How to Start a Speech Do’s and Don’ts

A speech’s introduction is its most important part.

If you lose your audience in the first 15 seconds to 2 minutes, you might as well pack your bags and go home. You’ll never — or almost never — regain their attention.

Here are some tips to help you get through the first few moments of your speech:

1. Do Memorize your First Sentence

For the first 10 seconds or so of any speech your mind is doing its best to fight off an anxiety attack. It’s not the time to be creative. Write out your first sentence or two. And memorize it. (By the time you’ve made it through those first daunting moments, your mind will begin to function again.)

2. Don’t Start with a Joke

Unless you’re a gifted comic, the chances of getting an audience to laugh at a joke right at the start are miniscule. Why invite disaster? Making some self-deprecating, humorous remark, on the other hand, is a great way to begin. (You can, if appropriate, tell a joke later in your presentation, after the audience has warmed up to you.)

3. Don’t Waste Time with Pleasantries

Winston Churchill called opening pleasantries “banalities.” Don’t tell the audience how happy you are to be speaking to them. Don’t tell them what a great group of people they are. Don’t acknowledge the dignitaries in the audience. It all sounds like so much hooey. (You can make similar comments later in your speech when they’ll sound more sincere.)

4. Do Jump Right In

Tell a story. Make a startling assertion. Ask a provocative question. Cite a brief quote or outrageous statistic. Whatever you do, just do it. Don’t introduce your introduction.

5. Don’t Apologize

“I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to prepare.” “Please excuse me, I’m not a very good speaker.” “I hope you’ll overlook my nervousness.” Apologies are either an insult to the audience or an invitation not to be taken seriously. Don’t put yourself and your insecurities up front. Focus instead on the audience and on your message.
The time and effort you put into crafting a powerful opening — whichever strategy you choose — will pay off. It will win you the audience’s attention, respect, and goodwill. And it will make you feel more confident.

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The Witt Communications Newsletter contains advice for improving your ability to present yourself and your ideas in a way that wins people’s cooperation. It comes out once a month. Subscribe here.

Also see How to Plan a Speech.

For information about how Chris Witt can help you become a more powerful speaker, contact us.

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