07July 2024

Public Speaking Tips for a strong introduction

Grab the audience’s attention!
And what does that mean?
Walk on stage naked?
That might work – but only for the first moment.
What are you going to do then?
What are you going to say next?
Much of social media and sensationalist marketing works on a crude principle – grab the attention in any way you can!
I recently read a headline about a celebrity which stated:
‘XXX beaten up and left for dead.’
It worked – I went to the article to discover – probably inevitably – that this was something that happened to them 20 years ago and they were not ‘left for dead’, they were mugged and had their wallet stolen.
Once I realised this, I felt cheated and lost interest.
One of the most famous tabloid headlines from the 1980s was:
‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster.’
a made-up claim about a popular comedian.
It achieved its aim – it got people’s attention.
However, if all you are doing is ‘crying wolf’ in rhetorical terms, to get people running over to hear you, relying on an unsupported ‘gimmicky’ opening will quickly lead to disappointment and frustration.
Any parent of small children will be familiar with the cry of:
‘Daddy, daddy look at me!’
…and you do - because you love them, but you know the level of insistence of the call will probably not be matched by the spectacle you are about to witness.
Therefore - Grab the audience’s attention…but then hold their attention!
Aristotle broke down the elements of a speech into a very simple ‘Three’:
Beginning.  Middle.  End.
The beginning is the introduction to the subject, a means of gaining the audience’s attention.
The end is the conclusion that offers the audience the message or point.
And the middle is quite simply everything in between.

Students of mine will know that I lay huge emphasis on the importance of the beginning:
on every level, in terms of delivery, in terms of structure, and in terms of content.
There are three simple openings for a short presentation:
(i)            a rhetorical question (which in reality is any question.  The act of delivering it at the start of a speech automatically makes it ‘rhetorical’)
(ii)           a strong statement (which might be a challenge, a quote, a maxim, a mysterious claim – anything that grabs the audience's attention.)
(iii)          a setting of the scene (which might be the simple telling of an anecdote or a reference to a time, a place, or a moment of realisation.)

Below I am going to give you five styles of introduction that you might want to consider when you are delivering a more substantial presentation than one where a simple:
‘Have you ever felt disappointed…?’
‘I thought I would die…!’ – or
‘The other day I was walking…’
are not enough for the weight of the material that follows.

With a more substantial opening not only will we want to win the audience’s attention, we can also use the opening to frame an argument, to acknowledge potential resistance, or to assert our credibility into context.

5 ways to style a powerful Introduction

  1. Introduction Inquisitive

You might be wondering:
‘Isn’t that a pompous term for a Rhetorical Question?’
It could be - the Introduction may conclude by posing a question, but it is a way of setting the whole presentation up in terms of a question that needs an answer.
So a talk on the state of the planet might be framed as:
Mankind is unique in the long history of this planet as the only living being that has been able not just to take control of its environment, but to go on to alter its environment.  From the development of pesticides to improve crop yields to the splitting of the atom to generate the energy to help run a modern, resource-hungry society – developments, behind whose immediate benefits, lurk forces beyond our reckoning, which far from aiding mankind, could lead to its ultimate destruction.  Isn’t it time for Homo Sapiens to wise up and take stock of the long-term consequences of his actions?

Often the scope of our presentation might seem wide-ranging and the opening words become an opportunity to lay out the topic and to focus on how we intend to tackle it.

  1. Introduction Paradoxical

Presentations need to be clear and offer a clear message.  A presentation that is too nuanced might lead to confusion.  You do not want to leave your audience wondering:
‘Do you want me to vote for you or not?’
‘Are you saying that man is guilty or not?’
‘Is he a great artist or not?
So we often talk in terms of ‘black and white’, ‘good and bad’, ‘praise or blame’
The use of paradox in the introduction takes advantage of these oppositions and further entices our audience by laying out a ‘baffling’ juxtaposition.
I could introduce my talk on the state of the planet in terms of:
How can it be that so many of the major scientific advances of the twentieth century dedicated to improving life on Earth could end up destroying it?

Simon Shama introduces one of the episodes in the documentary series of the ‘History of Britain’ with this introduction:
How was it that in little over a century the people who thought of themselves as
the freest on earth ended up subjugating much of the world’s population?
How was it that a nation that had such deep mistrust of military power,
ended up the biggest military power of all?

How was it that the empire of the free turned into the empire of the slaves?
How was it that profit seemed to turn not on freedom but on raw coercion?
How was it that we ended up with the wrong empire?

We could further analyse this introduction for its further use of rhetorical devices, rhythms and potential for dramatic delivery, but the overall intention of his opening, by setting out these paradoxes, is to inform us that he intends to use some form of comparison in developing his argument.

  1. Introduction Corrective

This is an ideal opening if you intend to counter some common preconceptions.
The subject in hand might have been misunderstood or even neglected.
Maybe I want to promote the old-fashioned art of letter-writing and could start with:
These days if I have a friend in Australia, I can simply get on Skype or Zoom and chat. - Right?
I have not spoken to my brother for a while – I can send him a quick email. - Right?
Surely a WhatsApp or a text is almost as good as having the person in the room next to you.
However – at the end of the call, what do you have – nothing – at best, an insubstantial fleeting memory?
It was only when I looked back over some of the letters that my wife sent to me before we were married, that I realised writing a good letter is a skill; it creates a permanent record that can be relived days, months, years later and those insignificant passing thoughts and observations can live with you forever.

  1. Introduction Preparatory

To use a sporting analogy, sometimes the pitch needs to be prepared before you can play on it.
This form of introduction is good for setting a context and for handling possible objections before they arise.  It can also deal head-on with any questions about the credibility of the speaker or what they are discussing.
A director, delivering a presentation on the authenticity of the TV series, The Crown, may want to start with:
Clearly there was no third person present at some of the conversations that we dramatise, and we cannot know what exact words were said, but based on reports of other interactions and the testimony of those close to the royal family, we have tried to make the text true to what we know about the character, and what we know happened as a result of the conversation.

In this way, we can start to handle any possible challenges to authenticity before they arise.

  1. Introduction Narrative

I remember a lady who worked in social services, who rather than formally introducing herself and her subject, started her presentation by describing a professional visit she had recently made. She simply narrated what she saw and what she did.
She instantaneously engaged the audience in a story, and in so doing she established her credibility in her field and used the story to highlight the theme of her subject for the day.

Every speech, every presentation is unique, so there can never be a rigid formula for an opening. However, once you know your subject, your audience and how your audience might react to you, you can use your introduction to prepare the ground for what you intend to follow.

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.