The worst way to open a speech—and what to do instead

Do your opening lines project your confidence and gravitas, or do they make it seem that you’re in over your head? Here’s how to start your speeches with strength and authority.

We’ve all heard the axiom, “It’s not how you start but how you finish that matters.”

That’s probably true for most things in life. It’s not true, though, for public speaking. How you begin your talk is important.

Each year I coach hundreds of speakers, and I’m always struck at the numbing similarity of their opening lines. On their first take, more than 75 percent of my trainees use the same words, which:

  • Sap the speakers’ conviction
  • Undermine the speakers’ authority
  • Apologize for taking the audience’s time

If you want to look confident and boost your executive presence, don’t begin with this line:

“So, I just thought I’d kind of quickly walk you through …”

I’m sure this sounds familiar. It’s ubiquitous, because when it comes to public speaking, we primarily learn from observing others.

Ideally, it’s great to learn from others. However, we can also pick up their bad habits. Beginning a speech with the sentence above will sink your boat before you even leave the dock.

Let’s break down this ubiquitous opening line word for word to explain why you should expunge it from your presentations:

‘So’

“So” is full of empty calories. It serves no purpose, yet many of us start virtually every sentence with it. This habit is particularly prevalent in the technology sector. The only habits worse than using “so” are stretching it out to “sooooo,” or accompanying it with its trusty companion, “um.”

[FREE DOWNLOAD: 10 punctuation essentials]

‘Just’

When you use “just,” you imply you’re about to give the audience a half-hearted effort, as in, “I’m just going to give this a quick glance.” By using “just,” you set limitations on your material and tell listeners that they shouldn’t expect much.

‘Thought’

“I thought” and “I think” have wormed their way into our communication styles. “I thought” is a lazy phrase that implies something is “just good enough.” Whenever I hear someone say he “thought” he would start by doing something, I imagine him picking his presentation strategy out of a hat an hour earlier.

Think about how we use this phrase in everyday life:

“What are you doing today, Diane?”

“I don’t know. I thought I’d go to the mall.”

There’s not a lot of conviction in Diane’s desire to go to the mall. She’s implying that she’ll go to the mall, but only if she can’t think of something better to do.

‘Kind of’

When it comes to conviction strippers, “kind of” and its cousin “sort of” are the winners. Are you going to kind of give the audience your report, or are you really going to give it to them?

People use this filler in many self-sabotaging ways, like, “This is kind of where we’re going with this year’s strategy.” It makes sense to use it if you intentionally want to equivocate on something, but if you want to display certainty, avoid it.

‘Quickly’

“Quickly” is an apology word. Telling your audience that you’ll be quick implies you don’t deserve to have the floor. You’re telling your audience, “I know you’re likely to be bored by what I’m saying, so I’ll do this quickly so you’ll be bored for less time.”

Remember, the speakers who take their time project the most confidence and authority.

What’s an example of a good opening line? Try something like this:

“This morning I’m going to share our strategy for the rest of the year.”

It’s a simple fix that helps you project more gravitas and boost your executive presence. In business, that is of vital importance.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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