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. A strong opening is likely to get the audience curious and set the direction for a powerful talk. So, I thought that the topic ‘How NOT to start a speech’ would be of some use.
We also put out a video that summarises our article here:
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.
How to Not start your Speech
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 the 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.
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 that you feel will completely resonate with your audience and is something different, it might just work really well!
Exceptions to start a speech with quotes
Quotes can be a good way of starting the speech as it captures the imagination of the audience. It can also help you simplify the points that you wish to convey as it compresses a thousand words. However, one should try to not overuse quotes as it might give the impression that the speaker does not have original ideas.
Opening your speech with a relevant quote can set the tone for your speech. You should avoid quoting people solely based on their fame but base your decision on their expertise of the subject. If the audience doesn’t know where the quote comes from, then one should introduce the person and establish their credibility.
Rather than using mainstream quotes try using unique quotes that can grab the attention of the audience.
Using filler words like uhmm, Ok… so
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.
If you are looking for pointers on how to improve on this aspect and deliver an effective and impactful speech check out this video to learn some simple techniques you can adopt.
“I’m glad to be here/Thank you for having me”
This is a default type of opening for many speakers. But what they usually don’t realise is that it is a very bland way of starting a speech. It is an extremely ordinary way to begin a speech. Moreover, it lacks creativity.
“Please turn off your cell phones”
Starting your speech by this particular statement might not help you in gaining attention and interest from the audience. You can ask the person introducing you on the stage to request the audience to switch off their cell phones.
However, if this is not possible then you can start your speech with an interesting introduction that emphasizes the importance of listening to the speaker and further on request your audience to turn off their cell phones. Avoid using this statement as the first sentence of your speech.
Don’t start the speech by apologising to the audience. This can really put off the audience. Avoid apologising for your voice, health, or anything at the start of the presentation.
This does not mean that you are supposed to be not kind to the audience but starting by apologizing to the audience will draw their attention to an issue that they might not have noticed earlier.
“I’m going to talk about…”
Starting your speech with this statement is likely to make the audience uninterested in your speech later as they will already be aware of the topics that you are going to talk about.
Hence, giving out all the contents of your speech at the start will only make the audience incurious.
Putting yourself down
This basically means to not start your speech by saying things like “I am no expert..” or any kind of statement that undersells yourself. People usually say ‘I am not an expert but…’ before expressing an opinion. However, this should be avoided as you are going to anyway express your opinion.
Instead, saying ‘In my opinion’ would be better. The audience is free to agree or disagree with your opinion on the matter. At times, statements that put down oneself can create doubt about the credibility of the speaker.
“My name is..”
The person introducing you must have already given the audience your details entailing your name and your speech topic. Therefore, starting your speech with your name is probably a very mainstream way of beginning a speech.
People often turn to humor when starting a speech as it can lighten the mood and work as an ice-breaker. However, offensive jokes should be avoided at all costs. An offensive joke at the start of the speech (or at all in the speech) can make the audience lose respect for you.
A self-deprecating joke can often work well in such situations. Moreover, it can also increase the relatability factor.
What To Start A Speech With 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.
To create your own powerful opening line, watch this video to learn 7 simple tips that will greatly increase the impact of your speech.
Here are some ways that did in fact work for me and for countless other speakers:
Starting with a question
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.
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.
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.
To learn more about how and when to pause, read our article on Harness the Power of Pausing in Public Speaking
Humor is one the fastest ways to build a rapport with the audience. As already mentioned, it can prove to be a powerful ice-breaker and can relax the situation. Starting your speech with a joke can often make the audience eager to listen to what you have to say.
While using humor, it should be kept in mind that it is not targeted towards the audience or any specific section of the audience (males, females, specific ethnic group).
Self-deprecating humor can work well if used appropriately.
Here is an example of a speech given by Darren LaCroix where he starts his speech with the appropriate use of humor.
Regardless of the type of humor, there is no doubt that it makes any atmosphere ten times better when delivered right. If you’re looking for tips on how to use humor in your speech read our article called A Guide To Using Humor In Your Speech
Starting your speech with an anecdote or a story can grab the audience’s attention as they will be eager to listen to the rest of the story.
Introducing stories in your speeches can often bring life to what you have to say and will also make the audience remember it for a longer time. The story should be connected to the main theme or idea of the speech and should not be any random story.
It is important to connect the story to the central idea of the speech to make sure the audience understands the underlying meaning of the anecdote. Here is a speech by Colin O’Brady where he begins by telling the audience his personal story.
Provocative statements often lead to attention on the part of the audience. Starting with a provocative statement can really get them thinking about your topic. Moreover, it is also a unique way of introducing your topic.
Provocative questions/statements will keep the audience on the edge of their seat. However, such questions or statements need to be handled with care because if they are misinterpreted, they tend to put the speaker in trouble. Watch this speech given below by Nashater Deu Solheim where she starts her speech with a provocative statement by telling the audience that they are not authentic.
In addition to this article, you can also check out this video that has great extra tips on what to avoid while opening for a speech and what you can do to leave an impression.
Examples of Great Openings:
1. Jane Fonda
“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
Listen to Jane Fonda’s entire TED talk here:
2. Simon Sinek
“How do you explain why some people are able to achieve things that seem impossible?” –Simon Sinek, TED Talk
Listen to Simon Sinek’s powerful speech here.
3. Jamie Oliver
“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
Watch this TED talk by Jamie Oliver, a British chef, giving a powerful opening that leads to an amazing speech here.
4. Ric Elias
“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
Watch Ric Elias’s speech here, where he starts the speech with an anecdote:
Take your time to craft an opening that suits your speech and more importantly, suits your style!
You could also read our extensive article on 15 Powerful Speech Opening Lines (And How to Create Your Own) to learn many other powerful openings that will make your speech interesting.
As 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.
In order to make an impact on the audience, the way you decide to start your speech is of utmost importance as that is the time when the audience decides whether or not they will listen to you. Hence, an impactful, interesting, and unique way of starting your speech can help you hold the attention of your audience.