how to start a speech

How to Start a Speech – a Definitive Guide

Opening

“I was almost a school shooter…In a moment of pain and anger I almost committed a terrible atrocity… My family was angry, violent and drug addicted… The bullies at school didn’t help either.” These lines opened one of the greatest speeches I’ve heard about love. Tell me that you aren’t curious about this speech now (Link to the speech shared at the bottom). Lines like this led me to a deep research on the techniques of how to start a speech.

If you ask me if you have what it takes to inspire an audience… you surely do. It has nothing to do with having an amazing story to tell or an innate talent to make an audience laugh or cry. It has everything to do with understanding what it takes to inspire an audience, and understanding how to speak from your heart.

Your first line will tell the audience if they should listen to you further or not. You want to stand out from the ordinary with uniqueness to your opening. This could change the complete emotional appeal you bring to your audience at the end of what you have to say.

But how many speakers, even to this day, begin with “I’m happy to be here today” or “Is this Mike on?”.

A sucessful Openning must be designed to rhetorically enthrall your audience. It is a subset of the most important skill among the 7 skills of a public speaker

The Principles of opening a speech

foundational principles to open a speech

There are enough articles you’ll find online with a plethora of opening techniques. Lists can range from 3 to a staggering 99 techniques. While some articles share great techniques, I haven’t found a single one that condenses the principles of speech openings.

In this post I have categorized all the unique techniques of how to start a speech into three basic categories. They are the foundations to speech openings. If you know them, you won’t need to know another “New technique”.

Even if you are planning to pitch your startup to investors, planning to start a youtube channel, or dreaming of delivering your career changing TED talk, the effort you put into your opening will take your speech very far.

1. Ask a Question that is immediately relatable

If you’ve ever studied public speaking, this should be the first thing you learn opening or how to start a speech.

A question is the most common, yet timeless art of opening a speech. Designed well, it can engage the audience immediately, stir up emotion, and build anticipation.

a. The Open-Ended Question

This is the most simple and fundamental type of question to open with. Here, you ask a question that the audience can immediately relate to while not expecting an answer from them.

There are three keys to design an open-ended question successfully.

Here are 10 techniques on how to ask a question at the beginning of a speech

If you want to inspire –  make the question intriguing by appealing to a person’s core emotions.

Examples

  • Will the 12 year old you, be proud of who you are today?
  • Why haven’t you started working as hard as you need to achieve your dreams?
  • When will you start that long journey in search of yourself?
  • When was the last time you felt you had control of your life?

If you want to inform – make the question appeal to emotion or ethics

Examples

  • Have you ever wondered what it is like to feel suicidal?
  • How many homeless people have you walked away from without even looking at their face, during the last week?

If you want to sell – have the question summarize the problem your product or service is providing

Examples

  • Have you ever tried to book an Uber, and got frustrated because it’s on Surge? What if there was a solution?
  • Wouldn’t it be great if there was a cure for laziness?
  • Have you always wanted to launch a business but never knew how?

b. Question expecting an answer

This is the opposite of the open-ended question described above. Such questions are direct and expect an answer from the audience.

To ask a question that pushes for an audience to answer, can be a double edged sword. That’s why you must fulfill the following before you can ask such a question:

–   The audience already knows you, and you don’t need to build rapport. Because your opening is your first impression to your audience, you want to make sure that you set the right tone. If the audience already knows you, and you’ve built strong rapport you won’t need to do it the 2nd time.

–   Only 30 people or below are in the audience. A larger audience will need a mike to be passed out, or you may not see someone raising their hand at the back. This can consume a lot of time and won’t be a great way to establish authority in your opening.

–   You are delivering a speech longer than 25 minutes. Because questions expecting answers can eat into your time since you will need to give the chance to a few people to answer. If your speech is below 10 minutes avoid doing this to save time.

–   The question is simple to answer. The last thing you want is to ask a question and hear crickets chirping.

"Raise your hand" technique as a speech opener
How to open a speech – “Raise your hand”

c. “Raise your hand”

Asking the audience to raise their hands if they agree on something. It is a highly trending technique in the professional public speaking world, and most speakers have used it so much that it’s not cool anymore. But, It doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Out of all the techniques on how to open a speech, this is probably one of the most engaging.

The benefit of using this technique is that it immediately gets the audience to do something. It is engaging, especially in a setting where the majority of speakers aren’t professionally trained. When every other speaker is prepared with boring power point presentations with monotonous information – you can use this to stand out.

Examples:

  • “Raise your hands if you have a dream in life”
  • “Raise your hands if you want to double your income in the next 12 months”
  • “Raise your hands if you ever wished you could kill your boss”

Wait. How is this a question? Isn’t a question supposed to end with a question mark?

That’s a great question. Thanks for asking!

To answer this, you need to realize the history of this opening – because it evolved from an ineffective opener that most ineffective speakers use (even to this day).

There are many speakers who use the following phrasing to open –

  • “How many of you have a dream in life?”
  • “How many of you want to double your income in the next 12 months?”
  • “How many of you ever wished you could kill your boss?”

The problem here is, the speaker does not address the audience intimately enough. It is directing the question to “Everyone” in the audience. But with the “Raise your hand” technique, you personalize this question. You’re asking the question from the individual rather than a group.

The most effective way to start a speech is when words and phrases are placed in a way that speaks to the heart of an individual. Ineffective speech design is when speech address the group while alienating the individual.

d. Start a speech with a Mysterious/Startling Question

This is an advanced technique to start a speech. Executed well it can truly inspire an audience.

A Mysterious question is where the speaker uses a rhetorical question – which is answered step by step along the speech. By the time you arrive at the conclusion your speech should essentially sum up the answer to the mysterious question.

Example:

  • -What if I told you that the probability of you achieving success depends on your genes?
  • –   What if I told you that Google had a highly guarded secret algorithm that can predict what you’ll search, buy or do next?
  • –   Where would you go if humans became extinct and you are the only person alive?
  • –   Why aren’t people worried about aliens anymore?

e. The Multiple-choice question

Another advanced technique that can immediately engage your audience when you start a speech is the multiple choice question.

This is a question that combines the “Raise your hands” technique while asking a direct question that can have one correct answer among a choice that you present. This includes Closed Ended Questions (questions that expect yes or no answers).

Ideally you should leave the number of answer choices between 2 to 3 – your audience may not remember more options than that. If you are using a power point presentation to display the answers, then you could go up to 5 choices.

Example:

  • Out of these companies, which one do you think is the most ethical in terms of data security? Is it Google, Facebook, or Apple?
  • You could follow this with “Raise your hands if you say its Google…” and so on for each answer.
  • Which state in the USA has the worst crime rate between New York, Chicago and Texas?
  • How much money do you think a beginner blogger make in his first year? Around 100k, around 10k, around 1000k?

2. Start your speech with a bold statement

Making bold statements is a quality of a leader. And if you are a speaker, making bold statements should be part and parcel of your personality. Because that’s what establishes your authority and gains the confidence of your audience.

Most speakers use this technique to balloon their persona. But the few great speakers out there always substantiate their bold statements with evidence

a. A Startling statement

use a shocking statement - Aron Stark 2018 Tedx "I was almost a school shooter"
How to open a speech – “The Shocking Statement”

“I was almost a school shooter” is a line that can grab your complete attention in a second. Even if you are distracted with your mobile device, hearing that will make your head turn.

A Startling statement is where you say something that makes the audience immediately curious.

Most of the viral TED talks use this technique

Examples:

  • I don’t want to alarm anybody in this room, but it’s just come to my attention that the person sitting to your right is a liar (pointing at someone seated in the audience)

b. Surprising statistics

surprising statistic as a speech opener joe smith 2012 tedx "How to use a paper towel"
How to open a speech – “The Surprising Statistic”

The key to picking a statistic for the opener, is to make sure that it is something that the audience would react to in a manner that helps the objective of your speech. If you are speaking about an informative topic this is a great way to start your speech.

One more thing to notice when delivering a stat is, you need to follow through with an analogy that people can relate to once you present it.

There are three techniques of how you can open with surprising statistics.

Singular statistic

Example:

  • The average CEO reads 1 book a week – or 52 books a year. (follow through) that is equivalent to getting a PhD every 4 years.

Compare two statistics

  • You have a 1 in 115,000 chance of being struck by lightening. But why is everyone worried about the 0 odds of dying while public speaking?
  • A 7 minute shower by an American consumes 63 liters of water in average. In Africa, the average person uses 43 liters of water per day for drinking, eating, and cleaning.

Rapid fire statistics

This is where you present statistics rapidly to startle the audience. The trick here is to keep it relevant and keep them coming at a pace that can be digested. Pause after each statistic presented.

Here are some great websites that have statistics that will surprise you

–   https://www.sheknows.com/living/articles/1023453/what-are-the-odds-21-statistics-that-will-surprise-you/    

What not to do: don’t begin with “Did you know…” this is an old and out dated method of presenting a statistic. Nobody likes clichés. So avoid it like the plague (or rather, the coronavirus)

c. Social proof statement

open with a social proof statement like Steve Jobs stanford commencement address
How to open a speech – “The Social Proof Statement”

The Social proof statement is something that you mention, which immediately gains the audience’s acceptance. A statement that proves that they will be able to relate to you.

A social proof statement is important when your audience doesn’t know you enough. It immediately builds rapport with them and makes them believe “if he/she can do it, why cant I?”

Examples:

  • I remember being in one of those seats 10 years ago, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, not knowing how I’ll pay rent the next month, scraping for pennies.
  • Truth be told, I have never been to college. In fact, this is the closest I’ve been to a college graduation. ~ Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement address opening.

–    

d. Call Back

barak obama using call back effectively as an opener
How to open a speech – “Call Back”

A call back is a statement you make to connect with something that happened prior to your speech. If done properly, this can elicit immediate humour in your speech.

You can call-back to

  • Something that happened while you were preparing for the event.
  • Something that happened during your travel to the event
  • Something the previous speaker said
  • An interesting thing that happened during the event you are speaking at, while you were waiting to be called to speak.

Take a look at how Craig Valentine uses a call back. One of my favourite speakers

e. Refute/Challenge or contradict a popular belief

f.  The Innovative definition

Have you seen speakers redefine something you already know? Well, that’s a great way to shift the paradigm of your audience. It’s a great tool to make the audience form a belief about something. Opening your speech with an innovative definition can really get their eyes open

Examples:

  • Google defines a teacher as “A person who teaches. Especially at school” but I think teachers are more than that. A teacher must be defined as “The third parent of a child”

Your speech must make sure that it defends this argument. Presenting enough evidence to influence your audience to believe in this new and refined definition.

g. The Promise

martin luther king jr. the promise
How to open a speech – “The Promise”

What is the key to a greatly inspirational presentation? It is the promise. The promise that your life will change for the better. There are enough people giving facts, figures and emotions to people. Not enough people give the guarantee that the future will be bright, because no one dares to predict the future – the person who dares to do so can inspire nations.

Example:

–   I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. ~ Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream” opening line. The promise that many from the demonstration against racial segregation are at a momentus occation which will be written down in history. And he was right about it. His promise did come true.

h. The breakdown

This is a very formal technique. Best suited for lengthy presentations. But done with succinct and powerful sentences can intrigue the audience.

The breakdown is where you introduce the objective of your speech and tell the audience exactly what you are going to talk about in their order.

Example:

–   There are only 3 things that matter when

Begin with a story

There are three ways you can start a speech with a story

1. Describe the time things take place

Example:

–   “It was a dark night in the winter of 2019.”

“In 1942, Albert Einstine was teaching at Oxford University…” ~ Paul Rulkens (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNGFep6rncY)

Also take a look at this Tedx Speaker with the speech title “I witnessed a suicide”- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mo_mgcxGYYE

2. Describe the character

3. Describe the environment things take place to start your speech

Andrew Stanton – “Clues to a Great Story”

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