“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 listened to about love. Tell me that you aren’t curious about this speech now (I’ve given the link in one of the techniques below). This is why it’s important every speaker knows how to start a speech powerfully. It creates inspires curiosity, and tells your audience “This speaker is going to deliver value”
A speech opening is crucial when drawing your audience to you. It leaves a mark in the listeners mind. It tells them if they should listen further or not.
Every speaker has the capacity to etch that unforgettable memory in their audience – even if you are a beginner. It just takes the right guidance.
So if you’ve been opening your speeches with “I’m happy to be here today” or “Is this Mike on?” – here are 17 techniques that’ll help you stand out.
How to start a speech : The Foundations
You can find articles online with a number of opening techniques. Lists can range from 3 to a staggering 99. While some articles share great techniques here and there, I haven’t found a single one that condenses the principles of speech openings.
In this post I have categorised the best and unique techniques into three main categories. Under each I have given examples of how you can execute them and use them in your speeches in the future.
They are the foundations to speech openings If you know them, you won’t need to know another “New technique” to open a speech.
Even if you are planning to pitch your start up to investors, planning to start a YouTube channel, or dreaming of delivering your career changing TED talk, the effort you put in to your opening will take your speech very far.
Principle 1: How to start a speech with A Question
If you’ve ever studied public speaking, this should be the first technique they teach you on how to open a speech.
A questions 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.
There are many ways you can open with a question. Here are 4 techniques that can be used for any speech – along with examples of how to execute it.
1. The Open-Ended Question
This is the most simple, common and fundamental technique on how to start a speech. Opening a speech with an open ended question will always bring high engagement.
Here, you would 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.
If you want to inspire: make the question intriguing by appealing to the dominant emotion of your audience.
- 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 deliver an informative speech: make the question appeal to emotion or ethics, in the bounds of the topic you are going to discuss.
- 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 summarise the problem your product or service is solving
- 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?
2. “Raise your hand”
This technique is highly trending in the professional public speaking world, and speakers have used it enough that it’s cool no more. But, It doesn’t mean its ineffective.
The benefit of using this technique is that it immediately gets the audience to do something. It is engaging, especially in a setting where other speakers (after or before you) aren’t professionally trained. When every other speaker is focused on their power point slides rather than their delivery, you can use this to stand out.
- “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 actively. “How many of you” directs the question to a group, rather than directing it to an individual. But with the “Raise your hand” technique, you personalize this question. Rather than directing it to a group, the request now sounds like you are speaking directly to the individual.
3. The Startling Question
This technique, if executed well, can carry the weight of your whole speech.
This is where the speaker uses a rhetorical question that puzzles, alarms or amuses the audience. It should raise more questions, or throw the audience out of balance. They must be left wondering why you’ve asked them this question in the first place.
Typical reactions to such an opening should be “What?”, “Why?” or “Seriously?”
Following this startling question, you must go on to answer this mysterious question, step by step in your speech.
- Did you know that your probability achieving success depends on your genes?
- What if I told you that Google doesn’t really care about your information security?
- Where would you go if humans became extinct and you are the only person alive?
- Why aren’t people worried about aliens anymore?
4. The Multiple-choice question
Another advanced technique that can immediately engage your audience 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 technique includes Closed Ended Questions (questions that expect yes or no answers).
When asking your multiple choice, you must limit the answers to 2 or 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.
- 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 up 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 1000kSpeech ?
Principle 2: How to start a speech with a bold statement
If your first lines can amaze, amuse, or scare the audience – your speech will never be forgotten. This
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 with your audience.
This philosophy can be used to confuse or manipulate crowds with unsubstantiated statements. In fact there are many political leaders who’ve come to power by just making blanket statements that aren’t backed with facts.
But a few great speakers out there always substantiate their bold statements with evidence. They go on to become well respected in their field – so strive to become that.
5. A Startling statement
“I was almost a school shooter” is a line that can grab your attention in a whisk. Even if you are distracted with your mobile device, hearing that will make your head turn.
Check the speech over here
A Startling statement is where you say something that makes the audience immediately curious.
- 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). ~ Pamela Mayer
This is a prime technique of how to start a speech powerfully – because if you are able to intrigue you are able to inspire deep.
6. Surprising statistics
The key to picking a statistic for the opener, is to make sure that it is something that the audience would react to with a burst emotion. This can be amusement, laughter, or fear.
One more thing to remember when delivering a statistic is, you need to follow through with an analogy that people can relate to once you present it.
You’ll notice most speakers using statistics in an opening of a speech. But it is important to know how to start a speech powerfully with statistics. There are three techniques on how you can do this.
- “75% of black children in America are born out of wedlock – thats 50 black children born every single hour.”
- You can follow through by connecting it to the audience. lets assume the audience has 500 people. Your follow through can be something like this “By the time the sun rises tomorrow, there’ll be enough black children to fill all your 500 seats – born out of wedlock.”
- There are 19 ingredients in a McDonald’s french fry. There you were seated thinking you were just eating a fried slice of potato.
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.
What not to do: don’t begin with “Did you know…” this is an old and out dated method of presenting a statistic. So avoid it like the plague (or rather, the coronavirus)
7. The Social Proof Statement
The Social Proof statement is something that you mention to immediately gain the audience’s acceptance. A statement that proves that you know what the audience is going through – so that they will be able to relate to you.
A social proof statement is important speech opening technique when your audience doesn’t know you enough as an individual. Even if you have perfect credentials mentioned in your introduction – you must make sure that the audience relates to you. It immediately builds rapport with them and give them the opportunity to believe “if he/she can do it, why can’t I?”
- 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.
8. 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.
Take a look at how Craig Valentine uses a call back in this video. One of my favourite speakers who says that knowing how to start a speech with a callback can instantly get you from good to great as a speaker.
Who would turn down an opportunity that’ll get your audience laughing!
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.
9. The Innovative definition
Have you seen speakers redefine something you already know? 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
- 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 you make with the new definition. Presenting enough evidence to influence your audience to believe in this new and refined definition.
10. 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.
- 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.
Martin Luther King Jr. Knew exactly how to start a speech powerfully and inspirationally. He resonated leadership in every sense of the being. How can you do the same in your speeches?
11. 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.
- There are only 3 principles to opening a speech. Ask a question, make a bold statement, and opening with a story. Although they might sound simple, there are various techniques to use these principles in a unique and resounding way. That’s what I’ll be sharing with you today.
- I’m going to share three stories about my life that may help you with your future. One is about courage, one about love and the final about the power of imagination.
12. The activity
Looking for a completely unique technique on how to start a speech? A quick 2 minute activity in a speech opening can energize an audience in an instant.
If you are walking into a crowd that has been sitting through hours of monotony, here’s the technique that’ll make you stand out.
- “I want you to take out your phones, and count the number of applications with a blue coloured icon. I’ll give you 30 seconds…30 seconds later. Alright, now turn to the person next to you, and without looking at your phone, tell them what time it is right now… (Laughter). Why do we miss out on things when we are too focused on a goal?”
- “I want you to stand up… (Pause, wait for them to stand up). When I say go – turn around and change 10 things about you and turn back to your partner. GO (People will be startled at the request…wait for 10 seconds). OK, 10 things are too much, just change 1 thing and turn back to your partner. GO! (now they’ll feel more comfortable). OK now, turn back to your partner and notice whats changed. Please don’t remove clothing! (Humour). OK, turn back again, change one more thing and turn back to your partner”…Once they’ve noticed what is different, ask them to sit down. “What did you feel when I said change 10 things? Did it feel impossible? did it feel hard? (most will agree)…What did you feel when I said just change 1 thing? was it possible? When I said change 1 more thing were you able to do it? (they’ll say yes). If i told you to change one more thing 10 times, would you have done it? (They’ll agree). Then why do we try to change 10 things in our lives all at once, when we can just change one thing at a time?” – Excerpt from an activity done by Craig Valentine.
- Look at the person next to you. One of you will build a successful start up in the next 6 months because you’ll take action. the other one will be in the same place you are right now. Thats what statistic says – 50% of people don’t take action right away. Which one will you be?
Principle 3: How to start a speech with a story
There are three ways you can open with a story. But the key to have a successful opening with story telling is to tell a short and compelling story within the first 2 minutes of your speech.
I’ll be writing another post on how to tell a compelling story in one of my upcoming blogs. But here are some techniques to start.
13. A Personal Anecdote
- “It was a dark night in the winter of 2019.”
- 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
14. The Short Joke
A short joke can immediately release the tension of the audience.
- “A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of scotland, when he stops a bar to get a drink. The only people in there is the bar tender and an old man…” ~ Andrew Stanton – “The Clues to a Great Story”
Public speaking brings many benefits (in fact I listed 33 of them right here). Among them is the ability to influence and create an impact. With these 14 techniques, how would you change your approach to a speech opening? let me know.