Opening a speech: Step-by-step

Nick cleft

This is it, the moment you’ve spent weeks writing, rehearsing and refining your speech for.

The audience falls silent, every pair of eyes in the room turn expectantly to you.

5,4,3,2,1.

Now what?

Opening a speech isn’t rocket science, but it is similar to a rocket launch in that if don’t get it right, the rest of your speech won’t get off of the ground.

So what should the perfect opening of a speech include?

- 3 seconds to speech launch:

Take a deep breath and look around the whole of the room

Why do this?

Apart from keeping us alive (a vital part of speech giving), getting more oxygen into our body produces a physiological response. It encourages the brain to produce neurohormones, which negate the stress-causing hormones that we’re all inclined to produce when under pressure.

Looking around the room makes your audience instantly aware that you are talking to all of them. It also helps to promote an image of confidence. If you also happen to make eye contact with a few friendly faces and get some smiles too, you’ll instantly feel a lot better about the speech that you are about to give.

- 1 seconds to speech launch:

Take another look around the room and smile

Why do this?

Firstly, no one wants to see a grumpy speaker. Secondly, and much more importantly, smiling whilst you are talking gives your voice a much greater level of intonation. This increased intonation gives your voice a much friendlier and natural feel, giving you a more positive presenting style.

-0.1 seconds to speech launch:

Open your arms to the audience

Why do this?

If you’re nervous at this point your hands will either be:

Held tightly together in front of you

Clutching frantically at a desk or lectern

Hidden completely behind your back

None of the above are examples of positive body language and none of them present an engaging manner to your audience. To avoid instantly appearing as the grumpy, nervous speaker simply open your hands and your arms (as widely as you feel comfortable, you don’t have to become an albatross on stage) as you begin to deliver your open line.

Voila! Positive body language and a confident gesture before you’ve even opened your mouth!

0 seconds to speech launch:

Deliver that killer first line

Why do this?

“Your first line should pique the curiosity of your audience, engage them and make them want to hear more. It should be said loudly, proudly and for everyone in the room to hear. This is the line on which the audience’s initial judgement about you as a speaker will be made.”

If you are a nervous speaker, the paragraph above has probably not helped you too much. We know the first line of any speech is the most important, but when you’re nervous it’s also the most difficult. How do we overcome this?

Rehearsal is the key. For every one time that you rehearse your full speech, you should look to rehearse your opening line (including associated gestures, smiles and intonation) at least ten times.

The result will be an opening line that you can deliver on autopilot. The delivery of your opening line will not be able to be affected by nerves, because you’ll have delivered it before your brain even has time to compute!

And once you’re through that opening line and into your speech, we’re off! It’s not going to get any more difficult or nerve wracking from here on in!

5 seconds after speech launch:

Pause and let that killer line sink in.

Why do this?

A well timed pause adds emphasis to the point you have just made. You put your opening line at the very top of your speech for a reason-to give your audience time to consider exactly why that might be…

10 seconds after speech launch:

Tell ‘em exactly what it is that you’re going to tell ‘em

Why do this?

Your audience will want to understand how you plan to deliver your speech. Don’t forget that the majority of speeches or presentations are delivered to inform or persuade. An unstructured argument is unlikely to be persuasive and a muddled set of information will leave your audience more confused than when you started talking!

Your signposting doesn’t have to tell your audience exactly what to expect blow-for-blow, but it does need to set an expectation of what is to come. A signpost within a speech can be as simple as:

“Today I am going to talk to you about why dinosaurs should be bred in only in captivity using three examples from recent history.”

Where next?

Well by now your speech has well and truly launched. You’ve engaged your audience, explained what you’re going to talk about and overcome the most nerve-wracking part of any speech, the start.

From here on in it’s a case of keeping that smile beaming, your hands open and your voice strong as you inspire, persuade, inform and entertain your audience with the rest of your speech. The hardest part -those first words-are now done!

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Rich Watts is the UK Business Speaker of the Year and a past JCI National Public Speaking champion. He setup and now runs Rich Public Speaking providing presentation skills and public speaking training.

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