The Wrong Way to Open a Speech (and 7 Right Ways)

By Lou Solomon

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You’re sitting in the audience in anticipation of a great talk. The conference speaker is a renowned food expert and the author of a new book. The emcee introduces her, and she walks to the front of the room as people clap. Then comes the moment.

The mic opens, and she says with a deadpan tone, “Um, good morning, um, I’m so excited to be here. Um, I’d like to thank you for the invitation to be here. Special thanks to my sponsor, blah, blah, blah.”

She blew the opportunity to seize that moment of anticipation.

What if she made a statement like Jamie Oliver when he gave his award-winning TED Talk? Oliver said, “In the next 18 minutes that we’ll be together, four Americans will die from the food they eat.”

Oliver knows that a speaker’s first few lines can set the tone for audience engagement and determine how long the audience stays tuned in.

If you throw away those lines, your audience’s attention will slide, and if it slides too far, they will stop listening altogether. They will begin checking their phones, reading the program, and thinking about the rest of their day.

7 Right Ways to Open Your Presentation

Taking time to craft the right open is one of the easiest ways to keep the audience tuned in, present and engaged.

There is an infinite number of ways to open your presentation. Here are just seven:

1) Start with No Words

Ironically, one of the strongest things you can do in a speech is to say nothing at all. Once you arrive at the front of the room, pause for a moment. Intentional silence lets you build on the initial anticipation held by the audience.

You will appear collected and confident, and we will lean in to hear your first words in that moment of silence. Silence is a powerful tool when used correctly.

2) Find a Common Ground

Demonstrating your knowledge, understanding, and love of what the audience cares about endears you to them. When Chadwick Boseman addressed the graduating class of 2018 at Howard University, he opened this way:

“It is a great privilege to address you on your day, a day marking one of the most important accomplishments of your life to date.

Howard is a magical place, a place where the dynamics of positive and negative seem to exist in extremes. I remember walking across this yard with my head down, lost in my thoughts.

When I raised my head, Muhamed Ali walked toward me; he raised his fists to a quintessential guard. I was game to play along with him, acting like I was a worthy opponent, challenged by the goat, the greatest of all time, for a brief moment.

His face was as serious as if I was Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila; his movements were flashes of a path more incredible than I could imagine. His security let the joke play along for a second before they ushered him away, and I walked away, floating like a butterfly.

I walked away, amused at him, amused at myself, amused at life for this moment that almost no one would ever believe. I walked away, light and ready to take on the world. That is the magic of this place. Almost anything can happen here.”

3) Make a Startling Statement

A surprising statement can keep the audience’s attention by keeping them guessing what you’re about to say next.

Author Pamela Meyer opened her TED Talk by saying, “Okay, now I don’t want to alarm anybody in this room, but it’s just come to my attention that the person to your right is a liar. Also, the person to your left is a liar. Also, the person sitting in your very seat is a liar. We’re all liars.

4)  Give an Anecdote with a Lesson

Being true to oneself is a timeless storyline. We’ve all attempted to fit in by changing who we are.

Jack Nicholson is one of the most celebrated character actors of all time. He tells a story about taking a class at a theater in Hollywood. An actor named Joe Flynn taught the course. Flynn gave Nicholson some of the best advice he ever received.

He warned Jack that people in the business would advise him to take voice lessons and change the nasal quality of his voice… but he shouldn’t listen. Flynn was right. Everyone Jack met urged him to change, but he remembered what Joe said and never took a lesson.

Today, Jack is one of the greatest character actors of our time, and his voice is his trademark.

5) Ask a Rhetorical Question

In 1993, President Bill Clinton opened a speech by asking, “If Martin Luther King were to reappear by my side today and give us a report card on the last 25 years, what would he say?'”

After he posed the question, he paused to let the audience ponder.

6) Create an Experience

You can appeal to the senses of your audience and send them to another place, perhaps the secret universe of fluorescent sharks, seahorses, and eels, to see how they light up the waters.

Here’s how oceanographer David Gallo got his audience to swim the depths of the world’s oceans during his open for his Ted Talk:

“We’re going to go on a dive to the deep sea. Anyone who has had that lovely opportunity knows that’s a perfectly, positively pitch-black world for about two-and-a-half hours on the way down. Now, enter the secret universe of bio fluorescent sharks, seahorses, eels, and more, and see how they light up the waters.”

Combined with a series of video images featuring luminescent sea creatures, this open transports the audience deep into the world of ocean exploration.

7) Tell a Personal Story

In his 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs opened this way:

“Truth be told, I never graduated from college, and this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to college graduation. Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it, no big deal—just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots. I dropped out of Reed College after the first six months but then stayed around as a drop-in for another eighteen months or so before I quit. So why did I drop out? It started before I was born.”

The Close

One of the worst mistakes a presenter can make is to close by saying, “So that’s about it. Thanks for having me.” All the energy drains out of the room, and people dive toward the door.

The Bookend Close connects back to the Bookend Open. If you begin with a story, question, or statement, return to it for a visit in the end.

Whatever you do, don’t rush off. Pause for a moment and say something like, “In closing, let me leave you with this…”. Wrap up the main takeaway from your talk. Make a call to action, and let us know why we’ve spent time with you.

But no one will ever hear the close if you blow the open. If you come out of the gate without seizing our attention, there is little chance we’ll be there at the end.

As my good friend and client Jim Morasco once said, “It’s all about the open.”

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