At a recent corporate storytelling workshop for Microsoft, I was asked a question that I hear frequently: "How do I open my speech?" Several others in the room agreed that the first two or three minutes of a speech are often the most awkward.
Is it that way for you, as well? Do you have a hard time getting started, but once you get going, you're all right? If so - welcome to the club.
Home Theater Front Speakers
In this article, I'm going to share what has worked for me and helped me build a lucrative speaking business. I'll also share the results of my research into what transforms a good speech into a Dynamite Speech.
I used to have a lot of anxiety before I gave a speech. I knew most of what I was going to say - not word for word - but in general. I knew what stories I was going to tell and what quotes I was going to use, and the overall sequence of things. What freaked me out was what I was going to say first.
I knew that telling a joke was out of the question because I can't remember jokes. Plus, any rule that is supposed to work for everyone - such as "always open with a joke" - is obviously a stupid rule! If there is one thing that I've learned from my own experience as well as from other speakers, it's that there is no ONE single way that works for everyone.
One day I was at the theater, sitting in the audience waiting for the curtain to go, and I had a revelation. I remembered all of the plays I had acted in and how the first line of each play was specifically chosen to set the stage for everything that came after it.
That got me thinking about the most powerful speeches I'd ever heard. They all started out with something meaningful. They didn't start with the speaker thanking anybody or talking about how wonderful it was to be in Buffalo, New York in January (because it's cold as heck). The first words out of their mouths were meaningful. They said something provocative or asked a provocative question.
I also realized that while I'd seen people start out with loud rock or disco music as they ran up the aisle from the back, for me, the most powerful openings were simple and direct.
Here are a few options for opening your speech, taken from my Dynamite Speech System.
Opening #1 - The Provocative Statement or Question Opening
Walk out to the center of the stage or room. Stand still and get centered. Let the silence sit there for a few seconds to build anticipation. Then, make a provocative statement such as: If you want your content to stick, emotion is the fast lane to the brain.
Another option is to ask a provocative question such as: When you give a speech, do you talk too much?
Notice how each of those statements is a bit contrarian. I love to combine two elements that are logical opposites. They make you think. The idea that you will get content to stick to the brain with emotion is illogical. The idea that you can talk too much while giving a speech is provocative.
What can you ask or say as your opening that will set up one of the main points of your speech? After you say it, pause. Let the statement or question hang there in space. Then move on.
Opening #2 - The Quote Opening
Find a provocative quote that seamlessly introduces your main point or premise.
Opening #3 - The Story Opening
Start by telling a story. Stories are an immediate attention grabber and activate your listeners' imagination. Make sure you choose the right story to open with. It can't be too dramatic or hilarious. Your Crucible and Imbroglio stories need to go in the middle of your speech. Choose a story that makes one of your main or the main point of your speech. You may begin the story up front, take it through to Step 4 - Encounter the Obstacle, and then stop. You can then close your speech with the resolution of the story, beginning with Step 5 - Overcome the Obstacle. Another option is to tell the entire story, make the point and then move on.
Opening #4 - The Rapport Builder Opening
If you've done your homework and used a pre-program questionnaire to discover the issues your audience is facing, you can open with a few statements that let them know that you understand their pain. Three or four sentences that address their current situation are all that you need to create a bond and let them know you're not going to give a generic rah-rah speech. Perhaps you can mention the name of someone in the audience who you spoke to on the phone before the meeting or conference. Then, give a speech that customizes your concepts and solutions to their needs and issues.
The main thing I want you to consider for your opening is to start strong. Know exactly what you're going to say. Don't waste time with chitchat about the weather or the city you're in. Get right to it. Surprise them. Shock them. Make them think.
I also don't believe that it's necessary or effective to thank the meeting planner up front. If you're going to do that at all, do it at the end.
What has worked for me is to memorize the first three or four sentences of my speech and to use the same opening over and over. Knowing exactly what I'm going to say and precisely how I'm going to deliver those lines, gives me confidence.
It helps that the words I say are part of my branding. If you've ever heard me speak, you know that there are a number of power phrases - provocative statements if you will - that are consistent from speech to speech and audience to audience. I don't make up something new every time and I don't mess with what works.
If you've been asked to deliver a sixty-minute keynote speech, every minute counts. The first sixty seconds is critical to how your audience perceives you. My advice is to write and memorize your opening. Deliver it the same way time after time. Tweak it when necessary until you have it down to the precise statement that creates the effect you're looking for.
Open strong and close with confidence.