Article Category: Speechwriting

Electrify Your Audience with a Shocking Speech Opening


Shocking Speech OpeningA strong speech opening is critical to grab the attention of your audience.

Suppose you were delivering a speech to raise awareness in your community about school security. How would you open your speech?

  • I’m going to talk to you today about security in our schools…
  • School security is an important issue that we must deal with…

Both openings are direct, to-the-point, and boring! What if there was a better way?

A Better Speech Opening

Great speakers know how to open a speech in a way that hooks the audience into the presentation immediately. (Opening strong is one of the 25 essential skills for public speakers.) There are many ways to do this, including the use of drama and misdirection.

Imagine opening your speech with the following lines:

Tobacco. [long pause]
Alcohol. [long pause]
Guns. [long pause]
Criminal items seized in a search [slight pause] of a 6th grade locker in a bad school district.

Why does this speech opening work?

Beginning the speech in this way generates interest for several reasons:

  • Employs a classical technique: the Rule of Three.
  • Seized in a search of a sixth…” uses alliteration.
  • Pauses after the three opening words add drama.
  • Drama also created because the danger increases with each item (i.e. guns are more dangerous than alcohol and tobacco)
  • Mid-sentence pause after “search” signals an important statement coming up.
  • Audience thinks these items were seized from some criminal hideout, and then surprised to learn they were found in a school locker.
  • All this in just 19 words.

If these items really were seized from a nearby school district, then you’ve got a “ripped from the headlines” opening. Otherwise, you might transition into the rest of your speech with “We must act decisively to prevent this from becoming reality in our schools.

Try adding drama and surprise to grab the audience early in your next speech! Begin strong and keep going…

This article is inspired by index card wisdom from Jessica Hagy.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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Comments icon18 Comments

  1. Great post and totally agree. Great openings take effort and courage. I remember once, dancing (like a dad) to James Brown ‘I Feel Good’ only for 30 seconds but did I get the audiences attention – you bet!

  2. Andrew,
    Your example is an excellent opening. There are a number of various techniques that work consistently to ‘hook’ an audience in opening a speech. I recommend that my clients use these technique not only in their opening but peppered throughout their presentations to keep the audience engaged:
    1) Personal stories are perhaps the most compelling way to open. Even a good story needs to have a good hook. Here are some examples I use in stories I tell regularly:
    — “Stan rarely spoke before the age of 14.”
    — “The first time Bonnie stood up to speak in our presentation skills workshop, tears were pouring down her face.”
    — “Your predecessor was fired for 3 reasons …”
    2) Ask a question or take a poll:
    — “How many of you have ever misplaced your car keys?”
    — “Who here is wondering why there is a stuffed dog on this table”
    — “Is (organization name) officially out of ideas?”
    3) A provocative opening statement (as you suggested).
    — “67% of companies that go through major disaster such as fire, flood, burglary or sabotage resulting in loss of data are out of business in 2 years.”
    — “The average company loses a third of its customers every year.”
    4) Read a compelling quote
    — “Presentation of ideas is conversation carried on at high voltage – at once more dangerous and more powerful.”
    from “Moving Mountains” by Henry M Boettinger
    5) Engage the audience in an activity, such as a quiz.
    — “Whoever can guess the significance of these 3 numbers on the board will get this $5 bill.”
    — Call up a volunteer to engage in acting out a scene.
    6) Use a prop.
    One client sent me an email telling the story of
    using an analogy, comparing his software’s “scalability and availability via redundancy to the design of a semi-trailer, which has dual axles and dual wheels on each axle for load capacity (scalability) and safety in case one tire gets a flat (availability).”
    He opened by holding up the toy truck as a prop.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Thanks for the detailed tips, Terry.

  3. I have chosen this post for my weekly GreatManagement Inspirational Articles – The Best Advice From Around The Web.

    Andrew

  4. sdavis says:

    Good article. For an alternate opening that grabs attention try telling you audience three things you “could” tell them. For example, in a speech introducing youself to a new group start by telling your audience “I could tell you that I was born in Decatur, AL ; the first of 9 boys; that I received my Doctorate in Social Science from Harvard in 2004; graduating with honors, or that I recently completed an assignment as a member of the national security advisory panel to President Bush. Instead, let me tell you… At this point you have the audiences attention and are credible without sounding like you are tooting you’r own horn. Just be careful not to sound like you are impressed with yourself.
    I’ve received a very warm response when I have used this technique. Try it for yourself.

  5. CK says:

    Great post !

    I remember a speaker in an anti smoking seminar begin this way ” Smoking helps you lose weight ! One lung at a time !”
    there was widespread laughter and the speaker was able to hold the attention inspite of it being a pre-lunch session !

  6. I’ve never used a shocking speech opening.

    I’ve used most of the other types… quotes, story etc, but never a shocker.

    Thanks for the idea and the example… I might give it a try.

    great site by the way.

  7. Lauren says:

    Thanks for the tips!
    You write things in a very down-to-earth way that can easily be understood. I never thought of opening a speech in that way.

  8. Thank you for some great tips. I think this has a highly exotic impact on the audience! I think I need to practice this to become an amazing public speaker. What would be the best way to practice does anyone know?

  9. Brie Rawlings says:

    Thank you so much for making this accessible to people like “lil’ old me”! I am writing a speech for the rotary speech competition in Ashburton next week, it has to be finished tomorrow- I need all the help I can get! And this helped so much!! I loved the example, I agree that that works really well! Thanks again! X

  10. Ben Fusaro says:

    Simple but potent advice.

  11. Andrew,
    I am the editor of a quarterly magazine called CUE which is for speech/drama/public speaking teachers throughout NZ. I am seeking permission to reprint your fantastic article – Shocking speech opening in our next issue. I think our members would really appreciate it.
    Regards Donna

  12. Gavin says:

    Great post Andrew. I love the way you give us a a superb example of an attention grabbing speech and then deconstruct it highlighting why it works.
    I wish more people would give thoought to the way they open their talks. Keep sharing your wisdom.

    Gavin

  13. Mr. Awesome says:

    Thanks for this advice!!! It was really helpful for me to read your excellent advice on how to start a speech for my speech.

  14. Dave Webb says:

    Good article. Have just coached a student to 6th place in an English Speech Contest for students all over Japan (around 20,000 students were competing), and I’m looking how to help my student get that “X-factor” that they need to get better next year.

    A speech that gets everyone’s attention is a great way to start :)

  15. Thanks Andrew – I really like how brief this post is, which makes it really pack a punch!

    Some of the comments have added a lot of value to the discussion too. In particular, Terry Gault lists some great ideas!

    For 5 more ideas for opening lines, also see this video by Patricia Fripp, former head of the National Speakers Association: http://remotepossibilities.wordpress.com/?s=fripp_5_openings

  16. For almost 30 examples of opening lines, also see this PDF by Patricia Fripp:
    http://wp.me/p1PHR3-vT

  17. Love the venn diagram. Love the rule of threes. Great rules to follow, but I have a hard time being dramatic when I’m speaking. I guess it’s one important thing to focus on when rehearsing.

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