If I’m in the audience and that’s the first thing I hear, I usually tune out, regardless of how interesting or compelling the topic might be. If you don’t grab my attention at the start, I probably won’t listen very carefully to whatever else you have to say, if at all.
The introduction to a speech — any speech — is critical. This is the moment when listeners will either connect to what you have to say — and take notice — or take a mental holiday.
Let’s say you’re giving a speech to persuade. By the end of the presentation, you want audience members to do something. Maybe you want them to sign a petition, vote for a particular candidate, send a letter to government representatives or other stakeholders, support a cause, take part in a rally or contribute money to a charity. Regardless of the specific request, you want to encourage listeners to act. That’s much less likely to happen if you don’t engage the audience at the very beginning of your speech.
For example, if I was giving a speech to persuade residents in a Dallas neighborhood to donate money or volunteer their time to support the efforts of a nonprofit organization helping rescue stray dogs in the area,* here’s how I might begin my talk (keep in mind I’m focusing on content here, not delivery — that’s another article or blog post):
When I first saw this creature one night — I wasn’t sure exactly what it was — it seemed to be hiding behind a car across the street from my apartment. There was no street light, so things were shadowy. Then I heard a soft, low noise that sounded like a whimper. As I looked more closely, I could see a nose, then a small paw. Then a quivering, wire-haired animal with a long tail inched out unsteadily from behind the car’s back tire. It was a dog. That’s how I met Fido, and I could tell he needed help.”
A brief story using imagery like this can capture attention. Immediately after reciting this short narrative, I might project an image of Fido as part of a continuing PowerPoint presentation. Subsequent portions of an introduction would include a statement of proposition (“Every dog like Fido deserves a chance to be happy, healthy and loved, and you can help”), followed by a preview of the main points you’ll cover in the body of your speech.
Of course, there are other ways to lead into your speech. You can cite compelling statistics or facts, use an analogy, offer expert opinion or testimony, make a startling statement, or use humor (if appropriate). Whatever approach you decide to take, consider your audience. Why are they listening to you? What will be most relevant to them? How can you get — and keep — the audience’s attention?
Your presentation may be packed full of awesome information, but no one will appreciate that if they checked out about the time you said “hello.” Make your introduction unforgettable. The odds are that listeners will remember that speech and you, too. Better yet, they’ll be persuaded to do what you asked.
*Duck Team 6 searches for elusive dogs that need to be rescued and off the streets. Find out more here. The dog pictured in this post is Levi, my terrier mix. He was adopted from Operation Kindness, a no-kill shelter.