The most difficult moments of a speech are those expanses of stage time while you get to your spot, find your notes or your clicker, look at the audience, wait for the applause to die down, and gather your wits to begin.
You’re hoping it all goes well, wondering whether the technology will work, fearing it won’t, and trying to figure out why you agreed to speak to this motley crowd in the first place.
Then you have to begin your speech. When you open your mouth, what comes out? Following are eight ways to begin a speech that go beyond my usual exhortations to start with a story, startling stat or question:
1. Begin with the way things used to be.
This strategy is useful to set up a talk about change or a new proposal for your team, organization or profession:
“It used to be that we could count on our customers to…”
“Until only recently, everyone thought that renters would always…”
“Remember how things used to quiet down in the summer?”
The idea is to get your audience nodding in recognition, smiling at the quaintness of yesterday or waxing nostalgic about last Tuesday. Then, they’ll listen in the right frame for the new insight or proposal you’re going to hit them with.
2. Start with a strong emotion.
Whether positive or negative, strong emotions catch the attention and set up the discussion in an interesting way:
“The worst thing about our profession is…”
“What I love about penguins is the way they…”
“I hate, positively hate, serif typefaces…”
The point here is that you’ll get a reaction, either positive or negative, and focus the audience on the point you want them to think about. We react to strong emotions like train wrecks, and we can’t take our (metaphorical) eyes off them.
3. Thank the audience for something they’ve done.
You can never go wrong praising the audience, regardless of whether they deserve it. It’s flattery, sure, but it works. It disarms the audience, setting them up to listen more favorably to your next point:
“Let’s start by giving yourselves a round of applause. No team could have managed these last difficult months better than this one. You’ve been heroes.”
The applause then allows you to ask:
“That’s why I’m confident that you’ll be able to…”
4. Cut away the extraneous, and get to the essence.
This move takes confidence, but with the right understanding of your audience, it can be highly effective:
“The one thing that matters this election year is the economy…”
“Today I want to talk about fairness…”
“When it comes to the environment, there’s only one number you need to know…”
This device is most useful when you’re dealing with a highly complex subject, or a debate with many sides and a lot of history. It’s a way of clearing away the undergrowth and revealing the essential issue underneath all the excess.
5. Make a big demand.
Asking the audience something big, or excessive, or unreasonable is counterintuitive. This requires a deep understanding of your audience, as well as a strong sense of your own position. Still, people love to commit to audacious goals, so don’t be afraid of invoking something that you truly believe to be important:
“We choose to go to the moon…”
“Let’s make history tonight…”
“Why not make the news for once instead of reacting to it? Let’s… “
6. Break down what you’re talking about into simple steps.
One of the most appealing tropes in public speaking is to simplify the complicated:
“There are only three ways that you can design a book cover…”
“Financial security is really very simple. You can accomplish it in three steps. First…”
Just make sure you know what you’re talking about. You don’t want the audience immediately thinking of everything you’ve left out. This kind of simplicity demands expertise to be effective.
7. Map the future.
The enduring appeal of fortune tellers has something to do with the certainty, I suppose, that they seem to give one over the uncertain future. You can partake of the allure of the crystal ball set by giving your audience a schema for handling the future:
“I see this playing out in one of three ways…”
“Watch for one of two things to happen. When you see either one, you’ll know that…”
It doesn’t really matter whether you predict the future accurately; you’re offering your audience a manageable way of thinking about what might lie ahead.
8. Ask the audience to imagine something completely different.
This approach is effective with professional organizations, or teams that have been doing things a certain way for a long time, or anyone who has struggled with a status quo that seems set in stone:
“What if higher education were free to all?”
“Imagine a world without hunger…”
“We’ve always assumed that Moore’s Law had a finite end. What if we could suddenly increase computing power by a factor of a thousand?”
Use these various framing devices to begin your speech with some extra sparkle-or simply to prompt your thinking about how to set up your talk for success.