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Essential Speaking Skills
All about the art of public speaking.

How do I start my speech powerfully?

Last week, I wrote a rather long self evaluation on my recent talk at Singapore Polytechnic: "Learn by reflecting on your experiences". One of the dilemnas I had at that talk was whether to thank or not to thank the audience at the introduction. If you recalled, a large portion of the audience was made up of senior lecturers who are much more experienced than me (i.e seen more of the world than me). As such, I am fearful that if I did not set them up correctly by letting them know that this is a sharing more than a lecture, they may be resistant to what I have to say. There may be internal conversations like “Why should I listen to this young punk?” or “I already know everything that he is going to say”.

Not withstanding the fact that this fear of mine could be unfounded, there are many people out there who wonder how they should begin their speech. Should they first thank the audience before starting? How much time do they need to warm up the audience? What are some ways to create a listening?

Over the week, I did some research and even conduct a mini experiment through a talk in the weekend. I believe my findings would be able to shed some light to you and answer this fundamental question - How do I start my speech powerfully?

::Common Ground - We want to create an impact with our speech!::

Firstly, let’s establish a common ground. When we give a speech, we want to create an impact! We want the audience to be memerized. We want them to remember your message (and to remember you as well… in a good way of coz). We want to wow the audience and influence them to do what you want. We want them to talk about your speech even months or years later. But if we were to start our introduction with pleasantries like thanking the audience or telling them how happy you are to be here, we could be wasting precious minutes and reduce your impact. So there is no doubt about it. YOU GOT TO MAKE AN IMPACT RIGHT FROM THE START! Unfortunately, thanking the audience, acknowledging some people, telling unrelated stories (eg. how you got here), telling them how excited/nervous/anxious you are or asking irrelevant questions like how are you feeling today will not do the trick.

Then the challenge is this - How can you make your audience WANT to listen to you right from the start? In my case, how should I write my introduction such that even the senior lecturers WANT to listen to me and be engaged throughout the entire speech. Here are some pointers I discovered over the week.

1. Be sincere

Nothing beats being sincere. If you speak with the intent of making a difference to the audience or adding value to them, you will win the audience over effortlessly. Unfortunately I cannot teach you how to be sincere. It is something intrinsic. However, you can start by answering these questions.

Why am I giving this speech?
What can the audience get out of my speech?
What is it about my speech that is different?

Another effective way to invoke sincerity is by sharing personal anecdotes that relate to your message. Not only does it help convey sincerity, it also connects your audience by pulling at their heart strings!

Last weekend, there was a student speaker who was sharing about his experience in Stockholm. There wasn’t really a proper intro. He just went straight into his mini anecdotes but it worked very well! The anecdotes were real and funny and he effortlessly engaged the audience. That’s the power of stories!

2. Set up common ground right from the start

You need to show your audience that you are on their side and one of the easiest way is to set up a common ground. Talk about something that they can relate to. For example, “Terrorism is real and anyone of us can fall victim to these threats” or “Cancer is the number one killer in Singapore. We know it but how many of us did anything about it?” In my case, since the audience are made up of entrepreneur-wannabes, I may want to say something like “Everyone wants to be an outstanding entrepreneur these days. But why you?”.

Also notice my last two examples. Not only did I start with a common ground, I have also included a rhetorical question that sets the audience thinking. This technique (use of rhetorical questions) will make it easy for you to transition into the main message.

3. Disarm your audience right from the start

This is especially useful and even critical for a persuasion speech. Here’s a few:

Many of you think that you know everything but the truth is you know nothing…
We are all going to die.

If you have a good life, you are going to die. If you have a crappy life, you are still going to die…

The world is getting smaller, which means more competition. There are two implications to this trend. One, we have to get more sophiscated and two, we have to keep growing. However, the traditional means of education is lacking. There is so much information out there yet we are not learning fast enough; and worse, not at the critical areas… Are we doomed?
Looks like it… but there is a ray of hope!

For all three examples, I played with the audience’s fear. One, they know nothing. Two, they are all going to die. Three, they are doomed. When properly delivered, it breaks the audience’s defense and immediately creates a listening. In their heads, they are screaming for you to deliver them from their fears. For some of them, it may create doubt in themselves (Hmm, do I really know nothing??) which gives you an opening. Of course, if you do not have strong points to support the shocking statements you made earlier, you are going to lose the audience anyway.

4. If you must thank them, do it in the middle

My communication lecturer once taught me NEVER to thank the audience at the end of my speech. Because being appreciated is not what we want to the audience to take away, especially when we spent an hour or more persuading the audience to take a stand or shifting their paradigm. Instead of thanking them at the end, she recommended us to include a call for action.

During my last contest speech in States, I made her proud by following her advice. Instead of a typical “thank you”, I left my audience with a quote that reinforces my message that we have to let go of their fears to live fully. I stood on a chair (I did it in the introduction too when I shared with them my rappelling experience) and looked them in the eyes and said this: “Sometimes you have to let go to see if it is worth holding to”

But how about thanking them at the start? If you have realized by now, it is a no no. I later learnt that if you must thank them, do it in the middle. Why you may ask? Coz at the start, the audience knows that you are compelled to thank them. And when you do thank them, it sounds like flattery whereas the same thanks in the middle sounds like sincerity! I wasn’t sure if that was true and hence I did an experiment.

The experiment took place last weekend. I was invited to do a 15 mins sharing as the past president of SPIN (an entrepreneurial organization in Philadelphia). My intent was clear - to acknowledge the efforts of my seniors from the past five batches. To begin with these acknowledgements seem to a natural thing… until I stopped myself. I decided to try something else - insert the acknowledgements at the middle. The introduction went like this:

SPIN has been through a lot… (received applause)

I still remember last year Stella, the 5th batch President gathered all of us and passionately shared with us the vision of SPIN; and how we can make a difference. At that moment, seeds were sown.

Shortly, my batch took over. We gathered all the juniors and passionately shared with them the vision of SPIN; and how they can make a difference. At that moment, seeds were sown.

As I am speaking right now, the juniors are gathering their juniors and passionately sharing with them the vision of SPIN; and how they can make a difference. At that moment… (some of the audience complete the sentence for me - “seeds were sown”)

If you were to trace back to the founding of SPIN, you will realize that this process is repeated for every single batch. Today, I will not have been able to share with you the fruits that SPIN is bearing if not for every single one of them who sow the seeds…

Thank you seniors!

The result was clear. It was short and yet impactful. Not only did I engage the audience immediately (with the applause and having someone fill up my sentence), it was different. Not your usual thank you speech. It has a story. It brings people back to the making of SPIN. It has a lesson… AND I still get to thank the seniors. In fact, such an introduction made the acknowledgements even more meaningful. I had the seniors thanking me for the speech after that.

So here you go, start your speech powerfully with the above four pointers and you will be remembered!

5. Finally, if you have to include pleasantries in your introduction, please avoid cliches at all cost!

For example:

It gives me great pleasure to be here today.
Thank you for inviting me here.. I am so excited!
A very good evening to all of you…

Not only is it boring, you will be perceived as lazy because you won’t even put in extra effort to come up with a more interesting introduction.

Winston Churchill once said “Opening amenities are open inanities” By starting with something pleasant but unoriginal, you will sound dim and dull, which is 99% of all speakers out there. Ok maybe 98.5%. However if you want to stand out and impact your audience, drop all the cliche introductions and pleasantries. Start with a power opener and make your intro count!

“How do I start my speech powerfully?”