Adapted from "Beginning Your Speech," Toastmasters Better Speaker Series
In the movie “The Sound of Music,” Julie Andrews sings a song about music, about “Do re mi fa so la ti do.” About “doe, a deer, a female deer.” Now, how does that song start? Ah yes, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” You want to learn about public speaking, right? Then let’s start at the very beginning. I’m here today to talk to you about how to open a speech. Because your opening is crucial to the success of your speech.
The first moments of your speech can be shocking, they can be entertaining, they can be inspirational, but what they better not be is boring.
An effective speech opening meets four criteria:
1. It draws the attention of the audience to the speaker and her presentation.
2. It introduces the topic. The beginning of a speech should indicate what the speaker will be talking about and why the audience should be interested in it.
3. It establishes rapport. The audience will be more receptive if the speaker appears friendly and shows a personal interest in the subject.
Three ways to establish rapport with your audience are by:
--Making eye contact
4. An effective opening takes 5-10% of the total speech. The same is true for your ending. So for a 7-minute speech, the beginning and ending should each be between 35-70 seconds long.
There are techniques that help you create a successful opening, and I’m going to share seven techniques with you today.
1. The first is to state the importance of your topic. Tell the audience why the topic is important to them. Of course this depends on your audience, so let’s analyze the opening to this speech:
I started out by mentioning a movie that many people remember fondly: “The Sound of Music.” This shows I’m friendly and establishes rapport. Then I sang. I find that singing is a good way to grab people’s attention. Next I asked questions. Questions get people to stop thinking about what they’re eating for lunch, and instead think about the answer, and therefore your speech. And most importantly, I told you why my topic was important. I happen to know that my audience is interested in public speaking, so I told you that the opening is critical to the success of a speech.
2. Another effective technique is to Make a startling statement: “Smoking kills! More Americans die each year than were killed in battle during World War II and Vietnam together.”
Another one is: “In the time it took you to clap me onstage, 5 African children died of AIDS.”
3. A third technique is to arouse suspense or curiosity. Use a series of statements that pique your listeners’ interest. “I enjoy lying around the house all day. I do not care if you never come home as long as food is available, because I have fun by myself. I like to chase my tail and stalk imaginary animals. Who am I? A cat.” Then continue your speech about…cats.
4. Tell a story or an anecdote that’s related to the topic of your speech. Personalize it if you can. Instead of saying, “Two men were hunting in the woods one day…,” say, “My brother and I went hunting last week in the woods behind my house.” If it’s true, that’s great. But does it have to be true? No, it doesn’t.
5. Ask a rhetorical question. For example, if your speech is about first aid, you could begin by asking, “Do you know what to do if your child begins to choke?”
6. Another way to open a speech is with a quotation. Keep quotes short and directly related to your speech topic. My quotations will all be from Shakespeare. A quotation can:
a. Add authority to a speech. To thine own self be true.
b. Amuse the audience. Assume virtue, if you have it not.
c. Dramatize a speech point. Something wicked this way comes.
7. A seventh and final technique is to Reference the occasion. It allows the speaker to recognize an event and establishes a common interest with the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, a year ago, I was trying to get you to go to Toastmasters at Camp Kim. It didn’t work so well. Now, Toastmasters has come to you, right here at the Embassy. A much better idea, don’t you think?
Do you want to hear some more techniques? OK, I’ll give you
Four Bonus Techniques
a. The first is humor: I love beginning with humor, but you have to tailor the humor to your audience and your topic. If I were giving a speech about North Korea, I might start:
Kim Jong-un. What an unlikely looking totalitarian dictator he is. Chubby. I mean, he looks like something you’d put on the end of a child’s pencil… Still, everybody in North Korea loves him. The military must, because they made him the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. The decision was praised by all, from First Secretary of the Workers’ Party Kim Jong-un, to Opposition leader Kim Jong-un.
You don’t have to come up with jokes or other material all by yourself. This joke is thanks to the late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien, and I got it off the Internet.
b. The second bonus technique is audience participation. Say my speech is about hereditary abilities. I could start out with: When Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” tells us to live long and prosper, he does this. How many of you can do this?
c. The third bonus technique is a demonstration. If I were to give a speech about balloon art, I might start it off by making a dog by twisting balloons.
d. And a fourth is a reference to a historical event. That’s how U.S. President Abraham Lincoln began his famous Gettysburgh Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He was speaking about the signing of the Declaration of Independence 87 years earlier.
Always make sure your opening is relevant to the topic, to the audience, and to the occasion. Once you have written the opening, memorize it. A memorized, polished introduction helps to establish credibility and rapport with your audience.
I’ve told you want to do. Now here’s what not to do in an opening.
Do not tell people you’re nervous. If you do, it will make them nervous for you, and you will lose your authoritative voice. It’s OK to be nervous. Even the greatest actors in the world get nervous before they go onstage. But do like they do, and act. Pretend you are the most confident person in the world.
Don’t tell people how long it took you to prepare. “Thank you all for coming. To be honest, I didn’t have time to prepare this speech.” This invalidate your expertise with the audience, and again you lose your authoritative voice.
Avoid being dull and boring. You should captivate, motivate and inspire your audience. Does this opening do that? “My speech today is about cats. There are many kinds of cats. For example, Persian, Bombay and Oriental.” No. It was more captivating when I pretended to be a cat.
Avoid delaying mention of the topic. “The title of my speech is [pause]. Well, we’ll get to that in a few minutes.” Your audience will lose focus.
In conclusion, I’ve spoken to you about seven techniques to create a memorable beginning:
Tell people the importance of your topic;
Make a startling statement;
Tell an anecdote;
Ask a rhetorical question;
Use a quotation;
and Reference the occasion.
I gave you four bonus techniques:
Encourage audience participation;
Use a demonstration;
and Refer to a historical event.
A dynamic beginning is essential for a successful speech. Use your creativity and imagination to come up with a beginning that will grab your listeners’ attention and keep it focused on you. Remember, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.