Mediocre speakers waste a precious opportunity when they start talking without saying anything. And if you go to many meetings or conferences, you hear that a lot, don’t you?
Your listeners are most likely to remember the first thing you say (primacy) and the last thing you say (recency). So naturally, you want to open and close on a high note.
What makes for a strong opening? Here are some possibilities.
- A Story. Probably a personal story with emotional content and sensory language – the idea is to paint a vivid picture so you bring your listeners into the experience with you.
- A Startling Statistic. Depending on the subject you speak about, you might have a number that surprises people or sets the stage for your point of view.
- A Strong Statement. This may be your point of view. It could be a powerful position attributed to someone else that you’re going to support or argue against.
- An Expert Opinion. This is especially useful if you’re going to take a contrarian view and explain why the expert is all wrong. It can work well for people who speak about wellness and nutrition, for instance, because there are so many expert opinions that contradict each other.
- A Challenge to Conventional Wisdom. When “everybody knows” something that turns out to be wrong or at least open to question, you have a great set-up for your talk.
- A News Item. If a celebrity couple just split up and you’re speaking about how to have a long, happy marriage … that tidbit from the news is a perfect launch pad for you.
- A Question. Asking a question that makes the audience think can get you off to a good start – that means your question probably begins with “Why?” Be wary of the hackneyed. (“How many of you want to make more money?”)
- A Quote. As with the question, be careful with this one. Best not to trot out an old chestnut that puts people to sleep because they’ve heard it a thousand times. “Abraham Lincoln said, ‘Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.’” (Unless you’re going to take issue with it. If you’re ready to say, “Honest Abe was lying about that one,” you have a provocative opening.)
- Humor. Proceed with caution. Do NOT tell a joke. And obviously avoid humor that could be construed as racist, sexist, ableist or any other kind of –ist. You want to be provocative but not offensive.
A funny anecdote, however, is a great way to start a talk. Self-effacing humor can work well, especially for speakers who have a lot of personal power. Used badly, though, it can come off as a lack of confidence.
- A Flight of Fancy. “Imagine yourself with a line out to the lake of clients who can’t wait to pay you every penny you’re worth.” Let the listeners see an ideal situation in their mind’s eye … then of course you’re going to explain how to turn that imaginary scene into reality.
You could equally well ask people to picture something unwelcome. “Imagine yourself 20 or 30 years from now. You’re long-since retired, your savings are dwindling, and that Social Security Check doesn’t go very far.” Then offer them the keys to avoid that unpleasant scenario.
One last thing that can be woven into any of these openings. I’m a big believer in the word “you” as an attention-getter and an attention-keeper. When you launch your talk by making it about them, you’ll find they’re much more interested in what you have to say.
Once you’ve captured your audience’s attention with your opening, the next step is to maintain it. All you need is fascinating content delivered with power and presence.