The most difficult moments of a speech are those seemingly endless seconds of stage time while you get to your spot, find your notes or your clicker, look at the audience, wait for the applause to die down, and gather your wits to begin. You’re hoping it all goes well, wondering if the technology will work, fearing that it won’t, and trying to figure out why you agreed to speak to this motley crowd in front of you in the first place.

And then you have to begin your speech. When you open your mouth, what comes out? Following are eight ways to begin a speech that go beyond my usual exhortations to start with a story, a startling stat, or a question.

1.Begin with the way things used to be.   This strategy is useful to set up a talk about change or a new proposal for your team, your organization, or your profession. “It used to be that we could count on our customers to. . . .” “Until only recently, everyone thought that renters would always. . . . “Remember how things used to quiet down in the summer?” The idea is to get your audience nodding in recognition, or smiling at the quaintness of yesterday, or waxing nostalgic about last Tuesday.   Then, they’ll listen in the right frame for the new insight or proposal you’re going to hit them with.

2.Start with a strong emotion. Whether positive or negative, strong emotions catch the attention and set up the discussion in an interesting way. “The worst thing about our profession is. . . .” “What I love about penguins is the way that they. . . .” “I hate, positively hate, serif typefaces. . . .” The point here is that you’ll get a reaction, either positive or negative, and focus the audience on the point you want them to think about. We react to strong emotions, like train wrecks, and we can’t take our (metaphorical) eyes off them.

3.Thank the audience for something they’ve done. You can never go wrong praising the audience, whether they fully deserve it or not. It’s flattery, sure, but it works, and disarms the audience, setting them up to listen more favorably to your next point. “Let’s start by giving yourselves a round of applause. No team could have managed these last difficult months better than this one. You’ve been heroes. . . .” The applause then allows you to make the further ask: “That’s why I’m confident that you’ll be able to. . . .”

4.Cut away the extraneous and get to the essence.   This move takes confidence, but with the right understanding of your audience, it can be highly effective. “The one thing that matters this election year is the economy. . . .” “Today I want to talk about fairness. . . .” “When it comes to the environment, there’s only one number you need to know. . . .” This device is most useful when you’re dealing with a highly complex subject, or a debate with many sides and a lot of history. It’s a way of clearing away the undergrowth and revealing the essential issue underneath all the excess.

5.Make a big demand. Asking the audience something big, or excessive, or unreasonable is counterintuitive. To make this kind of ask requires a deep understanding of your audience, and a strong sense of your own position. But people love to commit to audacious goals, so don’t be afraid of invoking something that you truly believe to be important. “We choose to go to the moon. . . .” “Let’s make history tonight. . . .” “Why not make the news for once instead of reacting to it? Let’s. . . . “

6.Break down what you’re talking about into simple steps. One of the most appealing tropes in public speaking is to make the complicated simple. “There are only three ways that you can design a book cover. . . .” “Financial security is really very simple. You can accomplish it in three steps. First. . . .” Just make sure you know what you’re talking about. You don’t want the audience immediately thinking of everything you’ve left out. This kind of simplicity demands real expertise to be effective.

7.Map out the future. The enduring appeal of fortune tellers has something to do with the certainty, I suppose, they seem to give one over the uncertain future. You can partake of the allure of the crystal ball set by giving your audience a schema for handling the future. “I see this playing out in one of three ways. . . .” “Watch for one of two things to happen. When you see either one, you’ll know that. . . .” It doesn’t really matter if you predict the future accurately or not; what you’re doing is giving your audience a way of thinking about the future that feels manageable.

8.Ask the audience to imagine something completely different. This approach is effective with professional organizations, or teams that have been doing things a certain way for a long time, or indeed anyone who has struggled with a status quo that seems set forever. “What if higher education were free to all?” “I’d like to begin by asking you to imagine a world with no hunger. . . .” “We’ve always assumed that Moore’s Law had a finite end. What if we could suddenly increase computing power by a factor of a thousand?”

Use these various framing devices to begin your speech with some extra sparkle – or simply to prompt your thinking about how to set up your talk for success.

7 Comments

  1. Great to have a list of ideas, and especially when and why to use each. Thanks Nick. A favourite of mine is to start mid-story and especially with the height of dramatic tension, turning point or decision-point. You get the audience hooked, then do your story start (or related topic) subject, before returning to the story and how the tension gets resolved at the end. Often the audience gives you their attention the entire time simply because they want to know the outcome of the story!

    1. Thanks, Matt — the circular story is a favorite of mine, too. You just have to be sure that the story is strong enough so that when you return to it, the audience remembers what you’re talking about!

  2. Nick, just before all of those wonderful ideas, you could have some silence. You could use that silence to invite connection with the audience, to create a sense of belonging in the room. By inviting connection I mean just looking at one audience member at a time.
    Don’t just notice the smilers but the blank faces too because most audiences will have blank faces.

    Pause. Invite connection with someone on the back row

    Pause. Invite connection with someone on the balcony etc.

    Your opening line arrives 10 seconds after you stood there
    “Imagine Nick Morgan as the president of the United States…….”

    Thanks Nick for your blog and your work

  3. Hey Nick,

    Recall that you and I worked on my opening some years back. I recall you saying to walk confidently onto the stage (without a Mick Jagger strut) and pause for a moment to build anticipation. I do that and then launch into a story with no nonsense like thank you or hello. It works for me!

    David

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