As a learning public speaker, I ask this question often – what is the best way to start a speech? How can I start in a manner that grips my audience for the rest of my speech? Along, the way I’ve tried and experimented with many different formats when delivering speeches.
Some have worked. Most, however, have not.
The point of having a strong opening is to shock your audience, change the state of the room so you have their undivided attention. So, I thought that the topic ‘How NOT to start a speech’ would be of some use.
I think Scott Berkun in his book, Confessions of a Public Speaker, put it best when he said:
What defines how well I’ll do starts with how I use the power of that moment. Will you use that moment of full attention [to express] your message? Or will you spend it on thank yous, jokes and throat-clearing? Planning a strong start for your speech will help you command attention immediately, instead of wasting that precious moment.
The Importance of a Strong Opening
– Sets the tone and mood for the upcoming speech
– Most of your audience’s attention will be at the beginning of your talk
– Create intrigue for your big idea
Now, these are simply suggestions that come from my personal experiences. It might vary from person to person since public speaking is, at its heart, a very subjective art.
Here are some ways I recommend not starting a speech:
This is an obvious one. But so many people have the habit of starting their speech with a clichéd “Good morning/afternoon/evening everyone”.
We’ve been trained to speak like this since school and it’s pretty much stuck with us. The problem with starting a speech with a “Good morning” is that it does nothing for the audience. There is no need for it.
Everything you speak about, including your beginning, should be adding to your main point. Instead of starting with a “Good morning”, try thinking of something a little more intriguing to grip your audience.
Yes, quotes. Many people (including almost all articles on ‘How to start a speech’) say that starting your speech with a quote is a memorable way to begin. And that’s exactly the problem. Everyone is recommending this, and so, everyone is using it. It’s become too common!
I used to start with quotes as well, but nowadays, if I start with some inspiring quote of some inspiring person, people are just not that impressed anymore.
Again, this is just my experience. If you have a quote which you feel will completely resonate with your audience and is something different, it might just work really well!
Many times, especially when we’re just starting out in public speaking, we don’t get to the speech directly. We loiter around by starting with words like ‘ok, so’ or ‘I’m just gonna’ or something along those lines.
This might seem like something that doesn’t really matter. But it does. It reduces the effectiveness of the beginning of your speech.
When you go on a stage to speak, start off with your speech directly. Start off the way you planned and the way you practiced. Some speakers even go on stage, wait and then ask the organizer (when the mic is on!) if they can start.
This looks highly unprofessional and again takes away from the effectiveness of your speech’s beginning.
When you go to speak on stage, start directly. If there is some stoppage due to technical errors, try walking back down or moving towards the side. When you’re on stage, you’re in a certain character (even if that character is your authentic self).
When you do things that are not meant to be a part of your speech, you break that character and hence, lessen the impact of your speech.
Related article: 5 Ways to End Your Speech With Maximum Impact!
What You Can Do Instead
I’ve started my speech in the ways mentioned above so many times that it’s hard to keep count. And it has worked very rarely. Here are some ways that did in fact work for me and for countless other speakers:
I use this method most commonly. Starting off with a question is the simplest way to start your speech in a manner that immediately engages the audience.
Personally, I feel that we should try and keep our questions compelling, not something fairly obvious. For example, I’ve heard many speakers start their speeches with questions “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.
But a compelling and unique question can really make some people raise their hand, make some people wonder about your question, and leave the others intrigued with what is about to come next in your speech!
Putting your audience in a state of imagination can work extremely well to captivate them. If done well, you can really help 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.
An example of this could be:
“Imagine you are walking home. It’s close to midnight and no people are in sight. You see a man in black approaching you, pacing faster as he does. A few steps away from you, he stops and pulls out a gun. What would be your first instinct?”
Statements that shock your audience are my favourite way to start a speech.
I remember this one time, I saw a speaker start a speech with, “Last week, my best friend committed suicide.” And 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 one tip, if you do start off with a 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.
If you’ve seen some of the World Champions of public speaking through Toastmasters, a lot of them have started off their speeches with unusual props.
For instance, Darren Tay who was the World Champion of Public Speaking in 2016, used underwear as a prop at the beginning of his speech. It was hilarious! But at the same time, it was so unique that the audience couldn’t help but wonder what he was going to do next! You can watch his speech here.
Using props can really help drive your message home and be a memorable way to start your speech.
Bonus Tip: Silence
I’ve noticed some powerful openings start with nothing but a small pause. When you get on stage and wait for a few seconds, it allows the audience to settle in and adjust their attention towards you.
The reason this works is because most people expect a speaker to start with their speech right away.
When you pause and let silence take over for a few moments, the audience is likely to pause as well, and shift their attention towards you.
A short pause in the beginning also gives you a moment to settle on the stage and prepare yourself to speak.
Related article: Harness the Power of Pausing in Public Speaking
Examples of Great Openings:
“There have been many revolutions over the last century, but perhaps none as significant as the longevity revolution. We are living on average today 34 years longer than our great-grandparents did. Think about that: that’s an entire second adult lifetime that’s been added to our lifespan.” —Jane Fonda, TED Talk
“How do you explain why some people are able to achieve things that seem impossible?” –Simon Sinek, TED Talk
“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, TED Talk
“Imagine a big explosion as you climb through 3,000 ft. Imagine a plane full of smoke. Imagine an engine going clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack. It sounds scary. Well I had a unique seat that day. I was sitting in 1D.” –Ric Elias, TED Talk
The way you start your speech will determine (to a large extent) how the rest of your speech will go. Take your time to craft an opening which suits your speech and more importantly, suits your style!
Related article: 15 Powerful Speech Opening Lines (And How to Create Your Own)
A last note, if you are interested in reading more on “Hot to start a speech” and many more such lessons, you can check out Scott Berkun’s book, Confessions of a Public Speaker here.