Picture yourself at the front of the room, ready to share your expertise. The audience is eager to hear what you have to say. Here’s the thing. How do you begin?
The other day I heard a speaker start out by repeating everything the meeting host had just said when she introduced him. He literally went over the exact same information we’d just heard, wasting a precious opportunity to grab our attention. If you go to many meetings or conferences, you hear that kind of thing a lot, don’t you?
When you’re speaking, you should know that your listeners are most likely to remember the first thing you say – that’s the law of primacy. And the last thing you say—that’s the law of 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 that has some emotional content and sensory language – you’ll want to paint a vivid picture so you bring your listeners into the experience with you. When you tell your story well, it becomes their story too.
- A Startling Statistic. Depending what you speak about, you might have a number that surprises people or sets the stage for your point of view. My mentor, Larry Winget, was speaking about selling when he said 80% of sales happen after the customer has said “No” five times. It definitely got his audience’s attention. And paved the way for his point about persistence in the face of rejection.
- A Strong Statement. This could be your point of view. Or it might be a powerful position attributed to someone else that you’re going to support or argue against.
I sometimes begin a talk about how to introduce yourself at a networking event by saying, “Nobody cares who you are or what you do. Until you give them a reason to care.” The first part of that is an attention-getter. It can rub people the wrong way until I say they’re about to discover how to give people that reason to care.
- 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.
If all the marketing gurus are telling people to hammer away on social media, and you say it’s not worth the time and effort? You have a powerful way to open a talk.
- A News Item. I sometimes use the presidential campaign to illustrate a point about how we communicate and what we assume about people based on the language they use.
Say 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?”)
I sometimes recommend that my clients phrase their question as a statement. Here’s what I mean by that. Often when someone asks a question in a prepared talk it sounds phony and scripted and not at all like a genuine request for information. The way to get around that is to begin with something like, “I wonder if …” or “It could be that …”
You can explore the question then, but in a more natural-sounding way.
- 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.
For instance: “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, though. 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. If it’s used badly, though, it can come off as a lack of confidence and that won’t do you any good.
- 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 your listeners picture 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, of course, you offer them the keys to avoid that unpleasant scenario.
One last thing that you can weave 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 your audience. Their problems. Their goals. You’ll find they’re much more interested in what you have to say.
Maybe you’ve discovered a magical way to begin a talk. Or maybe you’ve heard a really lame launch. Share your observations in the comments below.