Start with a Bit of Wit
“A little levity will save many a speech from sinking,” observed Samuel Butler, the nineteenth-century British novelist. Applying it right at the beginning will break the ice. The audience may be uneasy about the subject you are going to address, and you can dispel the tension with laughter. They may be skeptical about your credentials, and you can make them more receptive by being likable. Or they could just be bored after a series of speeches and need to be perked up.
The opening jest does not need to be professional grade. If the audience does not know you, expectations will be low, so the first joke may get a better reaction than later attempts at humor. But you want to put the most thought into this one because any misfire will make it more likely they will tune out from that point on (which is why some speakers warn against putting humor up-front).
An amusing anecdote is a proven crowd pleaser at the beginning of a speech. Keep it short, so that you get to the punch line before attention wanders. If you can localize elements of a standard tale, you are likely to get a stronger response — a cop becomes the city's police chief, a generic congressman becomes their representative.
Funny definitions can get laughter from almost any group. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil's Dictionary, defined an egotist as “a person of low taste, more interested in himself than me.” Contempt, he said, is the feeling of “a prudent man for an enemy who is too formidable safely to be opposed.”
Self-deprecation also works well as an opener because it shows you have the confidence to have the audience laugh at and with you. Abraham Lincoln was berated by a debate opponent as being a two-faced politician. Lincoln's opening response was, “Friends, I ask you, if I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”
Study the opening lines of other speakers (not comics) and make notes about what types of humor received the best response. You can convert their approach into openers for your speeches.