disarming audiences

How You Begin a Speech Determines When It Ends

Without a powerful beginning, a speech or presentation may end – at least for the audience – sooner than when a speaker stops talking.

Without a powerful beginning, a speech or presentation may end – at least for the audience – sooner than when a speaker stops talking.

How a speaker begins determines when his or her speech ends for the audience. A weak or wobbly opening can send your audience to their smartphones in a nanosecond.

First impressions matter – a lot, but strong beginnings to a speech or presentation doesn’t just happen. They must be imagined and created. And, if you really want to make a strong impression, tested and practiced.

Brad Phillips, who specializes in communications training, has written a book titled 101 Ways to Open a Speech that offers suggestions of how to “grab your audience from the start.” He shared five of the 101 ways in his blog.

While some openings will work well, others may not suit your speaking style or fit the occasion. But the real lesson is in finding a strong opening that connects you and the audience and gives them a reason to keep listening.

Tommy Thompson, while serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services for President George W. Bush, visited Portland and spoke at the City Club. He began by stepping forward from the podium and recognizing people in the audience who had met with him or led him on tours during his Portland visit. The simple gesture of friendliness created instant rapport. People, including me, noticeably inched forward on their seats to pay attention to what he said in his speech.

Making an instant connection with an audience may be the simplest way for speakers to make a positive, inviting first impression.

Phillips suggests a similar idea that is often tried, but can fall flat or backfire – asking the audience a question and a show of hands response. Some questions seem canned; others come off as patronizing. But compelling questions, Phillips says, arouse interest. His example: “If given a choice, would you rather be blind for the rest of your life or obese?”  That’s probably not a question most people have faced, but the choices are familiar enough to get their minds engaged. The speaker has created a platform to dive into his subject (research showing seven out of 10 women would prefer blindness to obesity, suggesting vanity trumps practicality.)

Disarming an audience can be an effective way to launch a speech. Phillips says that could involve turning good advice on its head, such as don’t overload your speech with too many statistics, an admonition I preach in my media training sessions. He notes Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s opening that stacked five statistics on top of one another for a desired effect.

"The numbers tell the story quite clearly. A hundred ninety heads of states, nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15, 16 percent. The numbers have not moved since 2002, and they're going in the wrong direction. Even in the nonprofit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women, women at the top, 20 percent. We also have another problem, which is that women face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment. A recent study in the U.S. showed that of married senior managers, two-thirds of the married men had children and only one-third of the married women had children."

Perhaps the best idea Phillips shares is also the hardest for most speakers and presenters to achieve – the sound bite. He cites the 1980 presidential campaign pitting President Jimmy Carter against GOP challenger Ronald Reagan, who knew how to stir up a crowd. With the candidates deadlocked at 39 percent each, Reagan began to separate himself from Carter when he offered this definition of the dire economic conditions facing Americans at the time:

"[Carter's] answer to all this misery, he tries to tell us that we are only in a recession, not a depression. As if definitions, words relieve our suffering…If it's a definition he wants, I'll give him one. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

You know who won the election.

There is a lot more to a great speech than the beginning, but without a powerful start, the rest may not matter.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.