How to start a speech: Part 1

Luther

Imagine if Martin Luther King started his famous speech saying “Hello everyone, my name is Martin Luther King and I would like to tell you about my dream.” Do you think the speech would nearly as powerful as it is? 

Technically, if you’re one of the numerous people that start their speeches with this sentence, there is nothing wrong with it. It tells your audience who you are and what the topic of your speech is. It’s polite and transparent – but also completely unoriginal and utterly boring. What it really tells your audience is that you’re just another random person speaking about just another random thing. MLK wasn’t, and I don’t think you are either.

 

The importance of introduction

The first few sentences of your speech or presentation are your first impression. This is the moment when you have everyone’s attention and how you proceed will decide whether you’ll keep it or lose it. These opening lines set the expectations and the attitude of your audience towards you, your topic and your speech. A good introduction is supposed to spark curiosity about what you have to say. A good intro can make the audience care or sympathise with your cause or, if you’re talking about a controversial topic (e.g. gay marriage, abortion) a good intro can make them more ready to consider arguments of opposite views.

 

How to come up with a great opening

The most important aspect of a good introduction is originality. What can you do or tell that no one else is likely to? For instance, this week I had to present myself in a 6-minute speech. This is was my introduction: 

A new speaker comes to the stage, has to introduce himself, and now the question is – who am I? Well I’m afraid I don’t really know the answer, but I can share with you what 22 years of my research showed. My name is Karlo…

The audience reacted really well to this because they could already see I wasn’t going to only tell facts about me, but that I would try to do something new, take an unusual perspective and they were curious to hear what was coming next. 

Another approach I find very effective is to start with a very vivid example of what you’re talking about to make the topic instantly more tangible. Let’s say you’re talking about changes in gender roles

I’d say we are all familiar with the classic image of an attractive woman: she’s slim, elegant, wears high heels, a little mysterious… sounds familiar? Well, times are changing. In 2013, a UFC fighter Ronda Rousey, a woman who, to put it mildly, punches people in the face for a living, was ranked 29th on the list of 100 sexiest women. She is only one example of the changes we are witnessing in what we call gender roles. 

If you want to keep things more simple and less dramatic, but still effective, you can let the audience participate in your presentation. Interactivity makes people feel included and thus gets their attention. You can ask them a question or make a vote on a question by asking them to raise their hands or even stand up. However, remember to keep it simple – don’t ask for too much right at the beginning. In most settings, if you ask a question, it is not very likely that many people will raise their hand to speak. This is why it might be the best just to ask yes/no questions at the beginning and more complicated ones later if the audience seems to be responding well. 

These are just three approaches for a good introduction to your speech. You can take them and apply them to your speeches, but what they are really meant to do is give you further ideas. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try out new ways. Tell a story, a fun fact, a joke, bring props to the stage. You’ll see what works well for you and soon you’ll develop your own style. Trust me, it is going to be worth your effort. 

 

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