Sometimes what you say doesn’t matter as much as how you say it. It happened to me many times that I had a great opening line in mind, but when I said it, it wasn’t half as cool as I’d wanted it to be.
The biggest reason why our introductions don’t turn out as good is nervousness. As I already wrote, almost everyone feels nervous and this feeling is especially strong at the beginning of your speech – during the introduction.
In order to be able to perform your introduction well even in spite of the nervousness, you have to rehearse your opening lines well. I would advise to memorise the sentences by heart and maybe even the gestures you want to use. Try different postures and hand movements and decide which is the most natural. Once you’re on the stage, use these gestures even if you actually feel like crossing your hands (which is a natural reaction!). This will help you relax and actually seem more confident!
Delivering a good introduction
The 1st thing you should pay attention to is timing. Many people do the mistake of starting too early. When you come to the stage, don’t start speaking right away. Position yourself and then take a look at the audience first. Don’t be afraid of a half a second of silence. You can even smile a little or nod them if you find it appropriate. It is a way of acknowledging them and it will help you and the audience concentrate. And then, start.
2nd: Body language. This of course depends on what kind of an impression and opening you want to achieve, but what you in most cases want to do is seem open and confident. As shown on the photo, there are three basic things you have to cover to achieve this:
- look at the audience (not at your notes!)
- stand straight
- use open gestures
The 3rd aspect you want to pay attention to is your voice. Although it may be a little shaky due to nervousness, don’t let it stop you from speaking loud enough. You have to make sure that the audience can hear you because otherwise they will lose interest. How loud? The volume should depend on the size of the room and the number of people and exactly making eye contact with the audience while speaking will help you instinctively adjust your volume.
Make sure you get your introduction right because, remember: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression!” (Andrew Grant, writer)
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.
Ethos and pathos help you get your point across, but logos is the actual point you want to make. It is the verbal content of your speech. What information do you want to convey to your audience? What conclusion do you want to reach? And most importantly, how are you going to shape it so that the audience understands it and agrees with it?
There are speakers who have a great charisma and fantastic presentation skills (i.e. ethos and pathos), but what they are actually saying (logos) makes little sense. Sadly, this sometimes seems to be the case with politicians. In order to be considered trustworthy, what you are actually saying has to add up. Do your conclusions follow from what you had stated? What facts do you have to back up your statements? Can you explain your point in a clear and memorable way?
Putting the logic into logos
The usual ways of achieving a credible (or a credible sounding) logos, are referring to scientific studies, specialist literature, experts and statistics. The more precise you name your source, the more credible your message sounds:
- According to a study carried out in 2016, every one in four Europeans tends to…
- I have recently read in the American Journal of Medicine that it may not be healthy to…
- Dr. Horst Seider, an anthropology professor at the University of Vienna recently wrote that humans…
However, logos is more than a set of ready made phrases. It also refers to the way you explain ideas and concepts. If your job is to explain a phenomenon, a process or a concept, especially if it’s an abstract one, you need to do it in a logical and creative way in order for it to be understood well and linger on in the minds of your audience:
There is a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. “One of the most important things it does – it’s an experience simulator. Pilots practice in flight-simulators, so that they don’t make real mistakes in planes, human beings have this marvellous adaptation that they can actually have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life.” -Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University, a TED talk
Comparisons may be one of the most powerful ways of explaining things. Comparisons let us understand new ideas in the terms we are already familiar with. They allow us to use mechanisms we already understand to understand new ones, thus helping the new knowledge integrate better in our already existing basis of knowledge. In addition, they give a face to unknown concepts and arouse our sympathy and curiosity for them.
Another important step in explaining a concept is giving an example:
“Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t have a liver and onion ice cream and it’s not because they whipped some up, tried it and went ‘yuck!’ It’s because, without leaving your own chair, you can simulate that flavour and say ‘yuck!’ before you make it.” -Daniel Gilbert, same speech
Examples are similar to comparisons, but more detailed. They work on the same principle, but they take it one step further, putting the concept in a specific situation. However, when constructing a comparison or an example, you have to take into consideration the given setting and your audience. On the grounds of his knowledge of TED’s audiences, Daniel Gilbert assumed that his audience knew what a flight simulator is as well as that Ben & Jerry’s is an ice cream company. So make sure you think about your audience, their interests and knowledge and use it as a basis of your example.
Do I have a say in the speech?
Being credible doesn’t mean that you’re not supposed to express your opinion in your speech. As a matter of fact, in most types of speeches it is desirable that you do. However, it is highly recommended to make it clear that this is your opinion and elaborate on it. Why do you have this opinion? What are your arguments? How did you form this opinion? What data support your opinion? Expressing yourself this way is going to let audience know that you are aware there are people with more expertise than you, but it puts you into the picture as well. Who knows, maybe someone from the audience will quote you in one of their speeches!
Aside from that, it is also desirable to express your personal perspective if you wish to persuade your audience into doing something or forming an opinion. For instance, if you are talking about waste separation, you could first state all the advantages of it and then say why you do it:
For me personally, separating waste can be a lot of work, but I decided to do it nonetheless. I know there are still a lot of people who don’t do it, but I thought to myself, if I start doing it today, maybe one of you will start doing it tomorrow. And then maybe someone else will start doing it the day after. And after a certain time, almost everyone will be doing it. This shows us that we can make a change – one person at a time.
Logos is the rational dimension of your speech. It is based on logic and reasoning. It is the very core that you build your speech around. Nevertheless, we’ve all had professors who were experts in their field and knew what they were talking about, but were just a pain to listen to. This is why we need all three means of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos.
Shout-out to Aristotle!
We love well formulated, carefully ordered and exquisitely selected words, but what we usually remember, are emotions – how a speech or a performance made us feel. Did it make you laugh, make you sad, did it motivate you, scare you, disgust you or make you happy? Words carry meanings, but emotions carry words – they give colour to words and help us grasp what we are told on more levels than only on the logical one. According to Aristotle, this is pathos – using and evoking emotions in your speech as a means of persuasion.
Emotions speak to us on an unconscious level and they can heavily influence whether your audience is going to be convinced or not and, more importantly, if they are going to accept your appeal or message. This doesn’t only apply to motivational speeches where you want to make your audience hyped or demonstration speeches where you want to make them angry, but to almost every other speech type as well. If you are talking about an idea of yours, your audience is going to be much more interested in it if they see your excitement and passion when talking about it, thus making them feel the same. If you are holding a speech at your company’s anniversary, you will undoubtedly make your colleagues care more about the company if they can feel your own affinity for it. If you can make them feel, you will make them care. And you will make them remember.
Recognise a chance
To use pathos to your advantage, first you need to find an opportunity to include an emotional appeal into your speech. When can you use it and to which purpose? The most common place for it would be the introduction. When I was in AIESEC, an international student organisation, I held a lot of speeches where I promoted student exchanges. I would always begin the speech with a story from one of my own exchanges:
Seven years ago, I was on a student exchange in Turkey. I was staying in a family, and although I enjoyed seeing the architecture, learning about the history and eating kebabs, what I absolutely enjoyed the most was spending time with this family. Every day in the evening we would be sitting in the living room, with the father of the family sitting next to me. He was a policeman and a quite serious man. However, every day he would ask how my day was. He’d ask in Turkish, so my hosting-brother Mehmet would translate the question to me and then I would say what we had done that day and how it was. I couldn’t speak Turkish so I spoke in English and although the father couldn’t understand a word of English, he was carefully listening to every word, saying “evet, evet” (meaning yes, yes) and holding my hand! Then Mehmet would translate what I had said and then he would actually react saying, “oh that’s nice, wow that’s great”. These people were so friendly that sometimes I think this family treated me better than my own family!
This is how I learned about how rich and different cultures can be and that to really learn about a culture, you have to be there to experience it.
Using an emotional appeal like this – a story that’s funny, but also touching in a way – in the introduction of your speech can win your audience’s attention, curiosity, interest, as well as make the topic more palpable, more material and thus more immediate. Another common place for an emotional appeal would be the conclusion. Ending a speech on an emotional note lends the speech an elegant rounded structure as well as leaves a strong impression, especially if you can manage to connect it to your introduction. In my example, I would usually end my speech with this:
In my experience, an exchange was exactly that – an exchange: for one week Mehmet and his family gave me a home in Turkey, and next year we gave him a home for a week in Croatia. We gave him a bit of ourselves and our culture and they gave me a bit of themselves. And sadly, those two weeks were maybe the shortest weeks in my life. But fortunately, the memories and the friendship I still keep and treasure, even after seven years. Thank you.
Feel, don’t tell
What we did in this example was to tell a story. Storytelling is probably the most powerful way of eliciting emotions. Through stories you are able to create images in the mind of the listener and let them not only hear what you have to say but experience it in their imagination. Making your speech visual, often by means of subtle but vivid details opens up the mind and imagination of your listener, thus making them more susceptible to emotions. Further on, if you can make them identify with what you’re talking about, if you offer them a chance to relate to what you’re saying because sometimes in their life they had felt the same or had the same thoughts or wishes, you will not be presenting something to them anymore. You and your audience will be experiencing it together.
In my example, I counted on my audience being language or culture students who wanted to travel, meet people and learn about cultures, so I wanted them to imagine actually being there. Furthermore, I would always imitate my hosting-father in a polite, but funny way, showing how he was holding my hand in his hands and nodding his head full of attention.
Don’t be hesitate to use nonverbal and para-verbal means to communicate feelings. When talking about something that excites you, smile a lot. Use your hands and raise your voice. When talking about something sad, lower your voice. Allow yourself a slower tempo, pauses and a deep sigh when needed. Remember, the audience won’t feel an emotion if you don’t feel it yourself.
To put it simply, ethos is your image and credibility in the eyes of your audience. If Arnold Schwarzenegger is to make a speech on a bodybuilding festival, the audience is most likely going to be impressed before he even opens his mouth. Everyone there will be thrilled to hear him speak and his words will be taken as pure gold. This is because he has a gigantic ethos in this community. He is considered an expert on the topic and has unparalleled results in the field.
However, if Arnold was to make a scientific presentation at a conference on aerospace engineering, you can imagine the audience wouldn’t be that easily impressed. The question in everybody’s mind would be “what is he doing here?” and “what does he have to do with us?”. Not only does Arnie not have an ethos of credibility in this circle, but he might even be in the disfavour with the audience as he is usually associated with a world far different from their own and thus his task to convince the audience would be much more difficult.
What is your ethos: Who are you and what do you do? What experience do you have in the field? Who is the audience and what do they know about you – what is your image in this community? Does the audience like you? This constitutes your ethos. Based on this, the audience is going to form their impressions and expectations of your speech. However, having an ethos does not only relate to businessmen, scientists or athletes. You also have a certain reputation at your workplace, your university, in your circle of friends or your family. Are you a funny person? Are you reliable? Are you someone people around you look up to? All of this influences how convincing you can be in those environments.
Using your ethos: There is nothing more convincing then a person speaking from their own experience. Make sure you don’t boast, but make it clear that you know what you are talking about. To do this, do not just mention your experiences, but talk about them through examples or little stories. For instance, if you are a student giving a presentation on a renowned author, you are going to sound more credible if you read more works by the author and can tell about them, draw parallels between them and maybe even compare them to some other author’s works then by just telling what you read in the textbook. This way you are also building your ethos.
Building your ethos: As opposed to pathos and logos, to a great part, ethos is not built during the speech. Ethos is gained by collecting experiences and results. Depending on whether your field is entrepreneurship, science or art, with every profitable business, published paper or successful art project, you are gradually gaining expertise. However, it is also important that the members of your community, i.e. your future audience know about you and your work. In most cases this relates to having an own website or a profile on social media where you can make yourself visible, but it also goes for your everyday life – make friends and connections at your university or workplace, show them that how great you are and don’t be shy to tell them about your interests and hobbies.
If you are for example interested in languages, every once in a while share with your colleagues something interested you had read or teach them a word in a foreign language. With time, you will become the reference person for languages in that circle of people and when it comes to speaking on this topic, in your colleagues’ eyes there will be no person more appropriate to give that speech than you.
Like so many disciplines of today, rhetoric, i.e. the discipline of speaking has its beginnings in the ancient Greece. This is why the teachings of philosophers, among others the godfathers of philosophy – Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, are still taught at the beginning of many rhetoric courses.
These teachings represent the basics of writing, preparing and performing speeches and although they may be very theoretical, knowing certain fundamentals can give you a clear understanding of how to approach and improve your speaking performance as well as give you a good understanding of what you can achieve with it.
My favourite teaching is Aristotle’s three appeals: ethos, pathos and logos and I will present it in the following three posts. Clicking on each of the appeals / links underneath will take you to these posts where you can learn how to use them to your advantage.
Basically, the three appeals represent three aspects of a speech and also three means of persuasion:
- Ethos refers to the speaker’s character. It stands for the reputation the speaker has and the ways the speaker can use it to convince the audience.
- Pathos refers to emotions. If the speaker is trying to elicit emotions, e.g. make the audience happy or sad, the speaker is playing with the pathos.
- Logos refers to the content of the speech. It represents the choice of words, logical operations and devices like metaphors that the speaker uses.
Don’t be afraid of a bit of the good old philosophy! These guys are quite cool, you just have to get to know them, plus I tried to explain it the way I understand it myself – in modern terms.
I believe there are two central aspects to good presentation skills: the know-how and the dare-to.
The know-how is the theoretical knowledge – starting with “it’s good to start the speech with a joke” or “you shouldn’t cross your arms”, all the way to more refined ones like “look at the audience member’s foreheads to avoid getting confused.” This is something you can read about and learn. But the dare-to is the confidence that allows you to stand firmly in front of a number of people and deliver a speech they will remember. It is also the trust in yourself that you will do well, that you are able to improvise if you forget your text and that they will indeed laugh at your joke.
Nervous? Scared? Welcome to the club!
The fear and nervousness that we feel when speaking before an audience are completely normal and they have been around for millions of years. Back in the days of our ancestors, survival largely depended on being a part of the group. A group could defend itself better against wild animals and other groups as well as hunt more successfully and share resources. In other words, what others thought of you was a matter of life and death and throughout millennia we developed an imperative desire to be liked by others.
When you stand up to speak before a group of people, there is a goal you want to reach – you want to teach them something, motivate them to take an action or simply make them laugh – but you are also aware that there is a risk. You know that what you are going to say and, by extension, you, is going to be evaluated. There is a risk that they might not like what you say. That doesn’t only mean that you you might get a bad note at school, that your customer won’t buy your product, that you won’t win that girl or won’t get a promotion, but you are also putting your reputation at stake – they might not like you afterwards. And whether you want it or not, this makes you nervous. But it’s not only you, everyone lacks this confidence at first. And what’s worse, you never completely get rid of this feeling! Personally, I’m still a little nervous even when I’m ordering a pizza on the phone. However, you do learn how to handle it.
Let’s handle this.
1st of all, there is no way around good preparation. If you want to make a good appearance, you have to invest enough time in writing your speech, learning it and practising it. What amount of time is enough? Whatever amount it takes to come to the point where you are impressed by your own speech. Even if it’s a lot of time, don’t worry, because this is going to be your basis and as you learn and gain experience, the time you need for preparation decreases.
2nd of all, convince yourself. Are you the right person to deliver this speech? Can you do it? If you don’t think that the answer is yes, neither will the audience. Find arguments to persuade yourself that you got this. You have practised enough, you are familiar with the topic, you have a charming smile, you have a pleasant voice… Whatever it is, give yourself a pat on the shoulder and tell yourself how great you are. Trust yourself, you are.
3rd of all, know that (in most cases) the audience is on your side. They gave you their time and their attention, hence they would like a good speech. This means – they want you to do well! You and the audience are a team, so don’t fear the pressure from them, but go on and try your absolute best; find ways to work with them and they will appreciate it more than you think.
4th and final of all, accept the nervousness. Tell Mr. Nervousness that you’re fine with him. If he isn’t fine with you, he can freely go anywhere he likes. If Mr. Nervousness decides to stay, see how you two can make the best of the whole thing.
Basically, it’s like this: You’re almost always going to be nervous at the start of a speech. Your gestures will be little restricted, your voice slightly shaky and your breath somewhat short. But even as you speak, know that it will go away in a minute or two. Just hold on and perform as you had practised at home. Soon you’ll see you got this under control, or even better, that you’re doing quite good. And then just relax, speak and enjoy.