4 Opening a Speech: Get Their Attention from the Start!

Lynn Meade

Man holding a prop while talking to an audience

Get the audience’s attention, or the rest of your speech is a waste. I mean it!  Most people spend the majority of their speech preparation time working on the body of their speech and then they tack on an opening and a closing last minute.

The opening and closing deserve the most attention. Why?  If you don’t get the audience’s attention and get them to pay attention to you instead of…  the thoughts in their heads, their grocery lists, their neighbors, their social media…then all the rest of your brilliant content is wasted because they will never hear it. Lisa Marshall of Toastmasters International stresses the opening words are so important that “I spend 10 times more time developing and practicing the opener than any other part of the speech.”

Look at the description of Person A and Person B and tell me which person you like more.

Person A
envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, and intelligent

Person B
intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious

If you are like most people, you have a preference for Person B.  This illustrates a study by Solomon Ashe. He had subjects rate these two people using a string of descriptive words. Now look back at the descriptions. Look closely and you will notice they are the same words in a different order. Most people put the most emphasis on the first three words in determining how they will create the person. Like Asche’s subjects, your audience will be evaluating those first three words. Let’s bring it back around to speechmaking. The first sentence out of your mouth is crucial and the first three words are especially important.

I am sure you are not surprised to know that people form opinions quickly. To prove this, researchers showed subjects either a 20-minute clip of a job applicant or a 20-30 second clip of a job applicant. They were asked to rate the person on likeability and self-assurance. People were able to form an opinion in under thirty seconds. Not only that but they were able to form the same opinions from a 30-second clip as a 20-minute exposure.

The Battle for Attention

Remember that every piece of content in our modern era is part of an attention war. It’s fighting against thousands of other claims on people’s time and energy. This is true even when you’re standing on a stage in front of a seated audience. They have deadly distracters in their pockets called smartphones, which they can use to summon to their eyes a thousand outside alternatives. Once emails and texts make their claim, your talk may be doomed. And then there’s that lurking demon of modern life, fatigue. All these are lethal enemies. You never want to provide someone with an excuse to zone out. You have to be a savvy general directing this war’s outcome. Starting strong is one of your most important weapons.
Chris Anderson, TED Talks, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking.


“People don’t pay attention to boring things,” according to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, “You’ve got 30 seconds before they start asking the question, ‘Am I going to pay attention to you or not?'”It is important to get your audience’s attention right away. In this chapter, I will share with you several ways to win the war for attention and to start your speech right. I will show you the basic opening and closing structure of speeches and give you many examples of what that looks like.  A speech, like an airplane, needs a good take-off and a good landing. Now it’s time to prepare to have a strong take-off and learn everything that goes into a speech introduction. This chapter is full of examples from a variety of talks. I included quotes from those introductions, but I also included links to each of those talks hoping you will be interested enough to want to listen.

 

Ways to Start a Speech

Chris Anderson likens this to battle. “First there is the 10-second war: can you do something in your first moments on stage to ensure people’s eager attention while you set up your talk topic? Second is the 1-minute war: can you then use that first minute to ensure that they’re committed to coming on the full talk journey with you?”

When thinking about your speech, spend a lot of time thinking about how to win the battle for their attention. Your introduction should make your audience want to put down their phones and listen. Your introduction should be so compelling they stop their wandering minds and turn their thoughts to you and you alone. Your introduction should start with three strong words where they form a strong opinion of you and your speech.  Let me share how to accomplish this. 

Story 

Capturing the audience through the story is one of the most powerful ways to start a speech. A story engages the brain in powerful ways and causes the audience’s brains to sync with the speakers. A well-told story will allow the audience to “see” things in their mind’s eye and to join the speaker’s emotions.

 

Consider these other examples and notice how the speaker uses a story.

More powerful introductions using story:

I love you, I believe in you and it’s going to be OK. The three things that I needed to hear three years ago when I felt more abandoned than ever. I remember that day as if it happen this morning. It was Sunday and I had just woken up early at a brisk 12:30 in the afternoon.
Ryan Brooks, Honesty, courage, and the importance of brushing your teeth. 

When I was nine years old I went off to summer camp for the first time. And my mother packed me a suitcase full of books, which to me seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. Because in my family, reading was the primary group activity. And this might sound antisocial to you, but for us, it was really just a different way of being social. You have the animal warmth of your family sitting right next to you, but you are also free to go roaming around the adventureland inside your own mind. And I had this idea that camp was going to be just like this, but better.
Susan Cain. The Power of Introverts.

I grew up to study the brain because I have a brother who has been diagnosed with a brain disorder: schizophrenia.
Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight.

A few years ago, I got one of those spam emails. I’m not quite sure how, but it turned up in my inbox, and it was from a guy called Solomon Odonkoh.
 James Veitch This is What Happens When You Reply to Spam Email.

Eleven years ago, while giving birth to my first child, I hemorrhaged and was transfused with seven pints of blood. Four years later, I found out that I had been infected with the AIDS virus and had unknowingly passed it to my daughter, Ariel, through my breast milk, and my son, Jake, in utero.
Elizabeth Glaser,  Address to the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

Good stories immediately set the stage and introduce you to the place and to the people. Doing this helps your brain can form a structure where the story takes place. It helps you see the story unfold in your mind.  If you need help starting a story, Vanessa Van Edwards suggests these prompts:

  • Once upon a time.
  • I’m here for a reason, and it’s an interesting story.
  • The best thing that ever happened to me was.

There is an entire chapter on the Power of Story that can be found here.


Humor is a rubber sword –
it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.
– Mary Hirsch


Humor

  When Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane spoke at Harvard Commencement in the rain, he started with “There’s nowhere I would rather be on a day like this than around all this electoral equipment.” People laughed, people smiled, and the speech was off to a strong start. Humor works because it gives the audience a hit of the feel-good hormone dopamine. That is … if you are funny. If you decide to use humor, make sure you are funny. Test your humor on honest friends. In addition, the humor you use should fit your personality and your audience. Be warned, some groups would find humor inappropriate, do your research.

More powerful introductions using humor

I didn’t rebel as a teenager.  I started late and was still going at it the summer I turned thirty. I just became an American citizen, I divorced my husband, I got a big tattoo of a bat on my arm, and I joined a New York City punk band.
Danusia Trevino, Guilty

I need to make a confession at the outset here. A little over 20 years ago, I did something that I regret, something that I’m not particularly proud of. Something that, in many ways, I wish no one would ever know, but that here I feel kind of obliged to reveal. In the late 1980s, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, I went to law school. Dan Pink, The Puzzle of Motivation. 

It is really interesting to be a woman and to get to 45 and to not be married yet and to not have kids, especially when you have pushed out your fifth kid on television.
Tracee Ellis Ross, 2017 Glamour Woman of the Year.

I am not drunk…but the doctor who delivered me was.” (reference the shake she has due to a botched medical procedure at birth causing her cerebral palsey).
Maysoon Zayid, I’ve Got 99 Prolbems and Cerebral Palsey is Not One of Them.

Salutation followed by humor

Oh boy, thank you so much, thank you so much. Thank you, President Cowan, Mrs. President Cowen; distinguished guests, undistinguished guests, you know who you are, honored faculty and creepy Spanish teacher. And thank you to all the graduating Class of 2009, I realize most of you are hungover and have splitting headaches and haven’t slept since Fat Tuesday, but you can’t graduate ’til I finish, so listen up. When I was asked to make the commencement speech, I immediately said yes. Then I went to look up what commencement meant which would have been easy if I had a dictionary, but most of the books in our house are Portia’s, and they’re all written in Australian. So I had to break the word down myself, to find out the meaning. Commencement: common, and cement, common cement. You commonly see cement on sidewalks. Sidewalks have cracks, and if you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. So there’s that. But I’m honored that you’ve asked me here to speak at your common cement
Ellen DeGenres, Commencement Speech at Tulane.

Well, thank you. Thank you Mr. President, First Lady, King Abdullah of Jordan, Norm, distinguished guests. Please join me in praying that I don’t say something we’ll all regret. That was for the FCC. If you’re wondering what I’m doing here, at a prayer breakfast, well so am I. I’m certainly not here as a man of the cloth, unless that cloth is — is leather.
Bono at  the  54th annual National Prayer Breakfast.

 

Interesting or Startling Fact

Starting your speech by sharing a little-known fact, can be powerful. For this to fully work, you need to have the audience’s attention from the very first word. Read on for how these speakers started strong.

Powerful introductions using facts

Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead from the food that they eat.
Jamie Oliver, Teach Every Child About Food.

So I want to start by offering you a free, no-tech life hack, and all it requires of you is this: that you change your posture for two minutes.
Amy Cuddy, Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.

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. (Laughter) Also, the person to your left is a liar. Also the person sitting in your very seats is a liar. We’re all liars. What I’m going to do today is I’m going to show you what the research says about why we’re all liars, how you can become a lie spotter and why you might want to go the extra mile and go from lie spotting to truth seeking, and ultimately to trust building.
Pamela Meyer, How to Spot a Liar.

You will live 7.5 minutes longer than you would have otherwise, just because you watched this talk.
 Jane McGonigal. The Game That Can Give You Ten Extra Years of Life.

There are 900,000 divorces in the United States of America every year. Fewer than 10% of them ever talked to anybody about their relationship. So why would you need a science? Well, we need a science to develop effective treatment and understanding of how to make love work. Why? Why should we care about having great relationships? Well, it turns out that in the past 50 years, a field called social epidemiology has emerged, and it shows that great friendships, great love relationships between lovers and parents and children lead to greater health – mental health as well as physical health – greater wealth, greater resilience, faster recovery from illness, greater longevity – if you want to live 10 to 15 years longer, work on your relationships, not just your exercise – and more successful children as well.  John Gottman. The Science of Love. 

This room may appear to be holding 600 people but there is actually so many more because within each of us there is a multiple of personalities.
Elizabeth Lesser,  Take the Other to Lunch.

Use a Prop

Using a physical object can draw the audience’s attention. Make sure you plan the timing of the prop, and you practice with it. It is important that it is large enough for the audience to see and they can see it well enough that they are not frustrated. Depending on your speech, it may be appropriate to put it away, so it is not distracting.

Powerful introductions using props

Darren Tay walks onto the stage and stares at the audience. He pulls a pair of underwear out of his pocket and puts them on over his suit. “Hey loser how do you like your new school uniform. I think it looks great on you. Those were the words of my high school bully Greg Upperfield. Now if you are all wondering if the underwear that Greg used was clean, I had the same questions.
Darren Tay, Outsmart, Outlast. Toastmasters 2016 World Champion of Public Speaking.

Mohammed Qahtani walks onstage, puts a cigarette in his mouth … then looks up as if noticing the audience and says, “What?” As the audience laughs, he continues. “Oh, you all think smoking kills? Ha-ha, let me tell you something. Do you know that the amount of people dying from diabetes are three times as many [as the] people dying from smoking? Yet if I pulled out a Snickers bar, nobody would say anything.” He goes on to say, his facts are made up and his real topic is about how words have power. Mohammed Qahtani, Toastmasters 2015 World Champion of Public Speaking
JA Gamach blows a train whistle and then starts his speech as if he were a conductor, “All aboard! It’s a bright sunny day and you are taking a train. You are wearing a pair of sandals you proudly made yourself. As you board the train one of your sandals slips off and falls beside the track.  (J.A. loses one sandal that falls down the platform.)  You try to retrieve it. Too late. The train starts to pull away. What would you have done? I would have cursed my bad luck, mad at losing a sandal.
JA Gamache, Toastmasters 2007 World Championship. 

 

Use a Quotation

Powerful introductions using quotes

Rules for using quotes

  • Be sure to use the quote purposefully and not just as placeholders.
  • Quotes can just take up valuable space where you could put content unless they are not properly used.
  • Let the quote be more important than the author. When using a quote at the opening, say the quote first and then the author. When using a quote at the end of a speech, say the author first and then the quote.
  • Keep it short and sweet. Use a quote that gets to the point quickly.
  • If you must use long quotes–put them on your slide.
  • If you project a quote, read it to the audience. Never expect them to read it while you talk about something else. Never say stupid things like, “You can read, I’ll let you read this for yourselves” or “Your adults, I’ll let you process this.”
  • Check the authorship and authenticity of the quote. There are so many quotes on the internet that are misattributed and misquoted. For example, who wrote the quote: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel”?
  • Do not go for the overused quote or your audience is prone to dismiss it.  Instead of quoting an overused “I have a dream quote” do as Jim Key, the 2003 Toastmasters International World Championship of Public Speaking did and pick an equally great but lesser-used Martin Luther King Quote: “The time is always right to do what is right!”

Watch Nate Stauffer at a Moth Grand Slam as he uses poetry to start and carry his story.

Watch this clip for how Andrew Solomon opens with a quote to make us think about depression. 

Andrew Solomon, Depression, The Secret We Share. 

Reference the Occasion

Ceremonial speeches often call for acknowledgment of those in attendance or a mention of the occasion. Here is how Martin Luther King Junior set up his famous speech.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Martin Luther King Junior, I Have a Dream.

Get the Audience Involved

Having the audience stand, raise their hand, or even nod in encouragement can cause them to focus on your message. This can be particularly helpful if the audience has been sitting for a while. Let me show you a few examples of how that works.

Ask a Question

You can involve the audience from the start by asking them a question.

Watch the first few minutes of Amy Purdy’s speech and how she starts with a question, “If your life were a book and you were the author, how would you want your story to go?” 

More powerful introductions using a question

I’m here today to talk about a disturbing question, which has an equally disturbing answer. My topic is the secret of domestic violence and the question I’m going to tackle is the one everyone always asks. Why would she stay? Why would anyone stay with a man who beats her?
Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave- Leslie Morgan Steiner

Here’s a question we need to rethink together: What should be the role of money and markets in our societies? Today, there are very few things that money can’t buy. If you’re sentenced to a jail term in Santa Barbara, California, you should know that if you don’t like the standard accommodations, you can buy a prison cell upgrade. It’s true. For how much, do you think? What would you guess? Five hundred dollars? It’s not the Ritz-Carlton. It’s a jail! Eighty-two dollars a night. Eighty-two dollars a night.
Michael Sandel, Why We Shouldn’t Trust Markets with Our Civic Life.

How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example: Why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, after year, after year, they’re more innovative than all their competition.
Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. 

Can you remember a moment when a brilliant idea flashed into your head?
Darren LaCroix,  Ouch! World Champion of Public Speaking.

 

Have the Audience Participate

If you ask a question you want the audience to answer, be sure to give them time to respond. If they raise their hands, be sure to acknowledge their response. You might have the answer by standing, by raising their hands, by speaking to their neighbor. You might call on one member of the audience to answer for the group.

If you ask a question you want the audience to answer, don’t let your presentation slide give away the answer. For example, one speaker had a slide behind him that said, “Lesson 1: Don’t Worry About IQ.” He has the audience raise their hand if they want to improve their grades then he asks, “So can I get a show of hands, how many would say IQ is going to be the most important to get those marks to go up?” Very few people responded because the answer was “written on the wall” literally.

Watch this clip as Allan Pease engages the audience.

 

 

Everybody hold your right hand in front like this in a handshaking position. Uncross your legs. Relaxed position. Right hand in front. When I say the word, “Now” here’s what we’re going to do. I am going to ask you to turn to someone besides you, shake hands as if you’re meeting for the first time, and keep pumping till I ask you to stop. Then you’ll stop and freeze it and we’re going to analyze what’s happening. You got that? You don’t have time to think about this. Do it now. Pick anybody and pump. Pump, everybody. Freeze it. Hold it. Stop. Hold it. Freeze it. Keep your hands locked. Keep them locked. The person whose hand is most on top is saying “I’ll be the boss for the rest of the day.”
Allan Pease, Body Language, the Power is in the Palm of Your Hands. 

 

More powerful introductions using audience participation

I have a confession to make. But first, I want you to make a little confession to me. In the past year, I want you to just raise your hand if you’ve experienced relatively little stress?
Kelly McGonigal, How to Make Stress Your Friend.

So I’d like to start, if I may, by asking you some questions.

If you’ve ever lost someone you truly loved, ever had your heartbroken, ever struggled through an acrimonious divorce, or being the victim of infidelity, please stand up.

If standing up isn’t accessible to you, you can put your hand up. Please stay standing and keep your hand up there.

If you’ve ever lived through a natural disaster, being bullied or made redundant, stand on up. If you’ve ever had a miscarriage, if you’ve ever had an abortion or struggled through infertility, please stand up. Finally, if you or anyone you love has had to cope with mental illness, dementia, some form of physical impairment or cope with suicide, please stand up.

Look around you. Adversity doesn’t discriminate. If you are alive, you are going to have to, or you’ve already had to, deal with some tough times Thank you, everyone. Take a seat.
Lucy Hone: The Three Secrets of Resilient People. 

Advice from Moth Storytelling Club

Have a great first line that sets up the stakes and grabs attention

No: “So I was thinking about climbing this mountain. But then I watched a little TV and made a snack and took a nap and my mom called and vented about her psoriasis then I did a little laundry (a whites load) (I lost another sock, darn it!) and then I thought about it again and decided I’d climb the mountain the next morning.”

Yes: “The mountain loomed before me. I had my hunting knife, some trail mix and snow boots. I had to make it to the little cabin and start a fire before sundown or freeze to death for sure.”

 

Arouse Suspense or Curiosity

Watch this clip for how Kathryn Schulz creates curiosity by showing us Johnny Depp’s tattoo and then talks about her tattoo of regret. We hang on to her every word wondering, “Where is all this going and how bad can her tattoo really be?”

 

Kathryn Schulz, Don’t Regret, Regret. 

 

 

Saying unexpected things or challenging assumptions can get a speech started off right.

A herd of wildebeests, a shoal of fish, a flock of birds. Many animals gather in large groups that are among the most wonderful spectacles in the natural world. But why do these groups form? The common answers include things like seeking safety in numbers or hunting in packs or gathering to mate or breed, and all of these explanations, while often true, make a huge assumption about animal behavior, that the animals are in control of their own actions, that they are in charge of their bodies. And that is often not the case.
Ed Yong. Zombie Roaches and Other Parasite Tales. TED Talk

 

 Keys to Success

Memorize your first sentence so you can deliver it with impact.

Memorize your whole speech opening if possible.

Make sure your first three words have an impact.

 

Typical Patterns for Speech Openings

  • Get the audience’s attention–called a hook or a grabber.
  • Establish rapport and tell the audience why you care about the topic of why you are credible to speak on the topic.
  • Introduce the speech thesis/preview/good idea.
  • Tell the audience why they should care about this topic.
  • Give a transition statement to the body of the speech.

Step Two: Credibility

First, you hook the audience with your powerful grabber, then you tell them why you are credible to speak on the topic and why the topic is important. If they know your credentials, you would not need to tell them your credibility but you may still want to tell them why you are interested in the topic. Here are a few examples of how some speakers included credibility.

Tell Why You Are Credible

I’m a doctor, but I kind of slipped sideways into research, and now I’m an epidemiologist.
Ben Goldacre, Battling Bad Science. 

I started studying resilience research a decade ago at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It was an amazing time to be there because the professors who trained me had just picked up the contract to train all 1.1 million American soldiers to be as mentally fit as they always have been physically fit. Lucy Hone: The Three Secrets of Resilient People. 

What I’m going to do is to just give a few notes, and this is from a book I’m preparing called “Letters to a Young Scientist.” I’d thought it’d be appropriate to present it, on the basis that I have had extensive experience in teaching, counseling scientists across a broad array of fields. And you might like to hear some of the principles that I’ve developed in doing that teaching and counseling.
EO Wilson: Advice to a Young Scientist. 

Step Three: Tell Why it is Important

Early on in your speech, you should tell the audience why they should care. You should connect the speech to things they care about. This is where you answer, so what, who cares?

You know, I didn’t set out to be a parenting expert. In fact, I’m not very interested in parenting, per se. It’s just that there’s a certain style of parenting these days that is kind of messing up kids, impeding their chances to develop.
 Julie Lythcott-Haims, How to Raise Successful Kids – Without Over-Parenting

 

Step Four: Tell the Purpose of the Talk (aka Preview/ Thesis)

“If you don’t know what you want to achieve in your presentation your audience never will.” – Harvey Diamond, author

Tell the audience your purpose, clearly give them an overview of the main points.  MIT professor, Patrick Winston says one of the best things to add to your speech is an empowerment promise. You want to tell people what they will know at the end of your speech that they didn’t know at the beginning. It’s their reason for being here.  His empowerment promise was, “Today you will see some examples of what you can put in your armory of speaking techniques and it will be the case that one of those examples–some heuristic, some technique, maybe only one will be the one that will get you the job. By the end of the next 60 minutes, you will have been exposed to a lot of ideas, some of which you will incorporate into your own repertoire, and they will ensure that you get the maximum opportunity to have your ideas valued and accepted by the people you speak with.” Notice that this statement told you what to expect and why it mattered.

Here are examples of how various speakers accomplished this.

For years, I’ve been telling people, stress makes you sick. It increases the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. Basically, I’ve turned stress into the enemy. But I have changed my mind about stress, and today, I want to change yours.
Kelly McGonigal, How to Make Stress Your Friend.  

We’ve been sold the lie that disability is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T. It’s a bad thing, and to live with a disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t make you exceptional.
Stella Young, I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much

What I’m going to show you is all of the main things, all of the main features of my discipline, evidence-based medicine. And I will talk you through all of these and demonstrate how they work, exclusively using examples of people getting stuff wrong.
Ben Goldacre, Battling Bad Science. 

I would like to think that we (Arab women) poor, oppressed women actually have some useful, certainly hard-earned lessons to share, lessons that might turn out useful for anyone wishing to thrive in the modern world. Here are three of mine.
Leila Hoteit, Three Lessons on Success from an Arab businesswoman

We are often terrified and fascinated by the power hackers now have. They scare us. But the choices they make have dramatic outcomes that influence us all. So I am here today because I think we need hackers, and in fact, they just might be the immune system for the information age. Sometimes they make us sick, but they also find those hidden threats in our world, and they make us fix it.
Keren Elazari. Hackers: The Internet’s Immune System

Try This — Inspired by TED Master Class
After you write your thesis, send it to three people with the question,
“Based on what you read here, what do you think my speech will be about?”

 

Putting It All Together

At this point, you know you need to have a grabber, a preview, a credibility statement, and a so-what-who-cares statement.  Let’s take a look at one of the top TED talks of all time by Jamie Oliver. This speech is a good illustration of everything we’ve been talking about so far and how all this works together.

Teach Every Child About Food
by Jamie Oliver Analyzed

Get the audience’s attention–
called a hook or a grabber.

 

Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead through the food that they eat.
Establish rapport and tell the audience why you care about the topic or why you are credible to speak on the topic. My name’s Jamie Oliver. I’m 34 years old. I’m from Essex in England and for the last seven years, I’ve worked fairly tirelessly to save lives in my own way. I’m not a doctor; I’m a chef, I don’t have expensive equipment or medicine.
I use information, education.
Tell the audience why they should care about this topic. I profoundly believe that the power of food has a primal place in our homes that binds us to the best bits of life. We have an awful, awful reality right now. America, you’re at the top of your game. This is one of the most unhealthy countries in the world.
Introduce the speech thesis/preview/good idea.
Give a transition statement
to the body of the speech.
 I’ve been doing this for seven years. I’ve been trying in America for seven years. Now is the time when it’s ripe — ripe for the picking. I went to the eye of the storm. I went to West Virginia, the most unhealthy state in America. Or it was last year. We’ve got a new one this year, but we’ll work on that next season.

 

A painted sign that says, "stop"
Never Start a Speech This Way
So we’ve talked about hooking the audience, telling why you are credible, telling them why they should care, and giving them a preview of your talk, now let’s talk about what not to say or do. There are some things that speakers say to hurt their credibility and diminish the chances the audience will listen, be sure to avoid these.

“Everybody close your eyes.”

I don’t want to close my eyes; it makes me feel awkward and exposed to be in a group of people with my eyes closed. Because of that, I keep my eyes open. The problem is  when I keep my eyes open, I feel like some sort of horrible nonconformist rebel. I feel awkward with my eyes closed and I feel guilty if they are open. Either way, I just feel bad. Besides, half of the time when speakers tell audience members to close their eyes, they forget to tell us when we can open them. If you are wanting me to imagine a story, just tell me to imagine it, don’t make me close my eyes (rant over).

“Can everybody hear me?”

You should plan your opening to be intentional and with power. “Can everybody hear me” is a weak and uncertain statement and this is not the first impression you want to leave. Do a microphone check before the audience members arrive and have someone stand in different corners of the room to make sure you can be heard. Don’t waste your valuable speech time with questions that you should already know the answer to.

“How long do I have to speak?”

You should know that before you begin. Even if the presentations for the day are running over and you are the last speaker, you should ask the MC before you begin. Always plan your first words with power.

“Can you read this?”

You should make your slides big, really big. Test out your slides in advance of your speech, walk all around the room and make sure you can read them. Have a friend check them out as well. You should know they are big enough because you planned for it and tested it.

“Turn off your cell phones and laptops.”

People really hate having things taken away, not to mention that your audience may want to take notes on their devices. Chances are you are speaking to adults, let them determine if it is appropriate to have out their technology.

“I’m sorry, I’m losing my voice.”
“I’m stopped up.”
“I’m under the weather.”

Stop apologizing! Stop making excuses!  While these lines may be true, they just come of as excuses and can make the audience either feel like you don’t want to be there, or they just feel sorry for you.

“I’m so nervous right now.”

Talking about your nervousness will make you more nervous and will make them look for signs of your nervousness. Just start your speech.

“So, Um, Ok.”

Do not start with hesitation. Plan the first words, memorize the first words, practice the first words.  Do not start with “Ok, so um, now I’d like…” Plan strong and start strong.

Do Not Discuss Your Business with People Watching…Really! I Mean It!

Many of us are giving and listening to presentations in an online format.  I have attended numerous presentations this year through Zoom where I have to sit and watch while the organizers engage in personal small talk or deal with the details of the presentation.
This is how the speech I recently attended began.”Donna, you are going to share your screen, right?”
“Yes. I have my PowerPoint ready to go. Will you push “record” when I give the signal?”
“Sure. Where did you say that button is again? Do you think we should wait five more minutes, I think we had more who were coming? Dave, what was the total we were expecting?”
“Yeah, we had 116 sign up, but the reminders went out late so this may be all we have. We can give them a few more minutes to log on.”
“Donna, How is your dog? Is she still struggling with her cone since her spay surgery? My dog never would wear the cone –she tore her stitches out and broke her wound open. It was terrible. Well, it looks like it is about time to begin, thank you everyone for coming.”
If you are organizing an event online, hosting a speech online, giving a presentation online–please keep it professional. Most platforms will allow you to keep the audience in a waiting room until it is time to start. If you have a business to deal with, keep the audience out until you have everything ready to go. Once the audience is in the meeting, you should engage the audience in group-type small talk or you should just start the presentation. In professional settings, you should start the meeting on time. Why punish those who showed up on time to wait for those who aren’t there yet?

A Conversation Over Coffee with Bill Rogers

I asked my long-time friend, Bill Rogers, to write an excerpt to add to the book.  I met Bill when he was the Chief Development Officer for a hospital in Northwest Arkansas and I met him again when he was reinventing himself as a college student getting a Master’s Degree in the theater.  He would love to share a symbolic cup of coffee with you and give you advice about public speaking. 


Perfect morning for a walk, isn’t it? Join me for a cup of coffee? Wonderful. Find us a table and I’ll get our coffee.

There you go; just like you like it. There’s nothing like a great cup of coffee on the patio of your neighborhood coffee shop, is there?

Now that you’re settled in your favorite chair, take a sip, and let that glorious caffeine kick in and do its stuff. Okay, let’s talk.

So, you were asking me about public speaking.

Well, let’s see. Where do we begin?

One of the first pieces of advice I ever received was to imagine that every member of your audience is sitting there in their underwear! Yeah, right. That never worked for me. I tried it once with a local civic group of community leaders both male and female. If the intent of that tidbit is to make you relax, it certainly didn’t work for me. It just made me more self-conscious…and more nervous. I not only got distracted, but I also lost my train of thought, I started sweating, and, of course, imagined myself standing there without clothes. Needless to say, that speech was a disaster and I’ve never used it again. I suggest you don’t either.

In the early days, I also relied very heavily on my typed-up speech. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that unless you find yourself reading it word for word as I did. Nothing is more boring nor puts an audience to sleep quicker than a speaker with their nose down reading a speech. There’s no connection and connection with your audience is key.

As you know, I love theatre and I’ve done a bit of acting over the years. Early on, I learned that the quicker I learned my lines, the more I could play, experiment, and shape my character. It relaxed me and gave me enormous freedom. It led me to find a mantra for myself: “With discipline comes freedom.” This freedom will allow you to improvise as your audience or situation dictates while still conveying the core message of your presentation. That discipline and its resulting freedom apply to public speaking of any kind and, I think, will serve you well.

Another old adage we’ve all heard is Aristotle’s advice. You know the one. No? Well, roughly, it’s to tell your audience what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you just said. That’s the basic formula for public speaking. And it works as a good place to start.

However, effective speaking is much more and, to me, it starts with a story or even a simple sentence.

You know the feeling you get when you read the first sentence of a good book and it just reaches out and grabs you? That should be your goal with every presentation. One sentence to capture your audience’s attention. Something that causes them to lean forward. Something that sparks their imagination.

It doesn’t have to be all that profound either. It can be something very simple. A personal story that relates to your topic. A relevant fact or statistic that defines or illustrates the issue or subject matter at hand.

A couple of classics come to mind. The first is Alice Walker’s, “The Color of Purple.”

“You better not tell nobody but God.”

And the second one is from my favorite novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee.

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm broken at the elbow.”

Both sentences hook you immediately. A few simple words speak volumes. After reading or hearing those words, you naturally lean in. You want to learn more. You want to find out what happens next. Every effective speech or presentation does the same thing.

Of course, make sure that the first and last thing you say to your audience is both relevant and appropriate. I share this out of an abundance of caution. I once worked for an internationally recognized and well-respected children’s research hospital and I was given the privilege to speak at a national educational convention. The room was filled wall to wall with teachers. I thought I’d be cute and add a little levity. I opened my presentation with this line, “You know, I’ve had nightmares like this…” Instead of the roars of laughter, I was expecting, a wave of silence ensued. Not only was the line not funny, but it was also wholly inappropriate and I immediately lost my audience. Not my best day. Learn from my mistakes.

Finally, let’s touch on the importance of approaching a speech as a conversation. You and I are sitting here enjoying our coffee and having a friendly, relaxed conversation. Strive for that every chance you get. You may not always have that luxury. Some speeches and presentations simply demand formality. But even in those cases, you can usually make it somewhat conversational. I always try to write my speeches in a conversational style. Like I’m talking to a friend…or trying to make a new one.

So, to recap: tell a story, learn your lines, hook your audience with a simple sentence, close with a question or call to action, use repetition, keep it conversational, treat your audience as a friend, and give yourself permission to relax.

Above all, be yourself. Allow yourself to be as relaxed as you are with those closest to you. If you’re relaxed, if you try to think of your audience as a friend, then, in most cases, they too will relax and they will root for you. Even if they disagree with what you are telling them, they will respect you and they will listen.

How about another cup?

 

Key Takeaways

Remember This!

  • The most important part of your speech is the introduction because if you don’t get their attention, they are not listening to the rest of what you have to say.
  • To get attention, tell a story, use humor, share a quote, tell a startling fact, show a prop, ask a question, reference the occasion.
  • In addition to the grabber, a good introduction should establish rapport and tell the audience why you are credible.
  • An introduction often includes a “so what who cares statement” to tell the audience why this should matter to them.
  • The thesis/preview should be clear enough that someone could read just that sentence or couple of sentences and know what the speech is about.

Please share your feedback, suggestions, corrections, and ideas.

I want to hear from you. 

Do you have an activity to include?
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Are you planning to use this as a resource and do you want me to know about it?
Do you want to tell me something that really helped you?

Click here to share your feedback. 

 

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Advanced Public Speaking (BETA) by Lynn Meade is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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