Public Speaking Tips for Openings
…we all know how that saying continues.
And if you have read the previous article on isocolons you will realise that the saying:
‘First impressions are lasting impressions’
is a form of isocolon where the balance between the two halves of the phrase is highlighted further by the word play between ‘first’ and ‘last’.
It does not matter that the word ‘lasting’ has a different meaning to the word ‘last’, it is the sound of the words that makes an impression on us.
There are many rhetorical forms that gain their effect from some type of wordplay or double meaning.
The listener consciously or unconsciously acknowledges it:
and that moment of stopping and acknowledging helps embed the phrase in the mind – makes the words memorable – which is what the speaker wants to achieve.
Bernard Russell’s famous quote on war does a similar thing:
‘War does not determine who is right only who is left.’
The message is clear but it is made memorable by the play on the words ‘right’ and ‘left’.
Both meanings of the word ‘left’ register with us at once and therefore the phrase stands out and is replayed in our heads. We acknowledge the cleverness of the wordplay and Russell has succeeded in making his point in a way that is going to stay with us after the rest of his presentation is over.
‘You only have one chance to make a first impression.’
Therefore the opening words of a presentation are incredibly important for making an impact.
In fact they are much too important to leave to chance!
Most speakers think that they can just start off and pick up the pace as they go.
By the time they have ‘picked up the pace’, most of the audience has either switched off or has allowed the fairly limp opening to colour their feeling to what comes next.
There is a lot of pressure involved in opening a presentation:
- the speaker is going to be nervous
- the audience might not yet be receptive
- there is tension in the air as the audience makes its quick initial judgment based on the ‘first impression’.
So I hope you appreciate that starting off with:
‘Er, hi, so today I want to talk to you about…’
is not going to grab anybody.
Therefore my message is:
Know your first line!
Have something prepared to get you over the intense pressure of your nerves and the audience’s initial judgement.
Keep it simple and comfortable for you to deliever.
Your opening words should simply put out a message that you are competent and in control and that there is a purpose to what comes next.
Your opening words should not telegraph how nervous or confused you feel!
This is why musicians will start a recital with a piece of music that is comfortable for them to play.
It helps them settle into the concert and gives the audience a message of competence and control.
10 ways to open a presentation
Rhetorical Question(1 Direct)
The rhetorical question is the ‘go-to’ warhorse of all Public Speakers. It is easy to prepare and easy to deliver.
You can walk out on stage with your question ready and prepared and simply open up with:
‘Who here believes this government has had its chance and needs to resign and let the other party take over?’
This is a very direct form of question and will probably gain an active response from the audience.
Therefore as well as preparing your question, you will need to be prepared for your audience's reaction.
There is probably no point in opening with this question unless you are pretty sure that the audience agrees with your answer.
Many times I have heard a speaker open with a very direct question, assuming the audience will respond the way they expect – and the audience does not.
The whole following presentation is now destroyed because the audience does not agree on an answer to the opening question.
Therefore the more direct and uncompromising your opening question, the more sure you need to be that your audience is of the same opinion as you
If you cannot be 100% sure that the audience will agree with your main question, can you find a question on which we can agree:
‘Who here believes that a government’s job is to make policies that are fair, just, and in the best interests of the people who elected them?’
I remember in the days when the newspaper ‘Socialist Worker’ would campaign on the streets outside train stations, I would be stopped by a representative and asked:
‘Do you think war is a good thing?’
Who is simply going to say ‘Yes’ to that?
But the questioner has opened up a dialogue, which could lead us to his real question which was:
‘Should the UK withdraw military support from…?’
This is the type of question that is guaranteed to get a positive response because it refers to something that is probably a shared experience that we can all relate to, which can then lead us to the real ‘direct’ question
‘Have you ever been standing at a station to be told that your train has been cancelled?’
‘Have you opened up a utility bill to be shocked by how much more expensive it had become?’
Socrates was famous for asking questions that had an obvious agreement from which he would then build his logical argument, which of course would ultimately lead to the real purpose of the presentation and that therefore - to go back and paraphrase our original direct question:
‘This government has had their chance and needs to resign and let the other party take over.’
The purpose of identifying three levels of rhetorical question is to help you avoid the catastrophe of asking a question that does not get the desired response and in the process destroying the whole basis of your presentation. When in doubt, soften the question until you are on safer ground.
You could even soften it even further by not even expressing it in the form of a question:
‘I wonder how many of us have stood at a station to be told our train has been cancelled…’
The purpose of a strong statement is to grab the audience’s attention.
All the provisos of rhetorical questions apply. You don’t want a strong statement that alienates your audience:
‘This government is a disgrace!’
Again – that is OK if you are fairly sure that everyone agrees with you.
Typically a strong statement is a statement calculated to make the audience think:
'Tell me more. Where is this leading?'
So statements like:
‘The worst day of my life.’
‘I was abandoned, alone, and 2000 miles from home.’
‘Love is mysterious.’
will intrigue us and make us want to hear more.
Set the scene
This is by far the easiest and most gentle way of starting a presentation and is effective because it sounds improvised and conversational. However, it should still be thought out and prepared:
‘The other day I was walking down the street when I noticed...’
‘I was waiting at an airport for my plane to board when…’
‘A man came up to me last week…’
I have given you three levels of Rhetorical Question, although if you view all those Rhetorical Questions as under one heading, alongside Strong Statement and Set the Scene, these are the three most common and most effective ways of starting a presentation.
And of course, there is no reason why you cannot mix and match or combine them:
‘My day was ruined! Last Wednesday I was standing on the platform to be told that my train had been cancelled. Have you ever just wanted to scream?’
The remaining suggestions for openings can be viewed as individual styles of opening or simply as variations on the themes of
Rhetorical Questions, Strong Statement, and Setting the Scene.
This is where you draw the audience in by approaching your subject from an oblique angle, creating a sense of suspense or curiosity:
‘I may be unusual. From the outside I know I seem fairly normal. And maybe some of you have also had similar feelings. I don’t think it is a criminal offence to think this. It is certainly not punishable by death, but….I can’t help wondering – What is the point of Facebook?’
The effect is to draw the audience in with the mystery and then reveal your subject.
This is particularly useful if you feel the subject alone with not grab their attention.
‘Today I would like to talk about Facebook.’ Audience reaction: ‘Not interested.’
A Famous Quote
This could work the same way as a strong statement or setting the scene, while adding an extra layer of credibility.
So what you are saying has been referred to already by someone famous, or can be backed up by a credible source
As speakers, we need to be careful of overburdening a presentation with statistics. The presentation can quickly become number-heavy and overwhelming to listen to, but a well-chosen statistic will add credibility like a quote, it will suggest a level of objective research, rather than just a subjective point of view, and if well-chosen can be referred back to throughout the presentation:
‘Today, over 7 million people in the UK are waiting for a routine NHS appointment.’
This is a striking statistic and can be returned to regularly during the presentation.
Danger. Danger. My biggest worry about starting with ‘humour’ is that it might not be funny. It might be offensive and it might not send the right message. So if you choose to start with a joke or funny comment, make sure it is directly linked to or sets up the key message of the presentation. That way if no one laughs, at least you are making a significant point.
Closely related to setting the scene and therefore one of the easiest, most natural, and most comfortable ways to start a presentation a story can achieve everything you want from a good opening.
- It sets the scene
- It introduces the themes
- It is visual
- It is probably relatable
- It is easy to remember
You just need to start the story
Engage other Senses
Another sub-set of ‘setting the scene’
and also ‘story-telling’.
As you introduce your subject, don’t just ‘tell’: describe how you feel, what you heard, what you could smell, and what you saw.
It is part of storytelling but by engaging the senses, you are making your opening more vivid, more impactful, and therefore more memorable.
State the Purpose
‘The purpose of today’s presentation is to help you…’
You can abandon all techniques and subtleties and simply announce what the presentation aims to achieve.
Don’t announce what the presentation is ‘about’ – that is the journey and the audience may not be that interested in the journey, announce what the presentation aims to achieve – that is the destination.