9 Killer Openers to Start a Speech or Presentation

Well begun is half done – Mary Poppins.

 

Want to hook your audience and keep their attention from the moment you begin your speech? 


A killer speech opener will make the difference between a presentation that makes you soar or your audience snore.


I have researched the whole web to find nine killer speech openers to make your audience lean in and listen rather than tune out and daydream.


You’ll see how masters of the craft have used them and how you can use them in your talks. 


Number seven takes hutzpah to pull off.

Ready for the whole list of killer speech openers? Let’s go! 

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The Shock Opener

One of the best ways to open your speech with a buzz is to startle or shock them.

You can shock an audience in many ways, but they all rest on the major senses of Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic (touch) and Smell (VAKS).

We don’t want your audience tasting your talk, but it should leave a good taste in their mouths.

Changing Minds suggests asking if the audience is awake after appearing from a flashbang and a cloud of smoke, and this might work for you if you’re a magician or playing some kind of character for your speech like a genie.

Suppose you aren’t going for the magic angle. In that case, you can shock them on a psychological level instead, as Conor Neill recommends, and tell your audience a surprising fact or statistic that makes them question their thinking or beliefs.

“Did you know that half the water on earth is older than the sun?”

Questions like these will shake an audience awake and turn on their critical thinking nerve system.

Don’t take my word for it; you can see an incredible demonstration of the shock opener in Mohammed Qahtani’s speech The Power of Words. Qahtani opens by taking out a cigarette and placing it into his mouth before trying to light it. The audience is so shocked that they gasp and tell him to stop. 

Remember, if your audience is shocked, they are listening. 

Your audience doesn’t always have to be jolted to attention with a shock opener, though you can use a more subtle approach to grab their focus. How about:

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The Story Opener

You can set the tone of your speech instantly with a story. In Hollywood, filmmakers and directors use an ‘establishing shot’ to set the tone and theme of the entire film. 

When creating your speech, think of a short story that sums up your talk. 

Maybe you tell half the story to begin with and then the other half at the end. The important thing is your tale must be relatable. If your audience can’t imagine themselves in the story, they won’t be engaged.

We all experience very similar things in life:

  • We all went to school and had a teacher we loved;
  • We all have parents who loved us or made mistakes in our upbringing;
  • We all had a first crush.

We are all cut from the same cloth, so it’s good to be reminded that others are going through what we face or think as we do.

Bryan Stevenson does a stellar job of recounting his mischievous grandmother in his TED Talk We need to talk about an injustice.

The best thing is you can use the story opener with any other opener in this list. It’s truly versatile.

One of my favourite styles of opener is next, though.

The Intrigue Opener

I love this opener. What better way to hook your audience than to intrigue them with mystery or juicy secret? 

Take a look at Daniel Pink’s TED Talk The puzzle of motivation. After he begins, Pink looking like a guilty man sent to the gallows tells his audience: “I need to confess something, at the outset here. A little over 20 years ago, I did something I regret. Something I’m not particularly proud of”.

Wow. How intriguing!. You have to admit; you want to know what he’s about to confess. 

Choose every sentence, every word, and every mark of punctuation to increase the tantalisation temperature.

Dave Mac over at Presentation Blogger recommends using the Intrigue Opener by telling the audience you’re about to reveal a secret.

Whether it’s a secret or confession, the Intrigue Opener piques just enough curiosity in your audience to keep them from checking Whatsapp.

As humans, we need closure. We do not like open loops. That’s why it is both enthralling and aggravating when someone plays on our need to be sure.

Just as we cannot stand an open loop, we are instantly engaged when someone gives us a puzzle to solve. 

You’ll notice that the best speeches, books, tv shows, and films do not spoon feed you all of the information. 

I’ve always liked the way Malcolm Gladwell writes his non-fiction books because they contain puzzles that you solve as a reader. 

This puzzle needs to be related to the speech or presentation you’re delivering, of course. It cannot be a random puzzle and will ideally be impossible or extremely difficult to solve at first.

After the speech begins and the puzzle is revealed, you should slowly drop hints on how to solve the mystery. 

Another opener that uses a physical object to create curiosity in the audience’s mind is next.

The Prop Opener

One of the most potent ways you will captivate your audience is to use a powerful prop in your opening address. 

What better way to capture an audience’s imagination than to show them a mysterious or beautiful object? 

If you’ve never seen the Prop Opener done well, then take a look at one of the greatest speeches of all time: Dananjaya Hettiarachchi’s See Something. Danajaya enters with a simple rose in his breast pocket, takes it out, gazes at it nostalgically, smells it and then begins to speak. This same prop appears again right at the end of his speech to end his talk with a flourish. 

There are many different props you can use. JJ Abrams used a Mystery Box to absorb the audience’s attention and used the box as a metaphor for his entire career.

If you think the prop opener is just for TED Talks and Toastmasters Final Speeches, remember that most company product launch centre around one or more props. Steve Jobs revealed his new products in ever-innovative ways. Still, while the last two speeches I’ve mentioned opened with physical items, most of Jobs’s presentations built intrigue through the absence of the product. 

So remember, you can use an object or tease your audience with the absence of a prop, but make that prop integral to your talk.

You don’t always have to use a prop, of course. A more minimalist approach to opening your speech uses the best audience reaction a speaker can receive: laughter.

The Funny Opener

Using laughter to win over your audience is the golden ticket to immediate rapport with your audience. 

Jack Schafer, PhD at Psychology Today, said that People Will Like You If You Make Them Laugh, which seems obvious, but at least you know we have scientists on the case. He also mentions that constructing humour requires and projects a high level of intelligence. 

Of course, laughter is subjective, but it is also infectious, and if you get enough members of your audience to titter, it will spread across the whole group.

If you want to see just how quickly you can win an audience over with humour, take a look at Ken Robinson’s subtle but delightful ability to raise a chuckle in his speech Do Schools Kill Creativity? Ken’s ability to speak conversationally to an audience of thousands is genuinely remarkable. If you break down his humour, it is easy to see how you could include similar content in your presentations. Whether you can pull it off as well as Ken is another story.

Not everyone feels like they can be a comedian, though; I get that. Well, that’s alright because there are other ways to open your talk that play on other strong emotions. 

You can inspire your audience too.

The Inspiration Opener

One of my favourite ways to help beginner speakers to open their presentation is with a quote. 

A quote acts like a story in that it sets the tone and theme of your speech, but it takes much less effort and even less skill. 

An effective quote is usually only one line long and supported by the credibility of the original author who uttered those words. 

Watch the way Clint Smith opens his TED Talk  The Danger of Silence. Using Martin Luther King’s voice to start his speech gives Clint what psychologists call the transference effect. Just by citing someone else, especially someone admired and famous, you redirect the emotions an audience have towards that person onto yourself. 

One caveat to using quotes, though: fact check them. I cringe whenever I see someone incorrectly quoting someone. 

Have you ever heard the quote by Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results”?

A great quote, isn’t it? But Albert Einstein never said those words. A quick check on Reuters will help you add more credibility to your inspirational opener.

Finally, try to use a quote few people have ever heard. Inspiring words have been filling the archives of history for millennia, so seek out something that has been left dusty on the shelf rather than the same recycled iterations.

Next, let’s look at a bold opener that takes real hutzpah to land well.

The Perspective Shift Opener

A powerful speech opener that will take confidence is the perspective shift opener. This opener will lead the audience in one direction before changing direction and setting a new pace for the speech. 

Cameron Russel does a fantastic job of controlling the frame in her TED Talk Looks aren’t everything. Believe me; I’m a model. 

Russel takes to the stage dressed in a skimpy dress and begins to tell the audience about her career, but then does a rapid wardrobe change on stage in front of the entire audience. 

This change of dress sets a new tone, feel, and direction for the speech. 

If you can change the audience’s perspective or frame of reality, you are in the driving seat. One of the best things you can hope for as a speaker is moving hearts and changing minds. 

 

If you aren’t a confident speaker, start small. Vanessa Van Edwards suggests never mentioning how nervous you are. It’s distracting and makes the audience pick up on all the subtle nervous energy and cues you give off. Control the frame instead and act cool and confident: they will buy into it.

 

Another great way to hold frame control over an audience is by using the power of silence.

The Silence Opener

Silence is a valuable commodity in today’s noisy and distracting digital world. 

Creating silence at the beginning of your talk can profoundly affect your audience and their focus. 

Did you ever have a teacher at school who used silence effectively? When my English classmates were noisy, our teacher Mr Rylance would hold up his hand in silence. Slowly we would settle down and focus on his raised hand. A few would giggle, but that would peter out until we all wrapt in a hypnotic stillness.

If you want to see an example of how to use silence, then look at Neal Glitterman’s speech The Power of Silence. You can see how much gravity silence can have, especially as a speech opener.

The final killer opener I want to introduce you to is the big promise opener.

The Big Promise Opener

I believe that all speeches and presentations should contain a big promise as it tells your audience why they should keep on listening. 

Ideally, your big promise will be your speech title or phrase that pays, which is a recurring foundational phrase you will use throughout your presentation. 

A big promise is your way of making a deal with the audience: you listen to me, and you’ll get something in return. 

Creating a big promise at the beginning of your speech is like adding a teaser trailer to the beginning of a TV show. It suggests a reason you should stick around. 

When Arthur Benjamin introduces his talk Faster than a calculator by announcing, “I am a human calculator!” you know that proof is on the way.

Remember the essential rule of the Big Promise Opener: make it big and keep your promise.

Go and WOW your audience

I hope you feel that I kept my promise of sharing nine killer openers to start a speech or presentation. 

Did you notice any other openers at the beginning of this article?

Don’t forget; these openers can be mixed and matched. You can include a number of these speech openers in the same presentation to create more impact.

Let me know which of these killer openers was your favourite, and let me know if you have any more you’d like to share.

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9 Killer Openers to Start a Speech or Presentation

Danny Riley

A corporate trainer, award-winning speaker, TEDx Speaker coach, and Distinguished Toastmaster. Danny designs and delivers Leadership Development Programmes as well as coaching professional speakers. He is a Chartered Manager, a member of the CIPD, and dedicates his life to developing executives who want to deliver more persuasive pitches and presentations.
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