25 Ways to Open a Speech or Presentation
We don’t want to break it to you, but you don’t really have all that much time. As a public speaker or presenter, you have but a scant few moments to open a speech or presentation with a powerful hook. Here, we offer 25 great ways to do that.
But first, a quick note about the two elements any great open should possess: it must be engaging and on message. The way you open a speech gets them in the door and your main point, or message, keeps them in their seats.
Notice that we said engaging and on message. A funny opening joke may engage the audience, but if it’s not directly related to your presentation’s main message, your audience may only remember the joke. There’s nothing funny about that.
What does it mean to be on message? First, you need one. As part of our public speaking classes, we encourage our clients to themselves a simple question: What is the one thing, more than anything else, I want this audience to remember from my presentation six months from now? That one thing typically is your overarching message.
“Our nonprofit organization’s donations are surging and have more than made up for the dip in last year’s contributions.”
“This program for at-risk youth is as beneficial for the overall community as it is for the actual participants. “
“My new product may look like many others, but what it delivers is unlike anything else on the shelf.”
Your messages are meaningful, but they become memorable when you frame them within the context of your open.
25 Ways to Open a Speech
These opens, from our book 101 Ways to Open a Speech, represent a mix of styles and methods. You can open a speech or presentation with a third-person anecdote or share your own story. You can be persuasive or utilize the element of surprise. Some speech openers tell a story, others frame a topic, and a couple rely on modern technology. There’s a way to open a speech that is right for you, that reflects your personality, and that serves your specific goals and topics.
1. The Common Ground Open – Is there a gap between you and the audience? Perhaps you’re a 70-something speaking to some high school students, or a conservative Republican addressing a group of left-leaning advocates. If you have any chance of succeeding in sharing your message, you’ll need to close the gap quickly. Opening with a shared story, statistic, goal, or interest, and doing so with humility and grace, is an excellent way to bring the audience closer to you and to show them they have something to gain by listening to you. Imagine that a CEO of a large investment company is about to talk finances to a group of entry-level employees at one of your many locations. Here’s how she could start:
“You may not think I know what it is like to struggle, but at your age I was scraping for pennies, working two jobs, and still barely managing to pay my rent. It got easier when I learned to make my money work as hard as I was. It’s a lesson I plan to share with you today.”
2. Descriptive Open – A school administrator is talking to teachers about a new approach to student test prep. He could say:
“With your help, we are going to implement new lessons that reduce the rate of failure by increasing students’ opportunities to experience success.”
Are you still awake? Abstract concepts like “rate of failure,” “opportunities,” and “success” don’t exactly rouse an audience. When words are vivid, messages gain power and pop. Concrete and descriptive words, as opposed to abstract concepts, put the audience in the middle of the action. This version would be better:
“No one wants to see that big red ‘F’ on a test – not a student, not a teacher, and not a parent. With our new approach, and your help, we’ll be able to hand out a lot more ‘A’s’ and ‘B’s’—and the students would have worked hard to earn them.”
3. The A-ha Moment Open – Do you remember the moment when a stranger offered you kindness, a piece of advice profoundly changed you, or a hardship turned out to be a blessing? The idea of learning from experience is a perfect lead-in to suggest to your audience that they may be moments away from learning their “a-ha” moment. Dig deep. Be vulnerable. The audience wants to hear why that moment resonated so deeply and stayed with you so long.
4. The Third-Person Anecdote Open – Stories are great ways to communicate the human condition. Therefore, choose a story or anecdote you’ve heard along the way – or pick one out of the local newspaper or online news story – and use it to reinforce your presentation’s main message. However, don’t start by saying, “I’d like to begin with a story.” Just start with the action:
“Three years ago, Walt Harris had his dream job, dream spouse, and dream home. He worked out five days a week, ate well, and mediated on weekends. Then he received a diagnosis from his doctor that changed his life. In the past three years, Walt lost his job, lost his home, and is close to facing divorce. Unfortunately, almost all of this was preventable.”
5. The Show of Hands Open – How many of you think this way to open a speech is overdone? How many of you think it could be done better? The question you pose should challenge conventional thinking, lead to a counterintuitive conclusion, or add a dose of unexpected humor. Likewise, this strategy works well if you are trying to sway the audience to reconsider previously held positions or beliefs. You must be quick on your feet to transition from the audience’s answers to the point you are trying to make:
“So, you think the sky is blue? Well, I’m going to tell you what happens on those days when it appears to be green.”
6. The Fable Open – Do you have something to preach but don’t want to sound preachy? If you lead off with a fable, or one of its literary cousins (allegories and parables), you can delve into moral lessons and insights about human behavior, all without sounding too heavy. In her book, “The Story Factor,” Annette Simmons writes that stories provide a more accessible route. A story, she says, is a “more dynamic tool of influence. Story gives people enough space to think for themselves.”
7. The Contrast Open – If speeches were boxing matches, you’d use the contrast open every time. This technique showcases the difference between diametrically opposed concepts, positions, ideas, or words. As a result, this approach is useful if you want to persuade others to change their perspective or embrace something new. Here are some of the themes that work well:
- Needs vs. Wants
- Obstacles vs. Opportunity
- Problem vs. Solution
- Possible vs. Impossible
8. The Information Gap – You know you will be facing a crowd of people who are quite knowledgeable about your subject. That’s OK. As it turns out, people who know a lot about a topic are still just as interested in learning about the parts of the topic they don’t know, according to American educator and economist George Loewenstein. If you can find a kernel of knowledge that exposes the gap or looks at the topic in a different way, you’ve given your audience ample reason to stick around to the end.
9. The Unexpected Definition Open – Dictionaries obviously do their jobs and do them well. However, there are times when a word gains more power when it is redefined. Say you are a valedictorian and you want to share how much your fellow students mean to you. Here’s a start:
“The dictionary defines classmate as a member of your class, but I define you all as so much more than that. We were each other’s friends, confidants, mentors, and guides. As worthy opponents, we challenged one other on the field and in the classroom. We were each other’s keepers and cheerleaders. And, we now can define ourselves as fellow graduates.”
10. “This Day in History” Open – This day in history you learned there were 25 ways to open a speech. That is a historical fact, but not a great citation. Fortunately, there are plenty of worthy, significant, thought-provoking, and interesting events you can find – a simple online search yields thousands – to illustrate your main point.
11. The Incorrect (or Ironic) Quote – Back in 2004, Microsoft’s Bill Gates told the world, “Two years from now, spam will be solved.” Oh yeah? Hindsight is 20/20, but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from the trove of ill-considered observations and incorrect assumptions about the future. Leading a presentation with an incorrect quote can help you transition to many powerful points, including the risks of false assumptions, the dangers of being slow to change, and the speed of evolution.
12. The Tour Open – Your audience may be sitting in Conference Room A, but you want them to think they are far, far away – perhaps in a different galaxy, in another time, or atop one of the world’s highest peaks. Here’s how oceanographer David Gallo got his audience to plumb the depths of the world’s oceans during his “Underwater Astonishments” TED Talk:
“We’re going to go on a dive to the deep sea. Anyone that’s had that lovely opportunity knows that for about two-and-a-half hours on the way down, it’s a perfectly, positively pitch-black world.”
When combined with a series of video images featuring bioluminescent sea creatures, the open transported the audience deep into the world of ocean exploration all from the comfort of their hotel meeting room.
13. The Bookend Open – Like the inseparable friends that they are, the Bookend Open must go with the Bookend Close, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Consequently, the theme, story, example, joke, theme, or fact that you offer in the open must return – in some fashion – for a visit in the end.
14. Rapid-Fire Statistics Open – A dietician wants to warn her audience about the dangers of gaining weight on a diet rich in fast food meals. She could start like this:
“Between 2013 and 2016, more than 1 in 3 American adults took a turn through the drive-thru or approached the counter to grab a fast food meal on any given day. For children and teens, a fast food diet has been associated with higher caloric intake and poor diet quality. That double whammy is a reality that more young people face, as studies have found caloric intake from fast food on the rise for children aged 2 to 18. The industry itself shows no signs of slowing. The fast food industry is a $198.9 billion business in the United States. It’s expected to grow by more than $20 billion by 2020.”
This data stacking is less about individual numbers and more about the broader point she is trying to convey. The main takeaway is this: Society’s propensity for fast food is growing and affecting the health of children and teens.
15. The Mystery Open – They fill bookshelves and dominate television listings. What are they? Those mysteries, psychological thrillers, and police procedurals readers and viewers can’t seem to get enough of. A mystery works fine for an open, too. Here’s one way to do it: Pose a single question at the start of your talk and then answer it piece by piece during your presentation – leaving the big reveal for the close.
16. The Multiple Choice – It’s better than the tests you remembered as a student or the online surveys you are asked to take. That’s because it’s your multiple-choice test and it’s the way you can draw your audience to your topic. This open is tailor-made for a talk with multiple perspectives about an issue or different solutions for the same problem. Here’s an example:
“As a company, we have several directions we can take in terms of growth and increased sales. We could a.) buy up smaller companies to diversify our portfolio of services, b.) cull some of our services and move resources to focus on only a few or, c.) we could opt to franchise. I’m going to spend some time on each and then offer the option that I think is the way for us to go.”
17. The Challenge Open – Challenges spur audiences to act or deliver on a goal. You could open a speech with a challenge if you are seeking legislative change, raising money for a project, looking to increase sales, or asking for volunteers. The main objective is motivation. The audience not only needs to buy-in to your message but take the actions to manifest it. Here’s one way to do that:
“Dreamers see possibilities where others see obstacles. I am here today to call upon my fellow dreamers to encourage those who are hesitant about the project to look past the stumbling blocks we face in the construction of this community playground and consider giving kids a chance to play.”
18. The Skeptical Audience Open – A doubting audience is a difficult audience – there is no getting around it. They may be untrusting of your ideas or against what you are proposing. Perhaps they have been disappointed in the past or are simply stuck in their ways. The more “hostile” the crowd, the faster you need to address the gap. While every open needs to be a blend of your goals and audience needs, this one requires careful consideration. Here’s the formula:
- Anticipate the major objections.
- Have a sense of divided loyalties – the intractable, the undecided, and the supportive. Identify which of those most needs to hear your message and adjust accordingly.
- Frame the message around their concerns, not yours.
- Avoid defensiveness.
- Acknowledge obvious truths early.
19. The Rhetorical Question Open – Do you think opening with a question engages audience members? Yes, it does. This method engages the audience from the get-go. A CEO might pose this question:
“We offer great services. We have a loyal customer base. And, we make improvements every year. So, why are we not No. 1 in our market?”
20. The Puzzle Open – Brain teasers, mind puzzles, and optical illusions tend to capture our attention. How dare they trick our brains! As we are parsing out what it will take to solve them, we are highly engaged. Speakers can capitalize on this behavior in several ways:
- Ask a puzzling question you promise to reveal in the end.
- Propose a riddle.
- Suggest that the audience complete a mathematical equation and promise to give the answer context during the speech.
21. The Activity Open – Of all the 25 ways to open, this one triggers the most immediate engagement. Use it during training sessions and workshops when you are trying to teach a specific skill. When an audience engages in an activity right from the start, they recognize the benefits of listening to the rest of what you have to say. Make sure the activity is challenging, however. If they breeze through it, they’ll spend the rest of the workshop twiddling their thumbs.
22. The Self-Effacing Open – Remember the speaker who offered a joke, only to have that become his message? Well, in this way to open a speech, humor also must be deftly handled. Modesty and humility are the hallmarks of people who can laugh at themselves – which are both traits that can attract an audience. If you are planning to laugh at your own expense, just make sure it’s not at a cost. Stay away from jokes that question your credibility or diminish the topic of your speech. And make sure your self-deprecating humor doesn’t sound too self-pitying (“I hope, like my receding hairline, you won’t similarly retreat for the exit before I am done.”). You don’t want the audience thinking about your weaknesses or paying undue attention to them.
23. The Audio Clip Open – Your voice is the main “audio” for your talk, but additional sounds can enhance and clarify your main message. A short audio clip enhances the meaning of your words, even as it makes your message more memorable. Say you are talking to prospective parents about your music school. Words matter, but two brief audio excerpts – a before and after of student instruction – could do a far better job of persuading them to join. Here’s a list of some of the clips that work well:
- An audio testimony
- A recording of a song
- An oral account
- A snippet of a speech
- Sounds of nature
24. The PowerPoint Open – Ahh, the PowerPoint presentation … when used correctly it is a highly effective tool for the audience. When used incorrectly, it induces a snoozefest. Overly literal slides typically fall flat, while conceptual (and eye-catching) images make your words even more memorable. If you plan on using technology front and center, you should pick an image that captivates and intrigues, and forms a segue into the opening you want to tell. For instance, you are presenting a talk on how to create a stunning painting. You could begin with a slide that shows a big, bold and colorful painting. You say:
“This painting is the manifestation of dozens of choices and decisions the artist made along the way from concept to completion. We only see the final product, but the real art is the way it all comes together.”
As you proceed, you show slides in reverse, moving from final product to blank canvas. Along the way, you bring the viewer through each step.
25. The Study Hall Open – Some presenters are faced with the dilemma of sharing data-heavy charts and graphs. To rely solely on PowerPoint is potentially ineffective – just too much data at once. So, take your audience back to school and to all those handouts. Edward Tufte, an expert in data visualization and a professor emeritus at Yale University, suggests using the “study hall” method. At the beginning of the session, distribute the handouts and ask the audience to read them. Following their review, you are off to the races. Your task is not to repeat what they have read but offer context and meaning.
Open a Speech with a Trio
Since you want the way you open a speech to be the beacon that brings the audience to your message, you don’t want to muddy it up with logistical housekeeping details, pleasantries, and formalities. You certainly don’t want to be boring. Yet, those appreciative remarks are often necessary.
By employing a three-part open, a speaker ensures that the details don’t overtake the message. We break it down with the pre-open, the open, and post-open:
Pre-opening: Salutations, polite acknowledgments, and introductions are dispatched within the pre-opening. Those “good mornings” and “thank-yous” should take no more than a few lines if any at all.
Open: Whether straightforward, traditional, creative, or innovative, your open is your hook. You just read more than two dozen.
Post-open: A blend of logistics and messaging, the post-open incorporates details about scheduled breaks and expected length of your talk, as well as the roadmap for your talk. These are the last words before your transition to the body of your talk.
Putting it together
Finally, we leave you with an example that incorporates all the effective components of the way to open a speech. Here, we revisit the CEO of the large investment firm who was addressing a group of entry-level employees.
Here’s how she might open:
Pre-open/salutations: “Good morning.”
Open: “You may not think I know what it is like to struggle, but at your age I was scraping for pennies, working two jobs, and still barely managing to pay my rent. When I was 22, I was nearly evicted from my apartment. I was about as low as one can go – but that low point was also motivating for me. I decided never to be so close to financial ruin again. It took a while – and more 19-cent grocery store ramen noodle soup dinners than I care to remember – but I finally learned to make my money work as hard as I was. It is a lesson I plan to share with you today. By the end of this talk, it is my intent to show you that the lessons I learned brought professional and personal fulfillment to my life – something that can happen for you, too.”
Post-open: “Before I continue, I’d like to thank this team’s leadership for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to welcome you in person. I plan to speak for about a half-hour, but then I want to hear from you. If there is one thing that I hope you remember by the time I am through, it is this: By becoming better financial stewards of your own money, you become better advisors for our clients.”
What’s Your Opening?
Back in 1973, a horse named Secretariat ran the Kentucky Derby in 1 minute and 59 seconds – breaking the two-minute mark for the first time in the then 99-year history of the race. His record still stands.
It doesn’t take a lot of time to do something great. The way you open a speech may not break any records, but it can have a long-standing effect on your audience. From the very start, you have an opportunity to influence others, establish rapport, and exhibit creativity. When done well, such effort is rewarded. Your audience not only connects with you during your talk but also remembers what you said long after your speech is done.