Seven ways to give your speech a flying start

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Written by Gordon Adams, Toastmasters International

What do a great novel and a great speech have in common? They both grab people’s attention at the very beginning. From the moment you first open your mouth to speak, you need to hook your audience’s attention.

Here are some suggestions for giving your speech a flying start:

Ask your audience an interesting question

Many of the best speeches begin with a simple question. Why? Because a good question immediately engages your audience.

Sometimes an entire speech structure is simply: ask the audience an important question, answer it by referencing or debating three key points and then sum up. I began a recent speech by asking my audience: “Which is the world’s happiest country?” Other openings I’ve used over the years are: “What do you believe is Mankind’s greatest achievement?” and “Did you choose your career or did your career choose you?” All are designed to arouse the interest of the audience.

Clearly, the more interesting, intriguing and relevant the question you begin with, the more your audience will be engrossed by it.

Suppose you have been asked to give a speech on public health. You might begin your speech by might posing the question: “What do you think is the world’s most popular fruit?”  (The answer is not the apple, the orange or the banana. It is the tomato.) The laughter which follows this revelation demonstrates that most people don’t know that tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. This opening can lead you onto your serious points: that both fruit and vegetables are vital to a healthy diet and the best health advice is for each of us to consume five portions a day.

Best of all, you can ask the audience a question about themselves. What has been the most frightening moment of your life? If you could go back and change one decision in your life, what would it be? When was the last time you stepped outside your comfort zone? People are immediately interested in questions about themselves.

Make a startling statement of fact

A startling fact can have the same effect on your audience as an interesting question. It wakes them up!

For example, you might begin with: “Tobacco has killed more people worldwide than the First and Second World Wars combined.” You can then go on to comment on ways public health can be improved and the important role of preventative medicine.

Whatever the subject you are speaking about, try unearthing a startling fact on this subject and opening your speech with it.

Begin with a quotation

If you want your speech to carry extra authority, it can be helpful to open it with a quotation from a respected figure. For instance, you might open with: “Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.’ I’ve always believed that’s true: each of us has within us a vast well of untapped potential.”

Or have some fun by playing around with a learned quote. Offer your audience a fresh ‘take’ on a familiar quote. How about the following, as an example of this?

“Einstein once remarked that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ He explained that knowledge tells us everything we already know about the universe, whereas imagination points us towards everything that has yet to be discovered. Speaking personally, when I heard that imagination is more important than knowledge, I immediately felt a whole lot better about my own schooldays. All those happy hours I spent in History lessons, gazing out of the window and dreaming I was a professional footballer…”

Tell a story

People love to hear a story. It is particularly helpful if you can start your story with a dramatic incident. If you open it with: “I have never believed in ghosts, until recently when I stayed in a 17th century hotel that was rumoured to be haunted.” If you begin by taking your audience straight into an interesting story, you can be pretty sure everyone will listen from that moment on.

If you have a dry and serious subject to talk about, your need for a personal story to enliven it is all the greater. Suppose you’ve been asked to speak about the economy and that your audience includes many economists. You might open your speech by remarking that coming to speak about the economy to a room full of economists feels a little like venturing into the lion’s den. You can follow this up by saying you’ve never had a close encounter with a lion, but you did once have a scary moment with a shark. Then you can tell the story about your close encounter with the shark and refer to that story several times during the speech.

Use a visual aid dramatically

Using a visual aid dramatically can get your audience to sit up in their seats. Your visual aid might be your costume itself or some hand-held item.

One wonderful example of how to use a visual aid at the beginning of a speech was a speech by Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, the Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking in 2014.  He took a flower from his pocket and explained that everyone is like a flower: each of us has something about us that makes us special. He then tore off the petals one by one, cracked the flower stem in half and threw it in a bin, as he spoke about how life can break us. At the end of the speech, after speaking about how caring support from others can put us back together again, he retrieved an intact flower from that bin. The right kind of visual aid can be gripping and act as an excellent metaphor. Using a great visual aid is likely to make your words more memorable.

Startle your audience

Begin with the unexpected. For instance, I once began a speech with: “I have a confession for you tonight.” I explained that I belong to a group which is in a small minority within the population and that people like me have been persecuted over the ages. From that opening, the room was silent, and all eyes were on me. Everyone was listening intently. This was a speech about left-handedness and how, thankfully, we are no longer persecuting left-handed people as was the case in the Middle Ages.  At that time, left-handers were sometimes accused of witchcraft and put to death. The opening led me directly into the key point of my speech: a plea for greater tolerance of those in our society who are different.

Reference the occasion

The date on which you are delivering your speech will certainly be significant in some way. Look it up online as it may be the anniversary of a historical event such as the first Moon landing, a famous battle or the birthday of a famous figure. Or it may be a National Day of some kind, as most days are. Here, for instance, are just a few National Days in the UK: National Men Make Dinners Day, National Parents as Teachers Day, National Philanthropy Day and National Day of Listening.

Find a way to reference the occasion at the start of your speech and you can then weave that reference into the narrative of your speech.

We’ve looked at several ways to begin your speech with impact and grab your audience’s attention.  Let your next speech hook them right away.

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