Research has shown that the first 90 seconds of any speech have the most impact and are the most memorable. Thought, time and effort spent on your opening is a worthwhile investment.
You need to stand out from other speakers. This starts before you’ve even uttered your first word. Expectations shape reality. If your audience expects you to be good, they’ll perceive you as just that. So dress the part and never admit to feeling anxious, unsure or unwell.
Here are some tips to help you have a winning beginning and to open your speech with impact:
1 The opening of your speech needs to provide them with a compelling reason to park all competing thoughts and give you their full attention for the duration of your speech. Don’t waste the opening seconds with platitudes, such as thank you for inviting me, what an honour, etc, etc. Friendly, but boring and predictable.
In the words of Darren LaCroix (World Champion of Public Speaking, Toastmasters International), “Beware death by sameness.”
Make a direct, dramatic opening which seizes your audience’s interest. It can be compelling, humorous, shocking, challenging or imaginative. Try using:
- A rhetorical or a survey question. Cue the response you are looking for. Questions are even more effective when they are “you” focused
- A statement in the form of a startling statistic or a bold claim can set the scene effectively for an informational or educational talk. “Did you know that…”
- Paint a picture – this can start with “Imagine…” or “It was 2.30pm on a rainy Monday…”: the aim is to get your audience to visualise a scene in their minds.
- Anecdote – a personal, amusing short story that relates directly to your overall message – one that the audience can relate to
- A recent quotation from a respected industry expert – the expert gives added credibility and, if it’s recent, you sound on the ball
Whichever approach you adopt, appeal to their senses – what people see, hear, feel, smell, taste. This will give your speech opening more emotional resonance and invites the audience in.
2 Always speak in the active, not the passive, voice. Don’t say “Our business needs to be restructured for growth…” which leaves the listener not sure who will be doing what by when. Say “We need to restructure our business for growth…” “These are the next steps…” “Who will…?” “By when…?”
Sentences in the active voice are shorter, have energy and directness.
3 Top speakers use anchor phrases. A good anchor phrase should encapsulate the feeling and message of your speech. For Martin Luther King it was “I have a dream”. It’s a few words your audience will associate with you and your message. When your phrase pops into their mind, the rest of your speech will be reactivated.
4 Practise your opening until it flows naturally and effortlessly. On the day, take centre stage and ooze confidence with a solid posture and a smile. The stability of your opening stance will support the credibility of your message. Look briefly around your audience. This gives you time to calm your nerves and the audience time to settle down, and focus on you. The pause will pique their curiosity – they will be eager to hear your opening words.
Used well, your powerful opening will prevent the audience thinking “so what?”, or “what’s in it for me?” With a memorable opening, they are with you, wanting to know more.