, it will take you at least three minutes to get it back, and people will already be less than excited about what is to come.

Compare these two openings:

  1. "Um...hello, I'm your speaker, Debbie Massey, and I'm here to give some, or a few, clues on what foods to avoid so you can have less disease and less stress."

  2. "Ladies and gentlemen: Would you like to add 20 quality years to your life? Then THINK before reaching for your salt shaker. I'm Debbie Massey, and I'm going to share with you 10 easy, proven steps to add those 20 years to your life."

Years ago, the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright gave a speech in Pittsburgh. His attention-getting opening was, "This is the ugliest city I have ever seen." Pittsburgh paid attention - to the opening and to the rest of the speech. In a recent survey, the city was ranked as one of the most desirable places to live in the United States. Wright knew not to start out with, "Good afternoon, it's a pleasure to be here," or with an irrelevant joke just for the sake of opening with humor. He came out swinging, and even if the people in the audience didn't agree with him, he had them listening.

Let Them Know You're NOT A BORE!

When you give a presentation, you're not always the first person the audience will see. There's usually someone else who introduces you. If that person is a good speaker, and knows the facts about you, you're off to a good start. But that's not always the case. So get off on the right foot: Write your own introduction.

Your introduction is the first thing your audience hears about you and your first chance to make an impression. Professional speakers known for a personal style don't leave these crucial first words in the hands of others. An introduction you write yourself (for someone else to deliver) warms up the audience, lists appropriate qualifications, and acts as a bridge that lets you cross over directly into your speech. And if you write it yourself, you know it will be accurate. Many a speaker has had to begin a speech by correcting a biographical flaw in an introduction written by someone who did not carefully check the facts.

There are still risks when you write your own introduction - someone may mess up the humor you're trying to insert, or even mispronounce something - but you reduce the chance of mistakes if you provide the text yourself.

Always send your introduction in advance with a note saying that it ties into your speech and should be read as is. You can leave some space for your presenter to add something if he or she wishes; just indicate the best place for this. Type the introduction in caps and double-space it so it's easy to read. Make it short and to the point. A standard introduction includes these four points and not much more: your name and title, your qualifications, why the speech can benefit the audience, and why you've been asked to speak. When you list your qualifications, name only the best three or four examples, or the ones that pertain to that particular audience.

Here's a sample self-introduction written by Joel Weldon, a well-known speaker.

Our speaker this morning is Joel Weldon. His subject is titled, "Elephants Don't Bite: It's the Little Things That Get You." Joel comes to us from Scottsdale, Arizona, where he heads up his own personal development company. In the past six years, he has conducted over 1,000 seminars and workshops for some of America's top organizations.

The reason we have him here today is because of his unique ability to help successful speakers become even more successful. He's creative and fun to listen to. And his unusual business card tells you, "Success comes in cans, not in cannots." Speaking on "Elephants Don't Bite: It's the Little Things That Get You," help me welcome Joel Weldon.

That's an introduction that does a lot: It's short, simple, and vivid.

Blow Your Own Horn

There are times, however, when no one is available to introduce you. In that case, you'll have to do it yourself. When this happens, most people come out on stage and say, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Debbie Massey, and I'm here today to talk to you about...." BORING! And it's what the audience expects you to do. You want to surprise them into paying attention, and let them know that you're not a typical speaker. Start off with your appetizer; give them a little tease before you tell them who you are.

Look at the two openings on page 106. The tease in version number two is only two sentences long, but it's enough to get the listeners hooked. Then you can go on to tell the audience who you are. Usually your name is enough; this is not the time or place to go through your entire resume. You can include one interesting fact about you if it is relevant. An alternative lead-in attention-getter; "I'm Debbie Massey, and I'm known as the Questioning Crusader."

10 "Can't Miss" Opening Strategies

Openings have more crucial responsibilities than any other part of your speech. Although the following list may seem daunting, remember that one well-crafted opening can combine many tasks into just a few minutes or sentences. Getting attention is the key task of any opening, but it's not the extent of your opening's responsibilities. Here's a list of criteria for a powerful opening:

  1. Get the audience's attention. How you get it is not nearly as important as making sure you get it.

  2. Build a bridge between what went on before and what is to come - your presentation. That's why people thank the introducer or refer back to previous speakers.

  3. Let the audience know your purpose and objectives.

  4. Get the members of your audience involved in your topic, your mission. You want their support, and you want them on your side.

  5. Build expectations for what is to follow. Be careful about starting with a great joke you've practiced and then going into a list of facts and figures; your audience will feel let down.

  6. Build a connection with the audience. Warm up the audience; relax them and show them they will have a good time listening to you, that you won't bore them. You're not putting them to sleep; you're saying, "It's okay, you're in good hands."

  7. Make the listeners confident in you by showing how they will profit from and enjoy what they're about to hear.

  8. Let the audience know you are in control. Give any necessary directions, such as how and when you will deal with questions or handouts. Explain everything up front.

  9. Disclose something about yourself to further gain the audience's support by showing that you are human, fallible, or whatever is appropriate to the occasion.

  10. Let the people in the audience know you're glad to be with them. This can be evident from your own enthusiasm; you can also address a compliment directly to the members of your audience, or disclose something about yourself in a way that shows you are relaxed around them.

Openings have to do a lot, but speakers have great freedom in crafting them - an advantage that other writers, such as playwrights and novelists, lack. You don't have to confine your story to a character's personality or to history. You can use all kinds of visual and audio aids. You don't have to keep the action tied to a specific place and time. You can roam from past to present to future, all in one sentence. You can draw your sources from almost any context. Above all, you can adjust and tailor your message to the specific audience you're addressing.

Quick and Easy Ways to Get Attention

All this leeway means the criteria for a good opening consist of one question: Does it grab the audience's attention? It's like the tree falling in the forest: Does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it? You may be up on a platform, ready to speak, but without your audience's attention, the speech will reach deaf ears.

Although a lot of your opening success comes down to your delivery style, and the passion you bring to your subject, the following 14 devices can be especially effective when incorporated into your opening:

Openings to Avoid

Just as there are ways to grab an audience's attention, there are traps even experienced speakers fall into that work swiftly to halt whatever momentum you're building:

Practical Steps to Open With Ease and Impact

Beginnings are always difficult. But you can make starting your speech a little easier by following these steps, including the six steps to positive body language and the seven steps of the opening block.

Establish Your Credibility With Positive Body Language

  1. Breathe (remember the prana, or deep breathing technique discussed in Chapter 2).

  2. Walk to the "platform." (Take calm, easy strides. Don't run out unless you're making a super-high-energy presentation.)

  3. Thank the introducer (if there is one).

  4. Get yourself set up, arranged, and remove any distractions or previous visuals (this is especially important if you're following someone else).

  5. Take a few beats to look around the audience (give them a chance to look at you, too).

  6. Smile if appropriate; and you can do it naturally.

Begin With a Strong Opening Block

  1. Greet the audience.

  2. Begin with your attention-getter.

  3. Introduce yourself, if someone is not doing it for you.

  4. Let the audience know your purpose.

  5. Give the audience a road map of your presentation; give them a brief preview of what you'll be talking about.

  6. Let the audience know you're in control - give them all necessary directions, handouts, procedures, etc.

  7. Transition into the body of the speech.

Hook your listeners at the outset, and you're well on your way to winning the battle for their attention. At the very least, like a good suspense novelist, you will have aroused enough curiosity that they will want to see what comes next.

Professional Projects: Sharpen Your Openings
  1. Your topic is "We Can Beat Inflation." Devise three different attention-getters: a rhetorical question, a startling statistic, and a quote.

  2. Your topic is "Change We Must." Start with a personal story about how change has had an impact on you or tell an appropriate and applicable joke about the subject.

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