By Tim Hayes
“Spanning the globe…
to bring you the constant variety of sport.
The thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat.
The human drama of athletic competition.
This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”
When I heard Jim McKay intone those words, with that wonderfully emotive music behind him, my heartbeat quickened. Something great and different and interesting was headed my way via the big Sears console in our living room, all those years ago.
A great opening makes all the difference. The same goes for a speech. If I had to guess, I’d say about 99.9999 percent of all speakers begin by thanking a dozen people, saying rather unconvincingly what a thrill/honor/pleasure it is to be here, blah, blah, blah.
This becomes a time for the audience to mentally go for a little walk, thinking about how cold the mashed potatoes were, or wondering how long this speech will last, or whether they remembered to unplug the hair dryer that morning. The audience can afford to take this cerebral stroll because none of what the speaker’s saying means a thing.
The point of a speech, after all, is to present fresh information that piques the curiosity, startles the intellect, shakes the assumptions, and redirects the thinking of the audience. Why not get to the good stuff right away? Or at least grab their attention?
One of the best openings to a speech I ever experienced occurred at a conference about a year ago. Frances Hesselbein, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her lifetime of excellence in public service and non-profit leadership, was at the lectern. Mrs. Hesselbein is a petite, extremely graceful and gracious lady. She exudes dignity, a quiet confidence, and the respect earned from decades of outstanding achievement.
After she had been introduced, she walked to the microphone without notes. She did not speak immediately, but smiled and looked all around the packed ballroom before her, taking in as many eyes as she could. The effect was mesmerizing. She was building an incredible rapport with hundreds of individuals without saying a word. The room became absolutely silent, but not uncomfortably so. Rather, the feeling, the unexpressed wish coursing through the audience, was an almost unbearable expectation. Mrs. Hesselbein had us in the palm of her hand, and we had yet to hear her voice.
At last, she closed her eyes for a moment, looked up and smiled at all of us again, leaned into the microphone and spoke in a whisper, “I’d like to share a story with you.”
For the next 30 minutes, she could have read us the Yellow Pages and it wouldn’t have mattered. Her patience, grace, warmth, nonverbal engagement, and yeah I’ll admit it – her complete playing of us like a cheap fiddle – worked like no other opening I’ve ever witnessed.
This of course isn’t the only way to grab an audience right off the bat. You can say something totally unexpected, like the commencement speech I wrote for an executive, where the first two words were, “Get out!”
Or you can make a bold declaration, like the time I had a client open his speech with, “Nobody in Washington knows what they’re doing.”
Or you can even start off using a prop, like the time my client started popping plastic bubble wrap before the first words were uttered.
Each of these openings had a purpose, by the way. Being different without a point is, well, pointless.
Ditch the usual thank-yous and statements of humility. All of that’s assumed. Don’t give your audience a chance to go for a mental stroll. They may not come back. Take a cue from Mrs. Hesselbein, that accomplished spellbinder. Get the audience to focus on you, then get to the good stuff right away.
Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting