Imagine standing in front of an eager audience, every pair of eyes on you. You only have a moment to capture their attention with your speech, or you’ll lose them. If you begin it well, your words have the potential to get the crowd buzzing and inspire your audience to action. Yet, to do this, the beginning of a speech needs to be captivating, which is not always easy to pull off, even for experienced speakers. For this reason, it’s crucial leaders know how to start a speech, as it’s an asset used throughout their entire careers.
Hours of preparation are in vain if a speech’s opening moments fall short. While some may claim to know how to write a speech, the beginning is typically the trickiest part. It needs to be unique to you and not something that feels copy and pasted from other speeches. In this article, learn some of the most helpful tips for starting a speech, no matter if you’re giving a pep talk to your team or addressing a crowd as the keynote speaker of a huge event.
Tips on How to Start a Speech
1. Don’t Wing It
The first tip is something you shouldn’t do. At the start of a speech, don’t go out there and make things up on the spot. While some genuinely skilled public speakers can pull this off, the vast majority of people aren’t good at improvising. To avoid failing, plan your introduction beforehand, take time to write it out on your notes, and practice the beginning (along with the rest of your speech) in front of a mirror. This can help you work on your communication skills as well as your body language. If you choose to wing it instead, you’ll likely end up with either a confusing or boring start.
2. Create an Imaginary Scenario
One of the best ways to start a speech is to create a hypothetical scenario. Take a look at the beginning of this article again, and you’ll see this strategy in action. The imaginary scene gets the audience involved right from the start. You’re asking them to use their imaginations to immerse themselves in a world you create right in front of them. Creating a scenario like this fills people with anticipation as they wait to hear how it ties into your topic. It sets up a hypothetical, usually a problem, that allows you to supply the solution.
3. Use a Quote
When you start your speech, try beginning with a quote to get people’s attention. A quote gets your audience thinking, but you don’t want to use any old quote. Pick something unique that people haven’t heard before. While the quote “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” can inspire people, chances are they’ve heard it a thousand times. That’s why you shouldn’t start with movie quotes as well.
Choose a quote from a famous person as it lends authority to your speech. Or pick something poignant, like an old saying from a different culture. As you read books, select some quotes that you think would go well with an upcoming speech. The more you fill your well with memorable quotes, the easier it will be to draw from it.
Check out these quotes to get some ideas:
- Mario Andretti: “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”
- Henry Ford: “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.”
- Japanese Proverb: “Fall seven times and stand up eight.”
For more great ways to start your speech, read these leadership quotes.
4. Use Humor
You can always start your speech out with a joke. Admittedly, this can be tricky to pull off since humor is subjective, but a joke can immediately put the audience at ease. Pick a joke that’s tasteful and relevant to the topic at hand. For obvious reasons, you should avoid starting with a joke if the subject of your speech is serious or sad.
The proper joke can set the mood for the rest of your speech. In a commencement speech to Harvard graduates on a rainy day, comedian Seth MacFarlane notably started his speech by saying, “There’s nowhere I would rather be on a day like this than around all this electoral equipment.” Granted, he likely ad-libbed the joke, but the point remains that beginning with humor can help get the audience to open their minds to what you have to say.
5. Pose a Question
If you’re struggling with a way to begin your speech, why not try asking a question? The question you choose can be a literal question, such as, “How many people here run their own business?” Or you can go the rhetorical route by asking a “what if” question. A “what if” question is a great way to get people thinking about possible scenarios. For example, think about a speech that started by saying, “What kind of world would it be if every leader fulfilled their full potential?” The audience would immediately begin coming up with ideas and imagining what such a world would look like.
Questions create opportunities to learn. In one of the most-watched TED Talks, Simon Sinek starts his speech by asking, “How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions?” With those questions, the audience becomes primed to learn the answers, which the speaker readily gives them. If you pick a question at the heart of your topic, you’ll draw in the crowd right from the beginning.
6. Pick a Statistic
At the start of a speech, you can also tell the audience a statistic meant to surprise them. For example, if you were giving a speech about the need for aid in Africa, you might begin by saying, “The average life expectancy in Chad is only 50 years.” The statistic you choose should be powerful, pertain to your message, and open a window to a world the audience likely didn’t know about before. Additionally, choose statistics that are relevant and share accurate information. Together, they should paint a visual that’s backed by facts. Likewise, statistics in a speech need to indicate why the audience should care about what you’re saying.
7. Shock the Audience
You can also start your speech by shocking the audience. When combined with choosing a compelling statistic, asking a question, or some of the other tips on this list, surprising the audience represents an excellent strategy for grabbing people’s attention. It’s a way to get those in the crowd to sit up and focus from the outset, causing them to hang on to your every word.
In another popular TED Talk, Pamela Meyer begins by making a shocking announcement: “Okay, now I don’t want to alarm anybody in this room, but it’s just come to my attention that the person to your right is a liar.” Think of what a compelling way that is to get people to put down their phones and look at the speaker. It also ties nicely into the subject of her speech, “How to Spot a Liar.” With a shocking statement, you too can capture people’s attention in just a few seconds.
8. Describe a Problem
For many speeches, the purpose is to present a solution to a problem. When this is the case, you may want to start by stating the problem clearly. Weave in a fact or shocking statistic with it for maximum effect. For example, if you are speaking with an audience of business owners struggling with employee retention, you might start by saying something along the lines of “Almost half of all leaders who feel burned out plan to take a new job with a different company.” From the start, the audience understands the full scope of the problem and the need to come up with a solution.
Stating the problem at the beginning puts the rest of the speech in perspective. It also keeps the audience eager for more information on how to solve it. If you have people wanting to help you with the problem you’ve presented, you know you’ll have their attention for the duration of your speech.
9. Share a Story
You can also tell a story to give an issue or problem context. People identify with stories as they can feel more personal and intimate. Since speeches should be persuasive, they can also get people to your side while you’re speaking, coaching them as you go. Share a story about yourself as part of an introduction speech to get the ball rolling.
In one speech by Scott Dinsmore, he starts by saying, “Eight years ago, I got the worst career advice of my life.” He then proceeds to talk about that advice, why it was terrible, and how it connects to the topic of his speech (doing what you love for work). By sharing a story, you can make the audience feel like they’ve gone on a journey with you. You establish that personal connection, making you, as the speaker, more relatable. That leaves people more open to listening to what you have to say.
Bonus Tips For Starting a Speech
- Know who your audience is.
- Refer to recent or historical events.
- Allow for a period of silence to build anticipation.
- Practice your speech multiple times, including in front of close friends and family.
- Show gratitude for the opportunity.
The One Thing You Should NOT Do
If there’s a surefire way to lose your audience right at the start, it’s by simply introducing yourself. First off, in most speech settings, someone will likely have introduced you anyway, so it would be a waste of time. Secondly, most people in the audience will already know who you are and why you are there. Introducing yourself treats your audience like children and may even lead to some people zoning out immediately. Don’t dawdle or play schoolteacher with the people in front of you. Launch right into your speech with the skills discussed earlier. The results will speak for themselves.
Start Your Speech Out the Right Way
Giving a speech is an art form that often relies on what happens at the start. Try out the above tips the next time you need to give a speech. Using assertive communication is another way to establish a connection with your audience. With the right beginning, you’ll have people following you every step of the way until you’ve finished.
Want more great quotes for starting a speech? Check out the following: