Every year about now, the conference season kicks into gear and I hear — and coach — speeches and speakers under conditions of high stress and adrenaline.  Inevitably, I hear speech beginnings that don’t do either their speakers or their audiences any favors.  Some are small mistakes and some are more fundamental, but they’re all unnecessary.

The opening of a speech is magical mental real estate.  It’s the point of maximum excitement and openness for the audience.  The speaker needs to meet those expectations with something equally exciting.  How are you starting your speeches?  Don’t use one of these lines, please!

1.I’m glad to be here.  This opener is default for many, many speakers.  What’s wrong with it?  Just that.  It’s a default.  It’s a polite nothing.  It squanders precious mental real estate.  What would you think if each Game of Thrones episode began with the actor who plays Jon Snow coming on screen, and saying, “I’m glad to be here, on screen?”  Don’t waste your time!

2.I can’t hear you.  Polite nothings are small errors.  Haranguing your audience is a larger one.  The audience’s attention is a gift, bestowed on the speaker.  Don’t abuse the gift by yelling at your audience.  You’re not a PE teacher.

3.Let me tell you a little bit about myself.  Nobody cares.  Don’t do it.  If you’re really that interesting, you will have been introduced by someone else, and they will have said all the interesting stuff already.  Audiences want to know why they are there, not who you are.

4.Will you please turn off your cell phones?  If people really care about their mobile phones, they won’t turn them off no matter what you say, and you will begin your talk already at odds with them.  Some people, like ‘first responders’, have good reason to have their phones on.  So leave your audience alone, and be interesting instead.

5.Who here is from (CITY/COUNTRY/PENAL INSTITUTION)? Please raise your hand.  This move is just lame.  It was clever audience interaction the first ten thousand times it was done, but not anymore.  If you want to interact with the audience, do better.  Ask them something interesting.  If you just want to make yourself feel comfortable, try Xanax.

6.Thank you for that kind introduction. False modesty, lame, and a waste of space. If you must thank the introducer, and that is certainly a polite thing to do, in many settings, then make it shorter and sweeter:  ‘Thanks, Jim’.  (Don’t bother if it’s a pre-recorded voice.)

7.Let me tell you what I’m going to talk about.  Perhaps agenda discussions were useful years ago, and they still are when you’re planning to talk for eight hours, like Fidel Castro, but if you’re only going for an hour, don’t do an agenda.  We can live through an hour without knowing the ten-minute increments.  Really.  We’ve just had coffee and donuts, so knock it outa the park!

8.Finally, don’t apologize. You don’t want to begin at odds with the audience – you’re there to serve them. So don’t start by apologizing for your slides, your voice, your health – anything.  Just do your thing that you’ve been hired or brought in to do.

Please be kind to audiences everywhere, and avoid these eight no-nos.  You’ll be glad you did, and the audiences will be ecstatic.  They’ll pay attention, they’ll engage more fully, and they’ll be excited to learn what’s coming next.

Learn what not to do — and what to do — at our one-day really cool Powerful Public Speaking workshop.  Boston, October 24th, spaces limited.

15 Comments

  1. Great article here – I especially resonate around point 3 – Just get straight into it!

    This one I hear almost every single time from the best man at a wedding speech:

    ‘I don’t do a lot of these speeches, so I searched on Google to find out how to do a best man speech’…

    People think it’s original, but it’s not 😛

  2. Great advice, as always Nick. I remember reading about an analysis of an audience’s attention level during an hour-long lecture. It showed it peaking before the speaker utters a word (intrigue I guess), dipping quickly after some of the 8 habits above kick in, bouncing up and down (near the bottom) and then rising again when they hear “And in conclusion…”. I love your description of that opening moment as “magical mental real estate”, a great time to hit ’em with something powerful.

    1. Thanks, Rick — check out the link, everybody — Rick has a couple of great additions to the list. And he’s just as cranky about these things as I am.

    1. Ken, I’ve posted many times on that! Start by not doing what’s noted in the post, and then look around on the blog (or in my books) and you’ll find literally hundreds of ideas.

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