Open your speech, and make it marvelous

Grabbing audience attention is key; starting your speech is one of the most important aspects of speaking. Here’s how to nail it.

It boils down to this, you give them a gift.

“That sounds expensive. I don’t have an Oprah budget!”

The intro to your speech needs to make people happy, that’s the gift. There’s a ton of ways to do this, I’ll cover some of my favorites, but the question you have to ask is:

Key Question: “For this particular audience, how can I make them feel happy to hear me speak within 30 seconds?”

Depending on your audience, you then choose one or a combination of the following methods:

  1. The One Liner
  2. The Short Story
  3. The Interaction Spike

The One-liner

The one-liner is my favorite. Not only can it fit in any speech duration and wide array of audiences; the one-liner can be compounded with other openers and even more one-liners.

Because of its power, it’s also one of the hardest to create. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be on topic, and that’s what helps. Here’s one of my favorites for warming up any room.

“My father always said, ‘If you’re about to speak to a room of people, and you want them to listen, start off with a quote from me’, …thanks Dad!” — Gant Laborde

That line gets people laughing, and most importantly, listening, every time. I generally keep a small arsenal of these on me. Warming up the audience is your gift to them, so make sure it’s quality. One fantastic one-liner is better than 8 mediocre ones.

If your speech isn’t funny or humorous in nature, consider a shocking statistic that they can remember and repeat.

More people die every year taking selfie pics, than by shark attacks….

By your audience’s reaction, you’ll if know your statistic is a hit. Plan on a nice pause after you declare your one liner. It’s easy to roll right over a statistic. A good one requires a pause.

The variety of one-liners is as wide as human thought. You can work just about anything in, if you’re clever. You may be tempted to gravitate towards quotes, but those serve better at the end, not the beginning, and DON’T YOU EVER! EVER! begin with a boring definition opener ( i.e. “The Webster Dictionary defines X as Y, blah blah blah”). Openers are like vacation photos, if you don’t really care, then your audience really doesn’t care.

With just a little time, you can have a list of friendly one-liners which you can pepper in to strengthen your introduction.

One-liner PROS: Easy, powerful, and friendly with other openers.
One-liner CONS: Does not repeat to same audience well. Requires pre-work and practice.

The Short Story

Stories are one of the most personal ways to grab audience attention and start building traction. Something deep inside us can tell when a good story is about to be told, and we respond by surrendering our complete attention.

A speaker can gather attention, and via passion, direct it towards the point of the speech. The longer the story, the more the audience is invested. To extend your story, there is a balance.

An excellent story teller is like a snake charmer; their focus, rhythm, and body language need to be perfect to keep us in attentive dance. Should they stumble or bore us, they will suffer the bite of our vacating attention.

Stories have to do with our speech either metaphorically or directly, the connection is loose. Do not begin a story by telling them you’re going to begin a story, use your cadence and language to infer a story is about to be told. The longer the story, the better the relationship we’re building, but at the risk of losing our audience or our point. The key to holding attention in our story is to make sure the audience has to work for it, just enough. Baking a story requires balance between clarity and mystery.

Clarity: When someone basically spells out what is going to happen too early instead of foreshadowing it, the story loses hold. Children usually commit this sin and adults pretend to be surprised at the end of a story that could have been told in a quarter of the time. If your story is perfectly clear, people still listen, but they fade quickly.

Mystery: The other sin is making your audience work too hard for you. Mystery cuts off the oxygen to your story. Audiences will only follow these stories so far. How far depends on numerous external factors that you can’t control, so it’s key you maintain the flow yourself. That flow is the happiness gift. It’s called suspense.

Hitchcock knew about suspense and he relied on it. He’s one of the most famous story tellers of the past century. Give your audience just enough, to keep them in suspense.

The next time you watch one of your favorite films, focus on how it gives you suspense. What did they do so masterfully, that made you stare unblinking for an extended amount of time?

When telling your story, use rhythm, use suspense, and be passionate!

Short story PROS: Connects your audience and builds an immediate relationship for you and your speech.
Short story CONS: Requires story-telling talent that can take time to develop. Stories don’t fit in short-speaking opportunities, only medium to long.

The Interaction Spike

I’m a believer! I believe in the Interaction Spike, but only after seeing its power before my very eyes and being bewildered by its result. An interaction spike is when the speaker causes the audience to become part of the speech. The reason I added the word “spike” is because it’s not a simple question, it’s something that reaches out and really grabs your audience. Let me preface this with explaining that speaking is affected by countless invisible hands, from the temperature of the room, down to the breakfast each person had (or didn’t have). Interaction, done properly, aligns an audience with the speaker.

The First Interaction Spike I Ever Noticed

It was hour 3 at the theater and the closing act comedian took the stage to finish the show after 2 terrible comedians before him. The audience was in silent agreement that the best of the show had gone by, and we were all pretty “done”. The first 5 minutes of the closing set falls flat, and I start to plan how I’m going to exit the room. As if he could read everyone’s mind the comedian says “I’d like to do my dance for you”, and then instructs us to all clap in a specific rhythm. This change of pace was eagerly accepted by the crowd and intrigue rose. As we all clapped this simple but addictive beat, the comedian danced to it… terribly. We expected it to die quickly, but he just kept dancing, and we kept clapping. At some point his dance went from terrible to just OK, and we all broke rhythm into applause. After that he resumed his act and the room laughed for the next 45 minutes at the rest of his set. I knew something magical had happened.

As it turns out, public speakers have been doing this for ages. You use interaction to break the mold and the 4th wall. The key part is the mold breaking, that excitement is the gift. A good usage is asking the audience a question, but great would be “Everyone who has ever X, please stand”. Then escalating, “Look at all these people who X! It’s something that touches all of our lives.” Once aware, I would notice this practice often. I remember one keynote speaker threw a ball into the audience and then had them throw the ball to someone else. He then used information from these two to fill an example in his speech. From the second he threw the ball, everyone had to be attentive! Could you imagine how exciting it was to be in that audience? Now imagine, he had just said, “Excuse me this one person in front, what do you do for a living?”

Break the mold with your audience. Ask them to close their eyes, stand, or look to the person on their left. That guidance is a power granted by the stage and when used properly ensnares attention.

Interaction spike PROS: Frames the speaker and speech. Great for invigorating any audience you directly address.
Interaction spike CONS: You don’t always have a stage or a live audience to utilize this skill.

Starting a speech right is key. If you have examples of any of the above, please leave them in the comments. As well as any questions or requests.

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About Gant Laborde

Gant Laborde is President of his Advanced Toastmasters Club, Technical Lead at Infinite Red (⚙ web and mobile consulting ⚙), published author, speaker, adjunct professor, and mad-scientist in training. Read the writings of Gant and his co-workers in our Red Shift publication. If you’re looking to discuss nerdy tech or psychology, he’s all ears. View half-witty half-groan technical tweets with @GantLaborde on twitter.

Software Consultant, Adjunct Professor, Published Author, Award Winning Speaker, Mentor, Organizer and Immature Nerd :D — Lately full of React Native Tech

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