Three ways to start a speech, and one way NOT to

You have only seconds to grab your audience’s attention. This is not news, but it is often ignored. Why?

Part of it probably comes from the illusion that you, the speaker, get to define when the speech “starts.”

You can see this in the propensity of speakers to say something like, “Before we start….”

Guess what, Dude? You just started. And chances are you are wasting it.

Susan M. Weinschenk in her book 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know about People confirms from research this often-heard idea: people are most likely to remember the first thing they hear from you, and the last thing. She advises you to break up longer presentations, taking a break of some sort every 20 minutes. It may be an activity, or at least asking the audience to think about something, and then raise hands in a poll.

Part (though not all) of the reason is to give you, in effect, multiple beginnings and multiple endings. So when speakers say, “Before we start…,” they at least recognize that “starting” is a psychological matter as much as anything. But Weinshenk’s starts and stops work because there is a physical break in the presentation, not just that a speaker says, “Start.” (Or “stop,” for that matter.)

How to really start

  • Start with a story. This is one of my favorites. Audiences almost automatically get pulled into a speech that starts with a story. We just naturally relate to story. Remember what makes a story a story, though. It’s a single incident with character, plot, scene-setting, dialogue, etc. Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey makes a good structure–in simplified form, there is a hero who faces an obstacle and through struggle overcomes it (or is overcome by it). Be sure the story relates to your overall point, and you will help them remember it.
  • Set a scene. Though scene-setting is part of storytelling, it’s possible to simply set a scene related to your point. Spend some time setting up sensory appeals with your words, appealing to at least three of the five senses if you can. When you tie the senses to your point, you will help them remember it.
  • Make a challenging statement. This might be something like, “You think you know how to exercise properly, right? Today, I’m here to tell you that you’ve probably been doing it wrong all your life!” This can be a bit dangerous, since if delivered in the wrong tone of voice it can set up an adversarial relationship. You don’t want to leave the impression you think they’re stupid, but if you can use your body language and voice to communicate along with the statement, “It pains me that this is the case, and I’m here to help!” you can get their attention for your point, and make it memorable.

There are other ways to start a speech, but all of these have in common their appeal to both heart and mind. You want to grab both sides of their brain at the outset.

How not to start

It’s not simply avoiding, “Before we start,” but rather what typically comes after that.

“Before we start, we have some announcements….” “Before we begin, let me remind everyone that lunch will immediately follow this session….” “Before I get into my talk, let me call the roll and make sure we’re not missing anyone….”

Really, there are lots of little ways to do this, but they all boil down to one thing: a start that is a non-start, a waste of an opportunity that can never be recaptured.

That doesn’t mean you don’t talk about those things. But put them in the middle somewhere, where it won’t waste that opportunity–and where it might even serve as a mini-break that will give you a mini-ending just before, and a mini-beginning just after. If there are announcements that must be made, if possible get someone else to do them, and then introduce you. That way, you can have a fresh start and get right into your audience members’ hearts and minds.

Think about your last presentation. How could you have started it more effectively?

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.