A few months ago, I interviewed a number of venture capitalists about public speaking as it relates to the hundreds of startup pitches they hear.
I asked, “What’s important to you in a pitch?”
There was one answer I’ll never forget. It came from David Wells of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Buyers.
He replied, “Within the first 8 words, I’ve decided whether or not to keep listening.”
I frowned for a second, unsure if I had heard right. Then I asked, “What are you looking for in those first 8 words?”
He replied (and I’m paraphrasing), “The core innovation. If it’s not in the first 8 words, it’s probably not there. That’s when I either stop listening or interrupt the speaker to ask.”
In a nutshell, it’s about having a strong opening line. It’s about grabbing your audience’s attention so that they put down their iPhones and listen. Entrepreneurs need to get to the point and distinguish themselves from dozens of others promising the next game-changing idea. But the rest of us can use it every time we speak in public.
Think back to your last speech. What was your opening line?
Maybe it was, “I’d like to, um, thank the organizers.”
Maybe it was, “It’s great to be here.”
Maybe it was, “OK, so…”
Boring. What can you say that really makes people sit up and listen? Maybe it’s a personal story, an unusual quote, or a counterintuitive statement. If you capture your audience’s attention early on, you are more likely to keep it.
When I write my opening lines, I think back to a book I read a few years ago called Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. Their theory of what makes ideas sticky, well, it stuck with me. They said that ideas with traction follow the SUCCESs model: they are Simple, Unusual, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories. Any combination of those descriptors would make for a compelling speech opener.
So how exactly do you write one? First, determine the goal of your speech. What do you want the audience to do or walk away with? Second, brainstorm possible openers related to that goal and related to your audience – from quotes to stories to statements – keeping the Made to Stick model in your head. Make a list, then put it aside and let your brain keep processing for a few days. Think about it when brushing your teeth or while driving to work, and finally it’ll come to you. Good openers are part preparation and part inspiration, and you need time for both.
The audience’s attention is the most valuable reward it can give you. But you have to earn it. Start with the first 8 words.
Allison M. Shapira teaches public speaking workshops in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Communications Program and consults to entrepreneurs, corporate executives, diplomats, public officials, and nonprofit leaders from around the world. She is a Boston World Partnerships Connector.