Three Powerful Ways to Start a Speech
I've been a public speaker most of my life, and I've listened to countless speeches by others. If you end up sitting in the back of an audience when the speaker goes up to the podium, you can tell very quickly if he or she is someone the audience will cherish and enjoy listening to, or whether they will slot the speaker into the category of unremarkable, boring, and let's-sneak-a-look-at-my-watch so that I can get out of here. This decision is made within 90 seconds. And it has virtually everything to do with how a speaker starts the speech.
How Not to Begin a Speech
Most speakers begin their speeches or presentations with niceties. We've heard them all. For example: "Thank you for that kind introduction. That was really nice of you. I also wanted to thank so-and-so for kindly inviting me to speak. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn't say how much I appreciate your coming here tonight." All of this is awful. It is a sort of extended throat-clearing process, and it tells the audience three things already. First, you are opening your speeches just like every other speaker they've ever heard in their lives, and you're boring. And because you start a speech just like everyone else, you must basically be saying the same as everyone else, and therefore it's ok if I tune out, since I've heard that speech many times before. Second, it says that you cannot cut to the chase quickly and powerfully. In an age where messages are 140 characters or less, this inability to punch immediately is deadly. Third, and worst of all, it says that you don't respect people's time. Why waste the 90 seconds you have to grab their attention by thanking people they don't know? My years as a trial lawyer have taught me that you must get to the point immediately. Juries hate a lawyer who spends time thanking them for their jury service -- don't they know they had to show up and had no choice? Get to it so we can get on with our lives! So here are three powerful ways to start your speech.
Powerful Opener #1: The Story
Begin with a story. It can be a fable that illustrates your point (not a too obvious or familiar story), or it can be your personal anecdote. Either way, consider strongly starting with a narrative that encapsulates the key message you're trying to convey. Why do stories work? Let me tell you a story! In the Arabian Nights, a king orders a woman to die by execution, and the evening before she's supposed to be hanged, they ask her what her final wish was. She said that she would like to spend time with the king and tell him a story -- and the king, curious, grants her this wish. She tells him a wonderful tale and the king is enthralled by her description, and he falls in love with the characters, and he is hanging on her every word when -- she tells him she can't finish the story until the next night. And now he can't have her executed the next day because she hasn't finished her story. So the next night she finishes the story and begins a new one and stops again just before bedtime, so again the king has to let her live. This happens story after story, and the woman escapes execution until finally, the king sets her free.
Human beings are hard-wired to enjoy stories, from the time we told stories to one another around a fire, sitting dressed in furs, to the modern age where trial lawyers like me tell stories to juries (we're dressed in suits and expensive ties). Regardless, stories are a great way to convey information -- which is what public speeches are -- because it's a good way to structure information. Also, having characters and conflict and plot and resolution is wonderful. So consider telling a story to start off and grab the audience right away.
Powerful Opener #2: The Rhetorical Question
Why do rhetorical questions work so well? Remember that every public speech and every presentation has a mission. It's not someone standing there, spewing information just to put it out there! Just as this article has a mission -- to make you a better speaker, and especially in the first 90 seconds of your presentation -- so every speech has a goal. Those speakers who are not aware of this are the ones we forget. The rhetorical question focuses the speech on the one answer you're trying to give with your speech. A graduation speech is answering what graduates are to think of themselves and how they are to fit into the bigger world; a wedding toast is answering why the bride was a wonderful baby, grew into a wonderful woman, and will be a wonderful wife; a sales pitch is answering how the product will solve the problem.
So think of a (non-cliched) way of framing your speech by asking a rhetorical question that makes ears perk up. The reason this method works so well is that our brains are hard-wired to come up with answers to questions. Psychologists know this and much of therapy is really designed to get your brain to ask the right questions -- think about it. A patient who is constantly asking himself "why am I such a loser" will inevitably come up with reasons why he's a loser. Someone who asks himself "what do I have to be grateful for today" will come up with answers too and will be less depressed. So asking a rhetorical question focuses attention on your message and audiences will much more likely join you in your quest for an answer. And when, of course, you've answered the question your speech was designed to cover, you'll have tons of credibility with the audience. So begin your speech with a rhetorical question or a puzzle that your speech is to solve -- it sets a goal for your speech and focuses it immediately.
Powerful Opener #3: Head-turning Statistics
Ok, most of my life I've tried to avoid being a geek, but now that I'm grown up and a successful lawyer, I'm owning that. One good way to begin a speech is to use a head-turning statistic. And the reason I use head-turning statistic is that there's a bad way of doing this, and a great way of doing this. The bad way is to cite a set of stats that are ho-hum, and mildly interesting. Usually, this is because the speaker was too busy to find a truly amazing shocking statistic. And if that's your opening ante, odds are that the rest of the speech won't be as great.
No, the proper way of doing this is to cite a statistic that's shocking to you when you read about it, but then make sense of the statistic. So don't just say how many text messages are sent in a year -- I'm sure that's an astronomical number, but then again, you didn't think people are surprised by that, right? The better way is to make sense of the statistic —meaning that given the high number of text messages sent in a year if you were to print them out on paper, it would reach from the earth to the moon and back 25 times! Or whatever calculation you can have -- have fun doing this! And the reason statistics work well is because it establishes you as an authority (concrete numbers beat vague pronouncements); it gives people something fun to repeat to their friends; it gives the audience the sense that what they are listening to is a big sweeping issue worth their time.
There are many more ways to powerfully open a speech, and I'll cover them in future posts. Good luck!