By Gordon Adams, Toastmasters International
To make your presentation fly, you need to capture your audience’s attention right from the start. That means you need an opening that engaging and full of impact.
Here are some different ways to achieve this:
Begin With a Quotation
If you want your presentation to carry extra authority, it can be helpful to open it with a quotation from a respected figure. For instance, you might open with: “Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.’ I’ve always believed that’s true: each of us has within us a vast well of untapped potential.”
Or have some fun by playing around with a learned quote. Offer your audience a fresh ‘take’ on a familiar quote. How about the following, as an example of this?
“Einstein once remarked that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ When I heard that imagination is more important than knowledge, I immediately felt a whole lot better about my schooldays. All the hours I spent in History lessons, gazing out of the window and daydreaming about my life as a professional footballer…”
Ask a Question
Many of the best speeches begin with a simple question. Why? Because a good question immediately engages your audience. It also provides your presentation with a simple structure. You have asked them a question and can then go on to answer it.
Clearly, the more interesting, intriguing and relevant the question you begin with, the more your audience will be engrossed by it.
Imagine giving a presentation on public health. You might begin with: “What living creature do you suppose has killed more humans worldwide than any other?” (The answer is not man himself; it is the mosquito, because it spreads diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.)
Best of all, you can ask the audience a question about themselves. What has been the most frightening moment of your life? If you could go back and change one decision in your life, what would it be? When was the last time you stepped outside your comfort zone? People are immediately interested in questions about themselves.
Posing a question to your audience sets the theme for your speech. You can then easily share some personal stories and learning points from your own life. Tell them about your most frightening moment, your worst decision or the time you were forced to venture far outside your comfort zone. Having asked them to think briefly about challenging moments in their own lives, your audience will more readily empathize with you.
An Intriguing Fact
An intriguing or startling fact can have the same effect as an interesting question. It wakes your audience up!
Using the example of the public health presentation: you might begin it with, “Tobacco has killed more people worldwide than the First and Second World Wars combined.” You can then go on to comment on ways public health can be improved and the important role of preventative medicine.
Whatever the subject you are speaking about, try unearthing a startling fact on this subject and opening your speech with it.
Tell a Story
People love to hear a story. It is particularly helpful if you can start your story with a dramatic incident. If you open it with: “I have never believed in ghosts, until recently when I stayed in a 17th century hotel that was rumored to be haunted.” If you begin by taking your audience straight into an interesting story, you can be pretty sure everyone will listen from that moment on.
If you have a dry and serious subject to talk about, your need for a personal story to enliven it is all the greater. Suppose you’ve been asked to speak about the economy and that your audience includes many economists. You might open by remarking that coming to speak about the economy to a room full of economists feels a little like venturing into the lion’s den. You can follow this up by saying you’ve never had a close encounter with a lion, but you did once have a scary moment with a shark. Then you can tell the story about your close encounter with the shark as an entrée to your subject and refer to that story several times during the presentation.
Surprise your Audience
Begin with the unexpected. For instance, I once began a speech with: “I have a confession for you tonight.” I explained that I belong to a group which is in a small minority within the population and that people like me have been persecuted over the ages. The room was silent. All eyes were on me. Everyone was listening intently. This was a speech about left-handedness and how, thankfully, we are no longer persecuting left-handed people as was the case in the Middle Ages. At that time, left-handers were sometimes accused of witchcraft and put to death. The opening led me directly into my key point: a plea for greater tolerance of those in our society who are different.
Refer to the Occasion
The date on which you are delivering your presentation will certainly be significant in some way. Look it up online as it may be the anniversary of a historical event such as the first Moon landing, a famous battle or the birthday of a famous figure. Or it may be a National Day of some kind, as most days are. Here, for instance, are just a few National Days in the UK: National Men Make Dinners Day, National Parents as Teachers Day, National Philanthropy Day and National Day of Listening.
Find a way to reference the occasion at the start and you can then weave that reference into the narrative of your speech or presentation.
Add Drama With Visual Aids
Using a visual aid dramatically can get your audience to sit up in their seats. Your visual aid might be your costume itself or some hand-held item.
One wonderful example of how to use a visual aid at start is in a speech by Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, the Toastmasters International 2014 World Champion of Public Speaking.
Taking a rose from his top pocket he explained that everyone is like a flower: each of us has something about us that makes us special. He then tore off the petals one by one, cracked the flower stem in half and threw it in a bin, as he spoke about how life can break us. At the end of the speech, after speaking about how caring support from others can put us back together again, he retrieved an intact flower from that bin. The right kind of visual aid can be gripping and act as an excellent metaphor that sticks in the mind.
This has been an article about how to begin your speech in an impactful way and hook audience attention from the start. In my experience, the most common approach is to begin with a question. Just make sure it isn’t: “is there somewhere I can plug in my laptop?”
With a well thought though opening your presentation will grab attention and your audience will listen intently.
Gordon Adams is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland.
Members follow a structured educational program to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit Toastmasters International. You can follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.