Speech Opening Call-backs and Emergency Landings

As you know, how you open and close your speech is critically important. Below are two tools you can use to open with impact and close meaningfully even when stressed for time.

Let’s start with your opening. Can you think of any reason why I would advise you (at times) to scrap what you’ve prepared for an opening? Here’s why?

Many times the best way to connect with your audience is to do an opening call-back that you just uncovered at, or on your way to, the event.  

The Opening Call-back

What’s that? It’s not something you’ve planned for weeks. Instead, it’s something that happened related to that specific engagement. For example, it might be…

  • something that happened to you as you traveled to the engagement
  • something that somebody said earlier during the engagement
  • the way someone treated you before you stepped on stage

 In a nutshell, it’s anything related to that event that you can bring up as you open your speech.

Why does the Opening Call-back work so well?

Audience members want to feel like your speech is special to you. They want to feel like it’s specifically designed for them but that it still has meaning for you. They want to make sure it’s not a speech you are giving with your eyes closed. They don’t want to feel like you’re speaking to every audience you’ve ever had. Instead, they want to know you are focused on this one and only engagement. They want to feel like parts of your speech “could only have happened here.”

Celine Dion taught me this lesson

In 2002 I watched a program where Celine Dion was about to sing her famous song from the Titanic movie. Before she started I thought, “Wow, she must have sung this song thousands of times. I wonder if it’s still special to her.” Then she looked at the audience and let them know that the song had a special meaning to her that day because it was the 90th anniversary of the day the Titanic sank. Even though I was watching on television, you could feel the connection with her audience deepen. I remember thinking, “This is going to be special and this is only happening once.”

What’s Your Flavor?

The other benefit to using an opening call-back is that whatever you do in the opening flavors the rest of your speech in your audience’s eyes. Therefore, when you open with something specific to them, they think, “Great. This is not canned. He’s speaking to us!” Plus, it usually involves someone they know and that person can temporarily become the star of the speech. A great way to connect with your audience is to turn a few of them into stars.  

For example, recently I spoke outside of Philadelphia and, when I approached the registration table, one of the volunteers said something to me that I knew I could use for my opening. Listen to how it went.

[audio:https://craigvalentine.com/wp-content/uploads/callback.mp3|titles=Call-back ]

What you heard was simply a direct quotation I used from the volunteer who met me at the registration table. But what happened as a result? First, it got a nice laugh and loosened up the audience. Then, what you couldn’t see is that she actually raised her hand and took the credit for the line thereby making her the star. Finally, it set the tone in their minds that the speech would be fresh and not a stale repetition of past engagements.

FYI – You also heard a couple of small call backs to the “positive charge” and the “Hula Girls.” There’s no need for a detailed explanation. Just know they were call backs to things that happened during the event.  

Do You Really Have to Scrap Your Prepared Opening?

No. What did you hear me do after I finished the Opening Call-back? I transitioned into my prepared opening, which you heard me begin to deliver (i.e. “I was traveling so much…”). You don’t actually have to scrap your prepared opening. You just push it back a bit so you can go into it with all the wonderful momentum created from the Opening Call-back  

Next Opening Call-back Example

As I write this, I am sitting in Bali, Indonesia where I recently gave two speeches. Here is how I opened the first speech.

“Here’s how I knew I would love Bali. Raise your hand if you took a flight to get here? Do you know how, when you go through Customs in most countries, the officers are very stiff? They say things like, ‘What will you be doing in our country? Where will you be staying? And, more importantly, when will you be leaving?’ Well, the Customs Officer in Bali was different. He simply looked at my passport and then looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure you’re not Obama?'”

This got a huge laugh and set the tone not only for that speech but for both of my speeches. And all weekend long people repeated that line.

 Make no mistake about it, sometimes audience members and people you meet on the way to your engagement give you the material for your speech. Your job as a speaker is to always keep your eyes and ears open for the interesting experiences you have on your way to the engagement. If you think like a speaker, I believe that at least 50% of the time you will find something you can use as an Opening call-back that will connect you with that specific audience and let them know, “This only happened here.”

Bonus Lesson 

Emergency Landings

Here’s an extra quick lesson for you today. If you are or want to be a professional speaker, it is very important to be one thing:

A professional!

One of the ways to show your professionalism is by keeping your client’s agenda on time. Therefore, it is essential for you not to go over time with your speech. In a contest, if you go over time, you are disqualified. In the real world, if you go over time, you will most likely not get re-hired. Plus you can do serious harm to all the planning that went into the event.

Knowing this, whenever I find myself short on time (which is usually the result of having a very lively and interactive group…and that’s great!) I use what I call an Emergency Landing. Here’s how it works.

I have my audience review my main points using the Discuss and Debrief method.

Then, instead of going into my closing story, which usually takes between 4-6 minutes, I simply close with a quick thought.

Here’s an example of an emergency landing I did at a Toastmasters Conference where I talked about my path to the World Championship.

[audio:https://craigvalentine.com/wp-content/uploads/EmergencyLanding.mp3|titles=Emergency Landing]


My Challenges for You

Challenge Number One: Attempt to use an Opening Call-back in an upcoming speech.

Challenge Number Two: Develop an Emergency Landing for every speech you give.


Your Turn

Have you used an Opening Call-back? If so, what did you say and how did it go?

Do you have an Emergency Landing for your speech?

Craig Valentine

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