5 great ways to open a speech

Stop boring your audience the minute you start your speech. Grab them with a question, statistic, anecdote, and more. Learn how.

(Editor’s note: This was one of the top viewed stories of 2014. We’re rerunning it as part of a look back at the articles that captivated our readers the most.)

Almost every speaker I’ve ever trained begins their practice speech the same way.

They walk to the front of the room, say good morning/afternoon/evening, thank the audience for coming, and express their delight to be there. Then they turn around and flip to their first slide, a bulleted agenda of what they plan to discuss during their presentation.

What a bore.

The opening minutes of a presentation are often the most important. According to Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of “The Definitive Book of Body Language,” the audience forms 60 to 80 percent of its impression of a speaker within the first four minutes.

Here are some effective ways to open a speech, each with an example. Take a look:

1. The startling statistic

Opening with a startling statistic is a terrific way of grabbing the audience’s attention from your first word. In order to be effective, the statistic should be related directly to the main purpose of your talk.

“Statistic” doesn’t mean the same as “data.” If you’re giving the audience a number, you should set it within a broader context to help infuse it with greater meaning.

For example, I occasionally speak to a group of part-time volunteers who are working to reduce the number of injuries suffered in house fires. I used this opening for one of my talks:

“I’m only going to speak to you for one hour this morning. During our hour together, someone, somewhere in America, is going to be badly injured in a house fire. By the time you begin lunch this afternoon, someone, somewhere in America, will die in a house fire. By dinner, another person will die. By the time you go to sleep, another person will die. As you sleep tonight, two more people will die.

I’m here today because I want to prevent that from happening. And I’m going to need your help.”

2. The anecdote

A story, case study, or personal anecdote is perhaps the single most effective tool for transferring information from speaker to audience. In fact, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner once said that “stories are the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”

One of my favorite speech openings of all time came from Brian, a client who delivered a speech on a “boring” topic, new insurance products. But instead of putting his audience to sleep, he used a personal anecdote to give his talk greater meaning.

Brian told the story of a woman he met early in his career, a grieving widow named Pam, whose husband, James, had recently died. James had been sick and out of work for three years, so they had no choice but to stop paying his life insurance premium. As a result, Pam wasn’t going to get a penny from his life insurance policy, meaning she would struggle to make ends meet. But Brian discovered a loophole in the policy, and delivered a $100,000 check to Pam weeks later.

Check out Brian’s speech.

Brian then transitioned to the body of his presentation by placing that story in context:

“When I think about the power of what we do, having been to retirement parties, having sent those kids off to college and shown individuals how to pay for it, that’s very powerful. But nothing was more powerful than delivering a check in the face of tragedy. That mindset, for me, changed everything.”

3. Ask a rhetorical question

In his book “Words That Work,” political strategist Frank Luntz writes that it’s critical to help audiences visualize your topic by painting a vivid picture for them. He writes:

“One word automatically triggers the process of visualization by its mere mention: imagine.”

Ask the audience to imagine something by using a rhetorical question. You don’t have to use the word “imagine,” but your question should trigger the same visualization process. For example, you might begin this way to a group of stressed out working parents:

“I’d like to begin by asking you to think about your typical weekday morning routine (pause for five seconds). I know it may be difficult, but I’d like you to try to picture what it would be like not to rush around on five-and-a-half hours of sleep every morning and enjoy a leisurely weekday morning routine instead (pause for five seconds). Today, I’m going to offer you three strategies for making the impossible possible.”

4. Ask a “show of hands” question

I often begin my media training and public speaking workshops with a “show of hands” question. Those questions can increase audience buy-in from the very beginning, since members of the audience are able to see how their answers compare to those of their peers. Plus, you can use this device to lead people to powerful self-realizations and conclusions.

For example, I occasionally begin my presentation training workshops by asking:

“How many of you absolutely love public speaking?” (only a few people raise their hands, provoking laughter)

“How many of you actively volunteer for every chance you get to deliver a presentation?” (again, almost nobody raises their hands)

“How many of you believe it would be good for your careers if you could go into a room and deliver a knock out presentation to top leadership, key clients, or major donors?” (almost every hand goes up, demonstrating the disconnect between what they feel and what they do)

5. Speak with your audience

I often begin by asking questions to the audience at the very beginning of a presentation. Doing so helps create a climate of audience participation from the start. Plus, their answers are often useful for helping me better understand the audience.

When leading a media training workshop, for example, I might begin by going around the room (or selecting a single row or table, for larger groups), and asking them to share their biggest media interviewing fear with me.

“Rhonda, what’s your biggest concern with being interviewed by a reporter?”

Almost always, Rhonda’s answer will be something I plan to cover during the session. If that’s the case, I’ll refer back to her when I get there:

“Rhonda, at the beginning of the session, you mentioned that you were afraid of being misquoted. Let’s talk about that now.”

And if I wasn’t planning on covering Rhonda’s topic, her question provided me with great information; if I add just two minutes anywhere in my presentation about her primary concern, I’ve addressed an important issue that I otherwise wouldn’t have thought to cover.

Learn three more great ways to open a speech, complete with examples, at Mr. Media Training.

Brad Phillips is author of “The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.” He is also the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and blogs at Mr. Media Training , where a version of this story first appeared.

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