Powerful speech opening lines set the tone and mood of your speech. It’s what grips the audience to want to know more about the rest of your talk.
The first few seconds are critical. It’s when you have maximum attention of the audience. And you must capitalize on that!
Instead of starting off with something plain and obvious such as a ‘Thank you’ or ‘Good Morning’, there’s so much more you can do for a powerful speech opening.
Related article: How to NOT Start a Speech (And What You Can Do Instead)
To help you with this, I’ve compiled some of my favourite openings from various speakers. These speakers have gone on to deliver TED talks, win international Toastmaster competitions or are just noteworthy people who have mastered the art of communication.
After each speaker’s opening line, I have added how you can include their style of opening into your own speech. Understanding how these great speakers do it will certainly give you an idea to create your own speech opening line which will grip the audience from the outset!
1. Ric Elias
Opening: “Imagine a big explosion as you climb through 3,000 ft. Imagine a plane full of smoke. Imagine an engine going clack, clack, clack. It sounds scary. Well I had a unique seat that day. I was sitting in 1D.”
How to use the power of imagination to open your speech?
Putting your audience in a state of imagination can work extremely well to captivate them for the remainder of your talk.
It really helps to bring your audience in a certain mood that preps them for what’s about to come next. Speakers have used this with high effectiveness by transporting their audience into an imaginary land to help prove their point.
When Ric Elias opened his speech, the detail he used (3000 ft, sound of the engine going clack-clack-clack) made me feel that I too was in the plane. He was trying to make the audience experience what he was feeling – and, at least in my opinion, he did.
When using the imagination opening for speeches, the key is – detail. While we want the audience to wander into imagination, we want them to wander off to the image that we want to create for them. So, detail out your scenario if you’re going to use this technique.
Make your audience feel like they too are in the same circumstance as you were when you were in that particular situation.
2. Barack Obama
Opening: “You can’t say it, but you know it’s true.”
3. Seth MacFarlane
Opening: “There’s nowhere I would rather be on a day like this than around all this electoral equipment.” (It was raining)
How to use humour to open your speech?
When you use humour in a manner that suits your personality, it can set you up for a great speech. Why? Because getting a laugh in the first 30 seconds or so is a great way to quickly get the audience to like you.
And when they like you, they are much more likely to listen to and believe in your ideas.
Obama effortlessly uses his opening line to entice laughter among the audience. He brilliantly used the setting (the context of Trump becoming President) and said a line that completely matched his style of speaking.
Saying a joke without really saying a joke and getting people to laugh requires you to be completely comfortable in your own skin. And that’s not easy for many people (me being one of them).
If the joke doesn’t land as expected, it could lead to a rocky start.
Keep in mind the following when attempting to deliver a funny introduction:
- Know your audience: Make sure your audience gets the context of the joke (if it’s and inside joke among the members you’re speaking to, that’s even better!)
- The joke should suit your natural personality. Don’t make it look forced or it won’t elicit the desired response
- Test the opening out on a few people who match your real audience. Analyze their response and tweak the joke accordingly if necessary
- Starting your speech with humour means your setting the tone of your speech. It would make sense to have a few more jokes sprinkled around the rest of the speech as well as the audience might be expecting the same from you
Related article: The Importance of Knowing Your Audience When Delivering a Speech
4. Mohammed Qahtani
Opening: Puts a cigarette on his lips, lights a lighter, stops just before lighting the cigarette. Looks at audience, “What?”
5. Darren Tay
Opening: Puts a white pair of briefs over his pants.
How to use props to begin your speech?
The reason props work so well in a talk is because in most cases the audience is not expecting anything more than just talking. So when a speaker pulls out an object that is unusual, everyone’s attention goes right to it.
It makes you wonder why that prop is being used in this particular speech.
The key word here is unusual. To grip the audience’s attention at the beginning of the speech, the prop being used should be something that the audience would never expect. Otherwise, it just becomes something that is common. And common = boring!
What Mohammed Qahtani and Darren Tay did superbly well in their talks was that they used props that nobody expected them to.
By pulling out a cigarette and lighter or a white pair of underwear, the audience can’t help but be gripped by what the speaker is about to do next. And that makes for a powerful speech opening.
6. Simon Sinek
Opening: “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?”
7. Julian Treasure
Opening: “The human voice. It’s the instrument we all play. It’s the most powerful sound in the world. Probably the only one that can start a war or say “I love you.” And yet many people have the experience that when they speak people don’t listen to them. Why is that? How can we speak powerfully to make change in the world?”
How to use questions to open a speech?
I use this method often. Starting off with a question is the simplest way to start your speech in a manner that immediately engages the audience.
But we should keep our questions compelling as opposed to something that is fairly obvious.
I’ve heard many speakers start their speeches with questions like “How many of us want to be successful?”
No one is going to say ‘no’ to that and frankly, I just feel silly raising my hand at such questions.
Simon Sinek and Jullian Treasure used questions in a manner that really made the audience think and make them curious to find out what the answer to that question is.
What Jullian Treasure did even better was the use of a few statements which built up to his question. This made the question even more compelling and set the theme for what the rest of his talk would be about.
So think of what question you can ask in your speech that will:
- Set the theme for the remainder of your speech
- Not be something that is fairly obvious
- Be compelling enough so that the audience will actually want to know what the answer to that question will be
8. Aaron Beverley
Opening: Long pause (after an absurdly long introduction of a 57-word speech title). “Be honest. You enjoyed that, didn’t you?”
How to use silence for speech openings?
The reason this speech opening stands out is because of the fact that the title itself is 57 words long. The audience was already hilariously intrigued by what was going to come next.
But what’s so gripping here is the way Aaron holds the crowd’s suspense by…doing nothing. For about 10 to 12 seconds he did nothing but stand and look at the audience. Everyone quietened down. He then broke this silence by a humorous remark that brought the audience laughing down again.
When going on to open your speech, besides focusing on building a killer opening sentence, how about just being silent?
It’s important to keep in mind that the point of having a strong opening is so that the audience’s attention is all on you and are intrigued enough to want to listen to the rest of your speech.
Silence is a great way to do that. When you get on the stage, just pause for a few seconds (about 3 to 5 seconds) and just look at the crowd. Let the audience and yourself settle in to the fact that the spotlight is now on you.
I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something about starting the speech off with a pure pause that just makes the beginning so much more powerful. It adds credibility to you as a speaker as well, making you look more comfortable and confident on stage.
Related article: Harness the Power of Pausing in Public Speaking
9. Dan Pink
Opening: “I need to make a confession at the outset here. 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.”
10. Kelly McGonigal
Opening: “I have a confession to make. But first I want you to make a little confession to me.”
How to use a build-up to open your speech?
When there are so many amazing ways to start a speech and grip an audience from the outset, why would you ever choose to begin your speech with a ‘Good morning?’.
That’s what I love about build-ups. They set the mood for something awesome that’s about to come in that the audience will feel like they just have to know about.
Instead of starting a speech as it is, see if you can add some build-up to your beginning itself. For instance, in Kelly McGonigal’s speech, she could have started off with the question of stress itself (which she eventually moves on to in her speech). It’s not a bad way to start the speech.
But by adding the statement of “I have a confession to make” and then not revealing the confession for a little bit, the audience is gripped to know what she’s about to do next and find out what indeed is her confession.
11. Tim Urban
Opening: “So in college, I was a government major. Which means that I had to write a lot of papers. Now when a normal student writes a paper, they might spread the work out a little like this.”
12. Scott Dinsmore
Opening: “8 years ago, I got the worst career advice of my life.”
How to use storytelling as a speech opening?
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.”Steve Jobs
Storytelling is the foundation of good speeches. Starting your speech with a story is a great way to grip the audience’s attention. It makes them yearn to want to know how the rest of the story is going to pan out.
Tim Urban starts off his speech with a story dating back to his college days. His use of slides is masterful and something we all can learn from. But while his story sounds simple, it does the job of intriguing the audience to want to know more.
As soon as I heard the opening lines, I thought to myself “If normal students write their paper in a certain manner, how does Tim write his papers?”
Combine such a simple yet intriguing opening with comedic slides, and you’ve got yourself a pretty gripping speech.
Scott Dismore’s statement has a similar impact. However, just a side note, Scott Dismore actually started his speech with “Wow, what an honour.”
I would advise to not start your talk with something such as that. It’s way too common and does not do the job an opening must, which is to grip your audience and set the tone for what’s coming.
13. Larry Smith
Opening: “I want to discuss with you this afternoon why you’re going to fail to have a great career.”
14. Jane McGonigal
Opening: “You will live 7.5 minutes longer than you would have otherwise, just because you watched this talk.”
How to use provocative statements to start your speech?
Making a provocative statement creates a keen desire among the audience to want to know more about what you have to say. It immediately brings everyone into attention.
Larry Smith did just that by making his opening statement surprising, lightly humorous, and above all – fearful. These elements lead to an opening statement which creates so much curiosity among the audience that they need to know how your speech pans out.
This one time, I remember seeing a speaker start a speech with, “Last week, my best friend committed suicide.” The entire crowd was gripped. Everyone could feel the tension in the room.
They were just waiting for the speaker to continue to know where this speech will go.
That’s what a hard-hitting statement does, it intrigues your audience so much that they can’t wait to hear more! Just a tip, if you do start off with a provocative, hard-hitting statement, make sure you pause for a moment after saying it.
Silence after an impactful statement will allow your message to really sink in with the audience.
Related article: 5 Ways to Grab Your Audience’s Attention When You’re Losing it!
15. Ramona J Smith
Opening: In a boxing stance, “Life would sometimes feel like a fight. The punches, jabs and hooks will come in the form of challenges, obstacles and failures. Yet if you stay in the ring and learn from those past fights, at the end of each round, you’ll be still standing.”
How to use your full body to grip the audience at the beginning of your speech?
In a talk, the audience is expecting you to do just that – talk. But when you enter the stage and start putting your full body into use in a way that the audience does not expect, it grabs their attention.
Body language is critical when it comes to public speaking. Hand gestures, stage movement, facial expressions are all things that need to be paid attention to while you’re speaking on stage. But that’s not I’m talking about here.
Here, I’m referring to a unique use of the body that grips the audience, like how Ramona did. By using her body to get into a boxing stance, imitating punches, jabs and hooks with her arms while talking – that’s what got the audience’s attention.
The reason I say this is so powerful is because if you take Ramona’s speech and remove the body usage from her opening, the entire magic of the opening falls flat.
While the content is definitely strong, without those movements, she would not have captured the audience’s attention as beautifully as she did with the use of her body.
So if you have a speech opening that seems slightly dull, see if you can add some body movement to it.
If your speech starts with a story of someone running, actually act out the running. If your speech starts with a story of someone reading, actually act out the reading.
It will make your speech opening that much more impactful.
Related article: 5 Body Language Tips to Command the Stage
So there it is! 15 speech openings from some of my favourite speeches. Hopefully, these will act as a guide for you to create your own opening which is super impactful and sets you off on the path to becoming a powerful public speaker!