Open Your Speech and Open Their Minds

Click the arrow in the audio player below to listen to this 1-minute audio of a live Q&A I held in Saudi Arabia that teaches a lesson about how NOT to open your speech.

[audio:|titles=Mic check ]

So How Can You Open The Speech?

Now that you see what not to do during your opening, let’s look at two ways to open your speech with a bang so your audience knows, within the first 7 seconds, that they’re in the right place and they’re glad to be there.

1. Begin with a Powerful Question Specific to that Audience:

For example, if I’m speaking to an audience of small business owners, I can ask, “What do you think is the number one reason most small businesses cannot seem to get more customers?” If you were a small business owner, would you want to know the answer? Great, then you’re hooked with my first sentence.

If I’m speaking to a group of people who are in a self-development organization, I can ask, “What do you think is the number one obstacle standing between most people living their dreams?” I can tell you from their responses that they’re definitely interested in the answer. Therefore, I’ve hooked them with my very first sentence. Whatever you do, make sure you invest lots of time and energy in the way you phrase your question because those first 7 seconds are critical to the success of the rest of your speech.

2. Jump Right Into Your Story

Although opening with a powerful question is highly-effective, another great way to open is with a story. When I say “a story” I don’t mean that you begin with something like the following: “I’d like to tell you a story about a time…” No!  Don’t announce that you’re about to tell a story; just tell it. Jump right into the story from your very first words. For example, oftentimes the very first thing I used to say from the stage (after being introduced and the applause died down) was this:

When I was in prison…visiting, one of the inmates came up to me after my presentation and said…

This works well for two reasons:

First, it’s unexpected because audiences are usually expecting the speaker to say things like, “I’m glad to be here” or “Thanks for the opportunity.” Those are normal statements that make the audience think, “There will be nothing special about this speech.” However, when you jump right into your story, they jump right into your speech.

Next, when I open with the “When I was in prison” statement above, I get a laugh within the first 5 words. This is critical because, within the first 7 seconds, we start building a bond.

This is also the reason I usually start my speeches today by diving directly into a letter my 6-year old daughter wrote me, which is not a full-blown story but serves as a connection piece nonetheless. I start off like this:

I’ve been on the road quite a bit recently and my 6-year-old daughter wrote me a note. She wrote, ‘Dear Daddy, I miss you. You are the best daddy in…my whole family.’ I gotta be honest, up until I received that note I thought I was the ONLY daddy in the family. Maybe I should stay off the road and make sure no more daddies are coming through my family.

The way that’s delivered helps me immediately bond with my audience with three strong laughs and a sign to the audience that says, “This is going to be interesting and maybe even fun!” Jumping directly into your story from the very first word is a brilliant way to start.

What about doing an activity?

In the past I used to begin some of my speeches with an activity but here’s why that’s not usually such a great idea. Ready?

You have to earn the right to make your audience do something.

What if someone you don’t know came up to you and said, “Put your arm out to your side and repeat after me.” You’d probably say, “How about you put your hand up to your face and cover your mouth.” In other words, “Stop talking to me.” This is because you have no bond. However, if a friend asked you to do it, you’d trust him enough to at least see what he was up to and what point he was making.

Well, it’s the same with your audience. You need to build a bond before you ask them to get up and do some kind of activity. That’s why I now usually put my first activity after my opening laughs and after my first major story, which also builds an emotional bond with my audience. At that time, they know, like, and trust me a little bit more, which makes it a perfect time to do an activity.

There is at least one exception.

As always you should look to understand the culture within your audience and the speaking engagement itself. If they’ve been doing activities all day long, it seems to be part of their culture, and the energy is still high when you get up to speak, then opening with an activity might be effective and even expected. You’ll have to figure out the culture and then fit into it.

However, the two best ways to open for most speeches are with a powerful question or by going directly into your story. Don’t collect $200. Don’t pass Go. Just head directly into your story and watch as your audience leans forward in anticipation of your message.

And whatever you do, please remember that after you begin your speech is not the time to do a sound check!

Craig Valentine

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