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.
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:
"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."
"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.
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.
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."
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:
Get the audience's attention. How you get it is not nearly as important as making sure you get it.
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.
Let the audience know your purpose and objectives.
Get the members of your audience involved in your topic, your mission. You want their support, and you want them on your side.
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.
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."
Make the listeners confident in you by showing how they will profit from and enjoy what they're about to hear.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Audience Compliment. Don't use sheer flattery with no relevant purpose, but insert a sincere comment on some positive quality of the people before you. You want them to like you; show you already like them. An example: "I'm especially pleased to be here today, because I totally agree with the 5-foot, 6-inch Kansas City shortstop who said, 'I'd rather be the shortest player in the majors than the tallest one in the minors.'"
Audience Response.Direct questions are a powerful way to get your audience involved - the key to a good opening. Staff and motivational speakers often use them because people will pay more attention to things they think of rather than to what you put forth. Asking the audience is a good technique if you have the style to get a response - it is distressing, and you lose credibility, if you ask a question and no one answers. You must let them know with your tone that you expect a response - and pause just long enough to get it. Always have an alternate plan, or answer the question yourself, quickly enough to give the message that you are not upset about not getting answer. Any questions you ask should be interesting but not too difficult.
Starting your speech with a question is good way to get the audience involved right from the beginning. When starting talks on how to present, we have started by asking, "How many of you have heard the expression 'step outside the box'?" Almost everyone has raised a hand, and with just one sentence, you have got the whole audience participating.
Audience Surveys. Another related way to get the audience involved is to take a survey. It's often a good technique to use after lunch or dinner because it gets people moving a bit; they all look around to see who's raising a hand. We have alternatively asked audiences: "How many of you give formal presentations?" "How many speak up at meetings?" "How many leave voice mail?" "How many of you wouldn't answer no matter what I asked?" Taking a verbal survey is one excellent opening, because it provides good information and gets the audience involved.
If you think carefully about your questions, this technique can give you valuable information. If you were speaking to an audience of doctors, you might ask: "How many of you treat diabetic patients?" "How many of you feel the majority of your patients' diabetes is controlled?" "How many of you believe we should treat diabetes more aggressively?" The answers you get can help you focus your speech so that it meets the needs of each specific audience.
Rhetorical Questions. By asking a rhetorical question (one that doesn't require an answer), you can restate your point in a dramatic way. Rhetorical questions make people think. A solid effective tack we have taken is asking the question "If questions are so powerful, why don't we use them more?" This type of question can involve your audience and get people to think about the answer in their own minds. You focus their attention without engaging in the give-and-take of a true question-and-answer session.
Before you incorporate a question, analyze it for rhetorical effect: Will it make your audience think? Will it get them mentally - and even physically - involved.
Startling Statement. "My mother is the oldest living person on the face of the Earth." Use that at the beginning of a speech about health care for the aging and you're bound to get the audience's attention. You could follow it up by saying, "At least that's the way she feels most of the time." Anything that takes the audience by surprise will have them hanging on your every word until they get an explanation or further details from you.
Startling Statistic. Combine brevity with a degree of shock - two powerful qualities for any opening - by leading off with a startling statistic. If your topic was about the high cost of healthcare, you might open with, "Did you know that back pain alone costs society $20 billion a year?" Be careful not to use too many statistics at once, because people only remember one or two at a time.
Joke. Many people feel they have to start with a joke, perhaps because they have heard so many other speakers do so. By using this technique though, you must be careful about setting up expectations of more jokes to come. The best time to use a joke is if it fits in with your topic just beautifully and you can tell it well, or if you intend to intersperse jokes throughout the speech.
Even with the risks, jokes can be a very good way to begin. We once attended a presentation on tunnel vision - a topic that can easily slip into predictable admonishments. The speaker began by telling a joke about two ostriches running away from two other ostriches. They couldn't run fast enough, so they decided to hide. She then looked at the audience and said, "Do you know how ostriches hide? Do you know how vulnerable you are in that position?" The audience chuckled, and she had made her point - that tunnel vision can be disastrous - effectively.
Visual Aid. Visual aids can get attention quickly. We once saw a presentation on the advantages of nuclear power where the speaker held up a picture of a smiling Arab holding oil and U.S. dollars in his hands. Instantly, the speaker had made his point about nuclear power freeing us from some of the expense of importing. (More about visual aids in this section.)
Personal Experience. Starting with a relevant story about yourself establishes empathy and rapport, and also confirms your qualifications to address the topic.
Reference to an Occasion. If you are addressing the 100th anniversary of an association, work it into your opening. Your speech will instantly seem tailor-made for the members of the group, and they will sense what's coming up will also focus on them.
Reference to a Current Event. Few speeches are given in a void; show off the links between your topic and the world at large. Doing so gives the audience a larger context in which to listen and to remember your words. Try to avoid being overly controversial, because you never know the current mind-set of your audience.
Quotation. Quotations are popular, and with reason: The hard-earned wisdom of renowned people tends to be succinct, witty, and memorable. And a quotation can focus the attention of your audience much faster than traditional exposition. A quote from your grandmother, "When all is said and done, more is usually said than done," can be just as effective as a quote from someone famous, as long as it is relevant and helps make your point.
Citing an Authority. You can often gain attention if you align yourself with a higher authority, whether it's a prize-winning scientist or the head of your department. An educator, as an example, might do well to quote legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, "Children must be taught how to think, not what to think."
Audience Challenge. Don't be afraid to startle people; conflict is at the center of every successful play, and it can work equally well in a talk. You involve people even if they don't agree with you. Just make sure your challenge to the audience relates to the subject of the speech; otherwise, it will seem inappropriate or irrelevant, ... and weaken the presentation.
Story. Make your opening come alive by telling a story; stories tend to be things audiences remember with ease. John F. Kennedy told a story about a taxi ride before his election. He got out and was about to tip lavishly and tell the cabbie to vote Democratic. Then he remembered some advice from his father. He got out of the cab, didn't tip at all, and told the cab driver to vote Republican.
Comparison. Comparisons are especially vivid if they relate to some daily aspect of your audience's life. I have heard cost-of-living expenses used to point out disparities between different parts of the country. They also help people have a visual image, which helps make your point. In a New York Times, article entitled "With a Little Help from Friends, Pandas Hang On", author Jane Brody wrote that a newborn panda is a "half-developed creature" of 4 or 5 ounces, cared for "by a 200-pound momma, who, if she is not extraordinarily gentle and devoted, can easily crush her newborn. If human mothers and babies had the same weight ratio, a 120-pound woman would give birth to a 2.5-ounce baby. Or, put another way, the mother of a 7.5-pound baby would weigh about 6,000 pounds." These comparisons make it easy for us to understand the enormous difference in size between momma panda and her baby.
An Unusual Definition. These definitions are everywhere, and you can find the best ones in anthologies and quotation books. An example: "Men are like cellophane: hard to get rid of once you get wrapped in them." The more vivid the definition is, the more your audience will remember it.
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:
Don't use the opening to restate the title of the speech or to reiterate information. You need every moment to create interest and suspense; don't go over what is already known. Don't start by saying, "I am going to talk to you today about...safety."
Don't open your speech with an apology. You may think it makes you sound friendly and not pompous, but apologies set up your audience to listen for your weaknesses.
Don't greet the "important" people in the audience. Forget saying "Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Mayor Jones, Senator Smith...." The only time you would use such a formal opening is as a political candidate speaking before a very distinguished audience. If you want to bring attention to certain people in the audience, use their names in the context of your speech.
Don't explain your presence. Don't offer explanations about why you think the chairman asked you to address the group. Remember that you are there for a good reason; you know it, and the audience knows it. Also remember the maxim covering explanations: "Your friends don't need it, and your enemies won't believe you anyway."
Don't say how difficult it was to choose the subject. As far as the audience is concerned, your topic should be so vital that you never doubted its importance, and you should communicate that vital nature.
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.
Breathe (remember the prana, or deep breathing technique discussed in Chapter 2).
Walk to the "platform." (Take calm, easy strides. Don't run out unless you're making a super-high-energy presentation.)
Thank the introducer (if there is one).
Get yourself set up, arranged, and remove any distractions or previous visuals (this is especially important if you're following someone else).
Take a few beats to look around the audience (give them a chance to look at you, too).
Smile if appropriate; and you can do it naturally.
Greet the audience.
Begin with your attention-getter.
Introduce yourself, if someone is not doing it for you.
Let the audience know your purpose.
Give the audience a road map of your presentation; give them a brief preview of what you'll be talking about.
Let the audience know you're in control - give them all necessary directions, handouts, procedures, etc.
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.
Your topic is "We Can Beat Inflation." Devise three different attention-getters: a rhetorical question, a startling statistic, and a quote.
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.