Make a direct, dramatic opening, says speech expert

Myron Jobson

Speeches should seize the audience’s interest and provide them with a reason to give their full and undivided attention throughout the presentation, according to Lyn Roseaman.

The area governor of Toastmasters, an educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills, said research has shown that the first 90 seconds of a speech have the greatest impact and are the most memorable.

Speakers should stand out before they have even uttered their first word, she said, adding: “Expectations shape reality. If your audience expects you to be good, they’ll perceive you as just that. So dress the part and never admit to feeling anxious, unsure or unwell.”

Ms Roseaman outlined four key pointers to delivering a “winning” speech opening.

The first is to avoid platitudes such as ‘thank you for inviting me’ and ‘what an honour’, which she describes as “friendly, but boring and predictable.”

She added: “In the words of Darren LaCroix –World Champion of Public Speaking, Toastmasters International – beware death by sameness.

“Make a direct, dramatic opening which seizes your audience’s interest. It can be compelling, humorous, shocking, challenging or imaginative.”

Asking a rhetorical or survey question, using an anecdote or a recent quote from an industry expert instead captures the audience’s attention, Ms Roseaman said.

This could also be achieved by a statement in the form of a “startling statistic” or a “bold claim” which could effectively set the scene for an informative discussion, or by painting a picture using words such as ‘imagine’ to get the crowd to visualise the scene in their minds.

Ms Roseaman said: “Whichever approach you adopt, appeal to their senses – what people see, hear, feel, smell, taste. This will give your speech opening more emotional resonance and invites the audience in.”

The second pointer would be to avoid speaking in the passive voice as sentences in the active voice have more energy and are direct, and the third would be to use anchor phrases which should encapsulate the feeling and message of the speech.

She said: “For Martin Luther King it was “I have a dream”. It’s a few words your audience will associate with you and your message. When your phrase pops into their mind, the rest of your speech will be reactivated.”

The final pointer, according to Ms Roseaman, would be to practise the opening of the speech until it flowed naturally.

She added: “On the day, take centre stage and ooze confidence with a solid posture and a smile. The stability of your opening stance will support the credibility of your message. Look briefly around your audience.

“This gives you time to calm your nerves and the audience time to settle down, and focus on you. The pause will pique their curiosity – they will be eager to hear your opening words.”

Anna Sofat, founder of Addidi Wealth Ltd, based in London, said: “I think the opening of a speech is very important, but the closing is equally, if not more important.