7 attention-grabbing ways to open your next speech

Lyn Roseaman

Lyn Roseaman, Toastmasters International

You’ve written your presentation.  You’ve edited and tweaked the wording and your message is clear.  Your inner perfectionist, especially as a woman, will mean you’re well prepared.

One important decision you need to make now is how to open your speech or presentation.  If you ask for advice, you may well be told that you need to be loud and extrovert. This is fine if you are both things. But what if you are quiet and introvert?  My answer is that the best way to make an impact is to be authentic. The way you start a speech is a door-opener. You are inviting your audience to join you and when you are being true to yourself, they are much more likely to warm to you.

If you are speaking at a conference or other large event, it is possible that your audience will already have listened to a number of other presentations. This means you are in competition with what they’re already heard, with work issues, personal issues, and the big question: what is happening right now on Instagram? With the distraction of smart phones your audience may not be quite as attentive as you’d like

You need to stand out from other speakers. This starts before you’ve even uttered your first word.  Expectations shape reality. Dress the part, be yourself, appear confident, wear your best smile and you will be well on the way to meeting positive expectations.

  1. Make an impact on your audience before you attempt to inform, persuade or inspire 

The opening of your speech needs to provide them with a compelling reason to give you their full attention.  Avoid taking up the opening seconds with thank you for inviting me, what an honour, or other platitudes.  This may be friendly and self-deprecating but it is also pretty boring.

After any required formalities you have a few seconds to reinforce the initial expectations you’ve set.  Start with a direct, attention grabbing opening:  humorous, shocking, challenging or imaginative, whatever suits your style.  Try using:

  • A rhetorical or a survey question.  

Questions will be most effective if they are ‘you’ focused:

    • Using the language of one-to-one conversation feels personal, that ‘speaking-just-to-me’ feeling
    • ‘You’ speaks to one, but includes everyone, eg Are you having fun?
    • Use ‘have you ever …?’ questions to achieve an emotional connection.  Avoid ‘how many …?’ questions.  These require people search for information in their memories which is a distraction.

Cue the response you are looking for. For example, if you raise your hand it tells the audience you’re interested in a show of hands, not a verbal response. Keep your body language open and look expectant if you want people to shout out answers.

  • A quotation from a respected expert.  The expert lends added credibility and, if it’s recent and from the audience’s industry, it will reflect well on you.
  • A startling statistic or a bold claim can provide effective scene-setting for an informational or educational talk. “Did you know that …”
  • Paint a picture. Start with: “Imagine …” or “It was 7am on a snowy Monday …”.  You want your audience to visualise a scene in their minds.  Make it broad-brush. That way the audience can fill in the detail from their own direct experience and memories, which will make the impact more powerful.
  • A short, personal story.  Choose an anecdote that your audience can relate to and is directly relevant to the message you want them to remember.

7 attention-grabbing ways to open your next speech

Once you’ve decided on your opening, think about how you can appeal to the senses – what people see, hear, feel, smell, taste.  This will give the opening of your presentation more emotional appeal and a warm invitation to join you. 

For instance, if you are announcing a significant change in your business, invite the audience to “Imagine an organisation where your co-workers are your friends, your office looks organised and efficient yet also feels welcoming, the aroma of coffee fills the air …”  Then continue with your story: “I don’t feel like that when I walk into our office.  Do you?”  With this approach, you tap into the audience’s imagination.  They will recognise themselves in the picture you’ve painted, using their own frame of reference.

  1. Keep it active

Use the active voice when you speak.  For example, rather than saying “Our business needs to be restructured for growth …”, say instead “We need to restructure our business for growth … These are the next steps … who will … by when …”  That way, they are engaged and also know who will be doing what.

Sentences in the active voice are shorter, have energy and directness.  By speaking in the here and now you and your opening message will have immediacy and presence.

  1. Introduce an ‘anchor phrase’ early on

Experienced speakers use anchor phrases. A good anchor phrase captures the feeling and message of your speech.  We all know who used: “I have a dream”.  It’s a few words your audience will associate with you and your message.  When your phrase pops into their mind, they’ll remember what else you said.  Making your phrase rhythmic is an added bonus.

7 attention-grabbing ways to open your next speech

  1. Practise the delivery of your opening

Practise your opening until it flows naturally and effortlessly.

On the day, take centre stage and smile. If you maintain good posture, the stability of your opening stance will support the credibility of your message.  Look at your audience for a few seconds before you speak.  This gives you a moment to calm yourself and also allows the audience to settle down and kick start their curiosity about what you’re going to say.

Deliver your opening clearly and authentically and your audience will be open to listening. Rather than thinking “so what?” they’ll sit up, pay attention and be with you as you take them on the journey of your speech or presentation.

Now you’re talking!


Lyn Roseaman is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org

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