4 ways to start a speech strongly

The most important thing to start a speech or presentation is to make it clear to the audience where you are taking them.

Think about a typical person in your audience.

Their mind is full of to-do lists and daydreams; and you walk on stage. They’ve sat through boring presentations in the past and wonder if yours will be interesting. They look at you… pondering how much attention to give.

How can you immerse them in your subject in the first few seconds and satisfy their uncertainty?
Human attention wanders. The way you open a presentation plays a big part in capturing it.

Start a speech with clarity and structure

Here are 2 principles to guide you;

  • First, the human mind is programmed to respond to structure, sections, chunks. Something with a start, middle and end feels right. However, where there is no clear structure, the mind quickly gets lost.
  • Second, all anxiety is caused by uncertainty. So any time the audience is uncertain where your presentation is going, or whether you will be covering things of interest to them, they feel uncomfortable. The flip side of this; when you make it clear where you are headed, and they see it is relevant to them, they feel strangely satisfied. This comfortable state helps them engage and makes them feel better about you as a speaker.

So how do you create this mood of respectful satisfaction?

Here are 4 ways to start a presentation that connects your audience:

1. Title

Have a compelling and relevant title to start a speech. Sound too simplistic? It’s not. A title is a great opportunity to connect.

Does your title shine a light on your key issue or is it vague? Does it consist of words that resonate to the audience, or words that only have meaning to you? A good title is like a window to the interesting parts of your presentation.

For example:

  • “How we’ll meet our sales targets” is better than “March update”
  • “How the new system will save you time” is better than “The new system”.
  • “Today I’m going to tell you 3 stories from my life.” (Steve Jobs Stanford Speech)

Test your title by saying: “This talk is about…(insert title here)”

Another test: Imagine your title on a list of 10 speeches at a conference. The reader has to decide whether to attend a speech based only on the title. Does yours illuminate the issue and entice them to attend?

2. Overview

Start a speech by stating the 2, 3 or 4 areas you will cover (not the 20 points!) within your speech so people know what to expect. This takes about 10 seconds.

Some people call this this an agenda, an overview or an outline of your talk. Whatever you call it, this works best when it’s short; naming the headings or labels of the different sections/categories/issues you’ll be speaking about.

For example:

  • “There are 4 steps; Find a business reason to call, Get a clear brief, Make a written offer and Ask for the business. (let’s have a look at them one-by-one).”
  • “We’ll be covering 3 areas: The current system pitfalls, the timeline for new system implementation and the benefits to the user.”

Get the wording right. These headings are another opportunity to bring your listeners into your talk.

The combination of Title and Overview makes for a simple, reliable and powerful way to connect with your audience. It satisfies their need for structure and clarifies the destination, so they’ll get on board for the journey.

3. Paint a picture

With your unique understanding of the message and the audience, think of a way to pique their interest when you start a speech.

Open their eyes to an issue. Paint a picture of the problem or opportunity. With a story, a picture, chart, dramatic statement or example – so they understand the concept you are about to cover.

Be provocative. Ask a question or make a  statement. Challenge a belief. Even if they instantly disagree, they’ll stick with it long enough to find out where you got that crazy idea. You might start with your most dramatic assertion.

For example:

  • “For first time in the history of the world we have the power to design human bodies”.
  • “We will never run out of oil.”
  • “Half of what you know about health is wrong.”
  • “1 in 5 people will lose their job in the next 3 years due to the changing economy (in this room that means someone you can reach with your arm in the chairs around you)”.
  • “Imagine living 100 years ago…

You can be as dramatic you feel is appropriate, but make sure your creativity is linked to the message you want them to remember. There’s no point in having them remember your funny/crazy opening, but forget your message. For example:

  • A presenter places a billiard ball on a piece of concrete, pulls out a sledge hammer, slams it onto the ball, and it doesn’t break. He then gives the title of his presentation; “Ceramics, the strongest material for manufacturing.”

The message of the presentation is that ceramics can be the harder then steel. This creative opening reinforced the central message.

4. Connect personally

Human emotion has great impact. Often a speaker is passionate, excited, angry about an issue but fails to express it. Of course, it may not be appropriate to express these emotions. But where it is appropriate and will help get your message across, consider stating your personal view or give a personal story or anecdote to start a speech.

If you have a strong opinion about the topic, or want the audience to understand it is especially important, tell them at the start.

For example:

  • “Before I start, I’d like you to know that the team has really worked hard on this proposal. We’ve put in a lot of time and effort and are really proud and excited with what we’ve come up with.”
  • “I think we have a problem. I’ve been reviewing the numbers and the sales figures are really disappointing. It breaks my heart after all the hard work we’ve put in. (pause). This presentation is about a smarter way to increase sales.”

Remember to pause

As I said at the start, people crave information structure. So pause after important parts like title and overview to isolate your opening. If it doesn’t stand out from the rest of your talk you won’t leverage the benefits of structure and the audience might perceive your talk as one big blob.

Don’t copy, work it out for yourself

There are many more options, but you get the idea. Use the first 30 to 60 seconds to start a speech in a way that connects with your audience and makes it clear where you are taking them. Only then will they relax and give you their full attention.
(Cam Barber developed the Vivid Method for Public Speaking, which outlines 3 steps to great speeches, presentations and media conversations).
If you’d like to learn how to master these skills, consider:

Want to be a great speaker? Get the kindle ebook from amazon.com: What’s Your Message? Public Speaking with Twice the Impact, Using Half the Effort