How to engage your audience from the first words of your speech

February 27, 2019

What do great speeches and great novels share?  They both grab people’s attention from the start. From the moment you begin speaking, you need to hook your audience’s attention.

I believe the most important lines of your speech are your opening lines. Here are some ideas on how to achieve this goal for your speeches or presentations.

Ask your audience an interesting question

Start with a simple question. Why? Because a good question immediately engages your audience.

I have opened speeches by asking my audience: “Which is the world’s happiest country?” “What do you believe is Mankind’s greatest achievement?” and “Did you choose your career or did your career choose you?” All of these openings 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 to give a speech on public health. You could ask 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 actually 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 yourlife? If you could go back and change one decision in yourlife, what would it be? When was the last time youstepped outside your comfort zone? People are immediately interested in questions about themselves.

Posing a question to your audience sets the theme for your speech. You can then easily share some personal stories and learning points from your own life. Tell them about your most frightening moment, your worst decision or the time you were forced to venture far outside your comfort zone. Having asked them to think briefly about challenging moments in their own lives, your audience will more readily empathise with you.

“I didn’t know that!”

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

Think about the public health speech I mentioned earlier. You might begin it 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.

Quotations

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…”

Use stories

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 17thcentury 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. Talking to an audience including 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. Your story about your close encounter with the shark can act as an entrée to your speech and you can refer back to that story several times during your presentation.

Visual Aids

Using a visual aid dramatically can get your audience to sit up in their seats. Your visual aid might be what you wear 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 created drama and shared experience by using a rose which he took from his pocket.  Watch on YouTube to see how the flower became a key metaphor for his message. Using a great visual aid is likely to make your words more memorable.

An unexpected angle

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-handednessand 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.

This has been an article about how to begin your speech in an impactful way and hook audience attention from the start.  In my experience, the most common of these approaches is to begin with a question. Good luck giving your next speech a flying start!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gordon Adams is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club,visit www.toastmasters.org

 

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