Last month’s newsletter focused on how to write a powerful closing. One question you may have asked yourself when reading it was, “How do I write a powerful opening?”
The first and last sentences are the most important sentences in your speech. The first sentence grabs your audience’s attention and sets the tone for the entire event. In fact, the audience forms its first impressions of you as soon as you walk on stage – or, in a meeting, when you walk into the room. The first sentence can make the audience sit up and take notice or, as commonly happens, finish up those last few emails on their digital device.
Before you write your opening sentence, you have a few things to do:
Identify the context of your speech. What time of day will it start? What will be the audience’s state of mind? Who will speak before you? The answers give you valuable data as you decide on your speech opener.
Identify the emotion of your speech. How do you want people to feel after your speech: Inspired? Outraged? Excited? Your opening should build towards that feeling.
Leave the Thank You’s to the end. Many people start with acknowledgements, which may be a generally accepted practice in your organization, but it’s not a good way to capture people’s attention. I like to include my acknowledgements toward the end so that I can start with content rather than formalities. Of course, you can always thank the person introducing you.
Write your speech first. I write the opening and closing sentences only after I’ve written (or drafted bullet points for) the speech itself. That way, I make sure that the opening/closing sentences reflect the content of the speech.
With that in mind, here are some powerful speech openers.You’ll notice they are similar to the speech closers I recommended last month.
- Surprising Statistic: A terrific way to capture the audience’s attention is with a startling number or fact that makes the audience sit up and listen. For instance,Over 50% of our customers are unhappy with our customer service….
- Story or Anecdote: Tell a personal anecdote or client story to illustrate the importance of your subject. Don’t say, I’m going to start with a story. Simply start the story, The year was 2003, and it was my first day on the job…
- Inspiring Quotation: Find a short quote that captures the feeling you want the audience to have and puts them in the right frame of mind. Andre Gide said, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore…”
- Prop: In the film Up in the Air, George Clooney employs a great speech opener when he opens a backpack on stage and asks, How much does your life weigh? Watch that speech here. It’s also a good example of visualization as an audience engagement technique.
- Match the closing sentence: Ideally, the opening and closing sentences should relate to one another in meaning and intensity. I often write the two sentences at the same time to make sure they match. You could actually use the same quote in the beginning and at the end to emphasize your message.
A few other tips:
Connect with your “Why you?” before you begin. When you are passionate and authentic, you are fulfilling your potential as a powerful speaker. Before you begin, ask yourself “Why you? Why is this subject important to you?” That sense of purpose will naturally infuse your energy, presence, and intensity throughout the speech.
You are “on” before you walk on stage. Don’t wait to get on stage to look at the audience and smile. Put yourself in the speaker’s frame of mind before you get up out of your chair or before you walk into the room. Before you enter the room, do some breathing and stretching techniques to center yourself and give your voice strength and resonance.
Smile, pause, and breathe before you begin. You can take a moment to look at your audience and smile before starting to speak. Silence at the beginning of a speech is better than trying to “fill” the silence with filler words. Avoid phrases like, “So…yeah” or, “Um, OK;” these words detract from your message and credibility.
By using the above techniques, you will create a powerful first impression from the moment you step on stage, into the boardroom, or even right before you speak up on a conference call. You will capture people’s attention and they will listen.