One of the pleasures of working in communication training is that you receive exciting invitations to attend, or even judge, speaking events across the nation.
I was privileged to be invited to such an occasion recently, where there were a number of speakers on display and they were good! – Passionate about their topic, well researched on their information and mostly, highly organised in their delivery.
I said ‘mostly’ because there was the odd one or two who finished in style but opened with stodge. And that was a shame because their speeches had important messages for us, but we spent a lot of time wondering what this speech was all about because the opening did not make that clear to the audience.
I am not sure if this was due to nerves or to a lack of understanding of the real relevance and importance of creating an opening with impact. If we don’t really understand what the opening part of our speech is designed to do … we get it wrong.
There are in fact four objectives which we need to meet to ensure that we start off with a bang rather than a whimper.
First – while most audiences will be attentive and willing to listen, we need to get their interest focused on us and what we are about to say. Grabbing the audience’s attention is absolutely essential; and it’s not just about getting them settled and silenced, but more about getting them enthused and excited.
Second – Now that we have their attention and raised their expectations, we can reveal what is the topic and why it is relevant to the listeners. We need that personal identification with our subject to generate real interest.
Third – So, we’ve got their attention and their interest in our topic – but why should they believe us? Unless we establish our credibility right about now, they probably won’t! So that’s the third objective, and finally –
Fourthly – Briefly preview some of the issues to be covered in the main body of the speech. It shouldn’t be anything other than a teaser of the good things to come, but it helps to enhance the sense of anticipation.
When we look at the timing for our presentation or speech it seems almost impossible that we can meet these objectives in the time available. Especially if there are a number of issues I want to cover in the body, how can I spend all that time grabbing attention, generating interesting, establishing credibility and previewing the body – phew!! By the end of all that it will be time to start the conclusion!!
Well it isn’t quite that bad. We can cover all of these if we choose the right techniques.
And a great technique that can grab attention and create interest in a topic, all at the same time is the rhetorical question.
“How many of you barely make it to work on time in the mornings?” If we are asked this question we are focused on the problem, it is personal and we have an expectation that we are going to learn something that might help us.
Another way to achieve those opening objectives is to tell a personal story that links directly to your first main point.
“I was helping my grandmother clear out an old cupboard on the weekend, and there in the midst of piles of newspapers and books was a packet of photographs. We spent the next two hours revisiting people and places from her early life; and I realised that my grandmother had lived in a society that is rapidly passing out of our memory and I think we are the poorer for losing touch with our past.”
Here the speaker has created a visual link for the audience, established credibility and given the audience a preview of what the intention of the speech will be.
Or what about using a quotation? With access to the internet we have a huge choice of quotations on a variety of topics right at our finger tips – surely we can find one that encapsulates our topic in a concise way. But, and this is sometimes overlooked, it does need to be clearly linked to your main topic and introduce a significant point to be covered in the body.
These are just three of the many ways in which we can ensure that our opening achieves the four objectives listed; and do it in the time frame available.
Clarence Darrow, the American lawyer put it succinctly when he said “Unless a speaker can interest his audience at once, his effort will be a failure.” And that is true for every speaker regardless of gender.
So while I truly enjoyed each of the speakers I heard, I was far more involved and interested in those that had taken the time to create an opening which really worked for me. First impressions really do count, and many people have difficulty overcoming a prejudice created by a poor one.
We don’t need the hassle: so let’s work on ensuring that when we get up to speak we are clear and focused on achieving a great opening and then work up to a crashing crescendo … but that’s another subject altogether!
Michele @ Trischel
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