How to Open a Speech Powerfully (step-by-step with examples)
We all know a speech, or any article, is a composition of an introduction, body (points), and conclusion. How— you may ask, to write a powerful introduction? Ideally, an introduction should be around 10-15% of your speech duration. For example, you only have 5 minutes, so your introduction should not be longer than 45 seconds. This 45 seconds should include A.P.E.T.— (A)ttention, (P)urpose, (E)thos, (T)railer.
In our opinion, grabbing your audience’s attention is probably the most important. Failing to gain theirs, you will end up having them snoozed all the way when you speak or play Candy Crush on their phone. You will get many examples online how to give an attention-grabbing statement, but here are some methods we think is highly effective to draft a stimulating introduction:
When you have only a short time (depending on your context) to do your speech, don’t bush around the corner, and straight away tell the audience what this is about is a good way to begin. Richard St. John shows you how:
Tell the audience a very brief, short, but interesting real story or event to guide the audience into what you will deliver. The most common form of anecdote is referencing a recent event or news headline or a short story that the audience finds relatable because it happens almost on everyone. It helps to catch attention immediately because it is very likely that they have just read, heard, experienced, seen, or even talked about it. It can also be a very brief personal story. For example, Shauna Shapiro started the speech by talking about the power of mindfulness by briefly describing how she practiced meditation after she had spinal fusion surgery. It is a good trick to catch the audience’s attention on you:
An anecdote is useful because it is often more relatable as it happens in real life, hence easier for you to introduce a complex idea. As you speak, you can constantly refer back to the anecdote that you use in the introduction to remind the audience about the message you want to bring out in the anecdote.
Much longer than an anecdote. This involves telling the whole story in detail. It is effective because it is entertaining, and it can be used as an indirect way to build trust, compassion, and empathy. It will be amusing to watch with some acting, and it helps the audience visualize the whole situation. A story is powerful because it is a sequential reality that aligns with our linear nature of conscious thought. Whatever story you are writing, make sure it fits your purpose and keep it real without exaggeration. Louise Evans shows a great example by giving a personal story at the beginning of her speech about building a connection with her step-daughter in Milan:
Ask the audience some personal or interesting questions (but don’t be a sensitive question). This is a good way to engage the audience if you ask the right ones. It gets the audience to focus on what you are trying to say about them, and thought-provoking questions can lead them to keep listening as they are curious about what is next you are going to say. Watch this good example by Lucy Hone:
You use a metaphor to bring out your speech's central idea by directly referring to one thing by mentioning another. It provides clarity or identifies hidden similarities between two different ideas. “They say if you want to kill an alligator, you kill it right after it eats because right after it eats, it gets satisfied, and it goes to a phase like it’s almost paralyzed.” This is how Dr. Eric Thomas motivated the athletes not to feel too contented after a little success at the beginning of his talk.
Everyone likes to be entertained. Humor is one of the most important elements in a speech if you seek to persuade or entertain. It gets people to listen, increases memory retention, builds trust, and helps the audience to learn and understand. In our opinion, no one did better than Jim Carrey:
Reference to the occasion
If you are speaking during your brother’s wedding ceremony, referring to some people or events during the ceremony would grab the audience’s attention because you are talking about something or someone they know. Watch how Rebel Wilson made references by linking to events that the guests know in her speech:
You don't have to choose just one out of the seven ways discussed above. You can mix them and become your own recipe, as most speakers do.
After you grab the audience’s attention by giving an anecdote, a story, a question, metaphor, and/or some humorous statements, tell them why you are here, what is the message you want to bring, and the reason you think it might be useful for them. After some references made to the occasion (events or squirrels in the university), Denzel Washington made a purpose statement about why he is here and what he is going to talk about (starting from 6:41):
3. Ethos (Credibility)
Even if you are already a famous person, you can still establish your credibility to the audience. Most of us need to justify why we are an expert in the topic we are speaking about so the audience will listen to us. This is particularly true in an informative speech, and it is the reason why many videos or talks you watch often start by introducing their titles, how much work they have done, how many notable clients they have helped, or how many achievements they have made. This is to instill trustworthiness. However, we don’t really encourage you to start your introduction by boasting about your achievements because it will decrease your credibility as you are more likely to be perceived as a speaker who does not care about the audience but has personal agenda to fulfill. “According to my research on over 3000 speakers, these are their common traits…” or “During my last 10 years working as a nurse, I’d say that…” it is better for you to talk about it indirectly as you speak.
Another indirect way is to tell the story of how and why you are invited to talk on the stage, which is very commonly used by a lot of great speakers, especially on TED. Besides, you can also mention the other big names in your speech to establish credibility for yourself. In fact, the best speakers seldom talk about themselves. If you are really an expert and have good points while genuinely caring about the people’s welfare, the audience would feel it and trust you. Brené Brown, urging her audience to unleash the power by tapping into their own vulnerability, does not even have a full sentence to boast about who she is at all.
But we are still attracted by her speech and believe in what she says, aren’t we? The essence of instilling credibility is by genuinely care about the audience, and talk with your soul instead of your title. Also, ‘expert’ does not mean you have to be a researcher, a lecturer, or someone with a high level of the position. If you have experienced, done, and achieved something, you can increase your credibility by telling the story.
Have you watched a trailer before watching a movie? A trailer for the speech is a thesis, a preview statement that tells the audience what your topic is and what you will discuss. You are just letting them expect what the flow of your speech is. Here is Steve Jobs in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, where he clearly told the audience he would tell three stories, without saying what those three stories are about.
More importantly, you tell the audience why this speech/presentation will be useful and relevant. You need to answer the ‘Why’ to your speech— from their perspective.
Here is another great video by Vicky Zhao, Founder & CEO from Beeamp who shares her ideas on “How to articulate your thoughts effectively (like Steve Jobs)” that you can use in your introduction:
A good introduction should be attention-grabbing, concise, and clear, that lays a solid foundation for the upcoming section. After you write an introduction, read it through, so it feels natural to you to perform.