Where to Start a Speech
Most presenters ask advice about how to start a speech.
In no particular order, here are some ways to begin a speech or presentation:
- Tell a story.
- State a surprising statistic or unknown fact, as long as you can back it up with a reliable source.
- Ask a challenging question, not a self-serving or obvious one.
- Make a bold and contrarian assertion.
- Refer to a current event, as long as you keep in mind that current, these days, means really, really recent.
- Use a quote, if your audience hasn’t already heard it a gazillion times.
But there’s another question, one that rarely gets asked. And it’s this: where do you start a speech?
Anton Chekhov, the 19th century master of the short story and drama, was once asked by a nephew how he knew where to start a play. He replied: “Take your blue book and tear it in half. Begin there.”
I think most presenters could take their scripts, outlines, or slide sets, and delete much of the beginning. It’s probably an exaggeration to say they could eliminate half, but they could greatly improve their talks by cutting the first quarter or third.
I don’t just mean that you should ditch the opening pleasantries — “I’m so happy to be with you today…” “What an honor it is for me to be addressing you…” “You’re such a great group of people…” (Churchill called such statements ”opening banalities.”) You should ditch opening pleasantries.
I mean that you should also cut most of your introductory or background information.
If you’ve done your homework and if you’ve researched every possible aspect of your subject matter, your greatest temptation will be to share it all with your audience. Don’t do it. You’ll either overwhelm them with information or bore them. Or both.
And don’t build step by incremental step up to your dramatic moment or insight. Start there. Start with the drama or the insight. Then you can always fill the audience in on how you got there — if, and only if, they need to be filled in.