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Dave Hill – Speaker, Trainer, Speech Coach, and Author

Imagine you are standing in front of an audience delivering a speech or presentation. After your first few lines, you notice the audience losing energy and interest, and leaning back in their chairs. Some people are looking at the ceiling with their hands behind their heads. What happened?

This is a hypothetical scenario to lead into this article on how to start a speech or presentation. If you want to suck the energy out of an audience, start with fluff like this:
“Good morning everyone, it’s a pleasure for me to be here today. What a miserable day it is out there, will this rain ever end? We have a smaller than expected audience, but I think we will still have some fun and education. Why are you guys spread all over the room, why not fill some of the empty chairs up front. Let me remind you that if your cell phone goes off I will publicly humiliate you………Ha, Ha, Ha.”

Last week, I was coaching someone who was getting ready to enter a speech competition. His speech was excellent with a great blend of humor and stories coupled with a delivery that had energy. The speaker was animated and provided excellent visual details to bring us into his stories. My main recommendation to him was to stand center stage at the start of his speech, take time to scan the audience members while smiling, but most importantly, I suggested that he cut out the “fluff” at the beginning of his speech, and instead bring us straight into his first story. His first story is powerful, and has the “sit up in the seat” kind of audience impact.

Some of the ways I start a speech or presentation are as follows:

Telling a story
1) When telling a story, I like to use one of the following action verbs to bring the story into the present and to allow the audience members to become part of the scene: Envision, visualize, imagine, picture. I put as much detail into my sentences as possible to conjure up visual images.

EXAMPLE: Picture my 12 year old son standing in a field in Ireland. He had just gained the confidence to feed grass to a cow in a field. He hesitantly held out his hand with a fist full of grass, and the cow inched towards him with its huge lips stretching towards the grass. It was at this moment I had an impish smile on my face and shouted out, “Oh my goodness, it’s a bull!” You have never seen a little boy panic and recoil so quickly.

2) Another way I start a speech is to give the audience the date, time and location of the story, followed by some visual details:

EXAMPLE: “It is March 23rd, 2005, at the BP refinery in Texas City. Imagine you are walking through the refinery that day. An event is about to unfold that will change your life forever. You will wonder if there was something you could have done to prevent your friends getting killed. That day, a total of 15 people were killed, and over 170 injured in an explosion. You will carry this memory for the rest of your life. Today, we are going to talk about efforts underway to make sure this type of accident never happens to us”.

Ask a rhetorical question

EXAMPLE:
“Have you ever been asked a question by senior management where you had the answer in your head but your brain went blank? Have you ever walked away from one of these scenarios thinking to yourself I am such an idiot- I know this subject inside out, why could I not get my thoughts together?”

Use a quotation that relates to your speech content.
Try to use a quotation that is not well known; it will have more impact. Make sure you reference who the quotation owner is.

EXAMPLE
John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway”. Today, I am going to talk to you about ethics, standing your ground in the face of adversity, and following your passion with uncompromised values.

Ask a funny or absurd question that the audience can relate to

EXAMPLE:
Can anyone here relate to how men tend to run their cars until the gas tank level is down to the fume level, and feel they would die if they were to stop and ask for directions? Today we are going to learn how to coach our husbands on minimizing unnecessary stress and also understanding the fundamentals of mutual respect. The first thing I want to cover is toilet seat etiquette; let your husband know loud and clear – “If I sit on the toilet and fall in, we fall out!” To drive your point home, show him what flannel pajamas look like!

Provide a shock statement

EXAMPLE
I arrived home with a bunch of roses for my wife. There was no particular occasion, it was an impulse action. What floored me was her piercing words, “So……, you are having an affair!”

SUCCESS STRATEGY
1. Practice, practice, practice your opening story etc. so it is flawless. If you spend the first few sentences stumbling around with words, um’ing and ah’ing, then your image and credibility as a speaker can be diminished right from the start.
2. In general, do not open up with controversy- start with ideas people will be agreeable to. When trying to convince people to accept an idea it can help to give them two subject related rhetorical questions that they will nod in agreement to. The third related question is the one that may get potential resistance, but the previous affirmative nodding may help coax them into agreement or at least a consideration.
3. When deciding how to start a speech, consider what kind of opening is suitable for the audience. I personally use a lot of humor in the workplace and out in public, but I have to take into consideration the appropriateness to the occasion and to the audience. If I have a speech or presentation in the corporate office that may involve conflict or disagreement, I may still decide to start with a humorous anecdote as I have found that humor is a great tool for reducing tension.
4. Making fun of yourself is an excellent ice-breaker- audiences feel comfortable laughing at this type of self inflicted humor. Laughter helps you form a bond with the audience which can get them interested in your subject matter and can also make them feel at ease and more likely to respond to additional humor and stories.
5. One of the important things to remember is that your stories, rhetorical questions, etc. should relate to your subject matter. Do not use humor or stories for the sake of it. Choose the ones that will enhance your content. It can also be extremely powerful if you can include information that the audience can relate to. Professional speakers spend time learning about the audience while customizing a speech for an event.

SOME CAUTIONARY NOTES ON SPEECH OPENINGS
1. Do not tap on the microphone to see if it is working- why would you want to annoy the audience?
2. Do not open with a joke. The impact of a joke is only successful if the audience members do not know the punch-line. In the world of e-mail and internet access, many jokes are already worn out by the time they reach you. Use your own stories and vignettes that have proven effectiveness.
3. Don’t use a story that goes on and on and on before reaching a conclusion or the punch line. The audience will lose interest and lose track.
4. Don’t use rude jokes. This is a quick way to turn-off an audience. Just because some people laugh does not make it appropriate to the occasion or the audience.
5. Do not try untested humor with questionable effectiveness

 

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