By perfecting your speech introduction, you will increase the effectiveness of your speech by 100%. In the first twenty-seconds of your speech, you can hit on the four ingredients of a truly excellent speech: attention, retention, connection, and reaction.
The importance of the Speech Introduction
Don’t underestimate how much a strong introduction will improve your speech or how much a weak introduction will harm your speech. It is the first chance for you to impress upon the audience what kind of speaker you are. And it is the only chance you have to frame the topic of your speech. A well-framed topic will resonate with an audience and help you meet your immediate goals. Finally, the speech introduction is key to maintaining attention throughout your speech.
The first twenty-seconds
The initial twenty-seconds of your speech is your first and best chance to win over the audience. It is during this time that you have the highest level of attention from the audience. What are you going to do with that high-level of attention? Are you going to turn down the lights and direct them towards a powerpoint? Will you start with, “Hello, my name is…?” Are you going to tell them thanks for showing up? Whatever you decide to do will play a major role in how the audience sees you and your topic for the rest of the speech.
There is no specific thing you have to do, but there are some things you should not do. Don’t do something expected. Doing something expected tells your audience that you and your speech is simply ordinary, and nothing you say will be different than other things they have already heard. A usual start is an invitation to your audience to unplug from you and plug into any of the other legions of distractions at their disposal. If you are ordinary in those first twenty-seconds, you will be ordinary for the rest of the speech in the eyes of the audience.
Ordinary vs Extraordinary
What is ordinary? It’s ordinary to start off by telling the audience what your name is. Welcoming them is ordinary. Thanking them is ordinary. It is not bad to do any of these things, in fact, you should do them. But you don’t have to waste your first twenty-seconds on them.
Focus on saying something extraordinary. Here’s an example: I had a student giving a speech many years ago who started exactly how I told him not to. About five seconds in a cell phone rings. This was when people used loud and obnoxious songs for ringtones. The speaker faltered, waited and began looking about the room. “Who’s phone is that!” he thundered. He began to, very loudly command the owner of the phone to turn it off. When it did go silent everyone in the room was very tense. He straightened his posture and composed himself before saying, “Cellphones going off at inopportune times is one of the most distracting and annoying parts of modern life.” The entire event had been a ruse for capturing the attention of the audience. He used his first twenty-seconds to do something unexpected and extraordinary.
You won’t always have the opportunity to do something so dramatic, but you can easily do something to draw the attention of the audience in those first twenty-seconds. One of the best ways to do it is to tell a short story or anecdote. Try to find stories that your audience has not heard before or that have unexpected endings. I think of myself as an anecdote collector. When I read newspapers, magazines, blogs, or anything else, I am constantly looking for stories and anecdotes that are interesting. I keep them in a file with short descriptions and hyperlinks to interesting stories.
I’ve collected stories about why bananas used to taste sweeter than they do now, villages populated only by the deaf, and Hannibal’s war against Rome. When I’m writing a speech I will go back and refresh my memory of all the anecdotes I’ve collected. I find one that suits my topic; then I find as many versions of that story as I can. I tell it and re-tell it to myself until it flows from my mouth as naturally as the story of how I met my wife. I make the story mine, and then I prepare to gift it to the audience. In return, they will hopefully gift me their attention.
Another type of anecdote is the personal story. The social penetration theory describes the process whereby relationships develop. The idea is that relationships develop via stages related to types of communication exchange. One of the takeaways of social penetration theory is that revealing personal information can make a relationship stronger. I think of the process of giving a speech as a process of developing a relationship between speaker and audience. It’s not the same as a friendship or romance, but it is a type of relationship. And the key to developing a relationship is sharing information about yourself. The first opportunity to do this is in your speech introduction. Depending on the situation, you may not want to make a significant, intimate disclosure, right off the bat, but sharing something about yourself opens the door to do that later.
Secondly, and just as important, humans draw naturally to stories. Beginning with any story is like supercharging the high amount of attention already granted to you in those first precious seconds.
Shocking Statistics and Facts
If you have no story to tell or want to do something even more different, you are in luck. There are many options available. The only caveat is that it should be unique and draw the audience into your speech. One favorite option is the startling statistic or shocking facts. These are bits of information that will either shock the audience because they are so much greater or smaller than expected. The best of these contradict what the audience assumes to be true. Here’s an example: “During Hurricane Harvey, 27 trillion gallons of water fell over Texas and Louisiana, that is one million gallons of water for every person who lives in Texas. Notice the statistic and then breaking it down into even more dramatic terms.
It’s always great to get the audience laughing, and a great opener is a nice place to start. But be warned, for every joke that you land four will miss. Are you okay if your opening joke fails? If you have the confidence to withstand your opening joke bomb, go ahead, because even trying to introduce levity can produce benefits for you from the audience.
Perspective by Incongruity
Perspective by incongruity pushes the audience to consider things from a new perspective by combining two things that don’t normally go together. I was once giving a speech about the benefits of losing, so I began, “I am the best loser…” The combination of “best” is not something we usually think of when we think of losing. The audience is naturally drawn in and wants to know what I’m talking about, so I followed this with, “I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way, in fact, I am the most confident loser you will ever meet.” Again, confidence and losing are not two terms that normally go together. I got a small laugh out of this, let the audience know the tone and topic of the speech, and planted an idea that I could build upon for the rest of the speech.
After you have utilized the first twenty seconds of your speech, you have a little more latitude in what you want to do. If you need to introduce yourself, welcome the audience, or extend any thanks, this is the time to do it.
Ethos was Aristotle’s proof that centered on character. We think of it as credibility, and it might be important to establish this here. Humans usually determine credibility in two dimensions: experience and education. If you have experience or training in something or the audience will think of you as credible. Some people have a problem talking about how qualified they are on a subject, but you should remember that you are asking the audience to trust you so don’t feel bad about giving them a reason to trust you.
Before moving to the body of your speech, make sure your audience knows what your topic is in a clear and easy to remember format. Remember that the audience can’t flip back to the beginning of your speech if they forget your topic, so make it easy for them to recall and for you to revisit. The standard format is a single, simple sentence. Here’s an example. If you are giving a speech about the need for healthcare reform,“Everyone deserves excellent healthcare,” or “Our healthcare system is sick and needs help now.” That last one was not a simple sentence, but it did use a metaphor that will help the audience remember.
The final part of a thesis sentence is the roadmap. A roadmap in your speech introduction is a preview of what you are going to cover in the body of your speech. Most often it is a preview of your main points, but it can also be a more general forward of what the audience can expect.
The conventional wisdom here is that you want to tell the audience what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. The initial roadmap is the first phase of that advice. I’ve wavered a bit on the importance of this last step. I do think it’s a fantastic idea to include a roadmap, but I also don’t believe that it ruins a speech if you don’t
A final word about your Speech Introduction
The speech introduction may seem like only one part of your speech. It may seem like an ornamental or unimportant part of your speech. But a great speech introduction can be the most important part of your speech. It can win the audience over and give you confidence to powr through the rest of the speech.