Whether you jump up and down and scream “I love Elvis” or sing a moving song for your opening, there are really no rules about how to start a speech. Only one thing is certain: everyone will be paying attention for those few moments. You also want to be sure you have this part learned so well (not necessarily memorized word for word) that you do not have to look at notes. Following are some time-tested winning approaches.
“Lucidity of speech is unquestionably one of the surest tests of mental precision … In my experience a confused talker is never a clear thinker” — David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, 1916–1922.
Some books on introductions for speeches advise not telling jokes: if you fail, the audience will tune out, they warn. Poppycock: a humorous opening is often the best way to endear yourself to an audience, providing it is relevant to your topic (if it is just tacked on, it will have the opposite effect). As explained in Chapter 6, there are endless sources for jokes that can be customized to the occasion. But you do need to memorize the basic elements of the joke, if not the precise wording, decide what to emphasize and where to pause, and then rehearse it until you always get a laugh from your practice audience. Select well and practice well and there is no need to avoid humor right out of the gate.
Unless a quote is extraordinarily perceptive, it is always wisest to quote someone or something well known to the particular audience for your opening. The two most obvious sources (because familiarity often means wide acceptance of the sense behind the thought) would be the Bible (taking up forty-six pages in
The popularity of storytelling is evidenced in the public's thirst for movies. An anecdote to illustrate the theme of your talk taps into this for a perfect start. The mind remembers a story even better than a joke because a picture of someone doing something is more easily visualized. If it is a personal experience that underscores your knowledge of the subject, all the better. If the story has some dialogue, you could have fun mimicking the parties (no one will expect you to be a pro, it just makes your opener more attention-getting). For more tips on storytelling, see Chapter 4.
Why is voter turnout so low? Why are felons let out of prisons early? If you start with a sharp question, you are not necessarily asking for a show of hands: you are engaging the minds of the audience members to be curious about the answer you are about to provide.
It is fine to start by thanking your host for the opportunity to speak, but do not give a complete laundry list of everyone on the dais or it will put the audience to sleep as quickly as an Oscar acceptance speech. Move on to your real opening to grab their attention.
The Los Angeles high school graduation rate is only 44 percent and New York City's is 39 percent. Around 100,000 people die each year because of mistakes in treatment made in U.S. hospitals. A startling statistic will get the crowd to sit up and pay attention.
Audiences like visiting speakers who are not delivering the same canned speech everywhere, but rather show personal interest in the local culture. Start by making a reference to a sports rivalry, the work habits of the mayor, the extreme weather, an anniversary of importance, a local hero.
Talk about how you share the values of the audience: their passion for the second amendment's guarantee of the right to bear arms, your appreciation for the charity activities of the Elks, the fact that you grew up nearby. The transition to the body of the speech then ties together the opening remarks with the relevance to the main theme. “Now that you know I care deeply about these issues, let me tell you some of the conclusions I've drawn after years of study and experience in this field.”