Effective speech openings: a simple 3-step process

Want to know the best way to start a speech? Follow this process to captivate your audience.

The question on public speaking that I’m most often asked is: “What’s the best way to start a speech?”

I understand what motivates this question, but it’s not a good question. You see, there is no “best way” to start a speech. Every speech, every audience and every occasion requires that a speaker craft a unique opening.

In order to captivate your audience and connect with them, follow this three-step process:

Step 1: Research the audience and the event

Before speaking to a group of people, you need to know specific information both about them and about the event itself. Only then can you begin to predict the energy level, mood and mindset of your audience.

Some examples:

Let’s say you are scheduled to speak on a panel of experts. You can expect the interest and energy level of the audience to be vastly higher if you are the first speaker as opposed to being the fifth speaker on the panel.

Gaining the attention of the audience during the opening keynote on the first morning of a conference will likely be easier than holding the attention of the audience on the final afternoon. This is especially true if much of the audience spent the previous night on the receiving end of a stream of alcoholObviously, then, different situations require different approaches.

This leads us to step 2.

Step 2: Determine what the opening of your speech should do

Rather than asking “how” you should start your speech, you are better off asking “what” the opening of your speech should accomplish.

Let’s take a look at a few different scenarios.

A speech to deliver bad news. You are standing behind the podium in order to communicate bad news – and the audience knows it. In fact, they already know the news itself, but it is your job to make an official announcement. Although you are conveying negative information, you want the audience to remain loyal to your organization and focus on the bright side or the long-term benefits that may emerge from this challenging situation. What should the opening of your speech accomplish?

A speech to experts. You’re facing an audience of experts who know your topic as well (or better) than you do. They’ve heard it all before and have no expectation that you’re going to tell them anything earth-shattering or ground breaking. What should your opening do in this situation?

The way you begin your speech will establish trust and a connection with your audience. Clearly, you must tailor the way you begin your speech with the predicted energy level, mood and mindset of the audience.

Step 3: Select your starting strategy

When you understand what you’d like to accomplish in your speech, you can decide how you will do it. Only now is the question of “What’s the best way to start this speech?” a good one.

For example, when delivering bad news, the opening of your speech should address the mood of the audience. If you don’t acknowledge the way your audience is feeling, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to improve their mood. When you do acknowledge their feelings, the audience realizes you’re tuned in and will be an authentic and empathic speaker. They will then be more likely to open up and listen to you than if you just tried to gloss over their feelings and deliver formal remarks.

A wise person once said: “People don’t cooperate because you make them understand. They cooperate because they feel understood.”

So, in this case, the opening of your speech should open the doors of understanding between you and your audience.

If you’re using the same strategy every time you start a speech instead of using the 3-step process described here, you’re setting yourself up for failure. On the other hand, when you use this process, you’ll be able to get undivided attention, create anticipation and connect with your audience right from the start.

John Watkis is a freelance speechwriter. Read his blog at Successfulspeechesblog.This article first appeared in March 2011.


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