The Cracks

Speech Intros


SpeechIntro2“NUDITY!”  Now that I have your attention… (sigh)

If Gladwell is correct and we become an “expert” or “master” after 10,000 hours, then I should be the ultimate speech critic…and then some.   In 20 years, I’ve seen thousands of speeches by students – informative, impromptu, narrative, ceremonial, demonstration, and persuasive make up most of the map, although a few others dot the landscape.

As well, during that same time, I have attended hundreds of conferences, listening to some wonderful (and many more not-so-wonderful) presenters.  I’ve heard TED-like talks from big name speakers and been to workshops delivered by seasoned facilitators.

Add to that the 15,000 hours I’ve personally been in front of an audience, from stand-up to keynote speaking, and I think it’s fair to say I have had a “well rounded” experience with presentations.  Technologists might call me an ‘end to end’ user.  As such, I’m happy to talk about the art and science of presenting with anyone, any time.

So, it’s with great frustration that I tell you about a Google search I just performed.  As a person who is in front of 30-50 large audiences per year, I am ALWAYS on the lookout for new, engaging, interactive material.  By that, I don’t simply mean new PowerPoint graphics or funny jokes.  (I’m starting to craft a “How PowerPoint has destroyed learning” blog….more on that later.)

What I’m talking about are openers.  Try doing a search on Google for a good…no, wait!  Make it a “great” speech introduction.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait…

If you are like me, you may have been un-thwarted by the simple search yielding no good results.  But after a litany of more hearty searches like “creative presentation openers” or “speech ice breakers” or “engaging attention getters for speeches” perhaps you also gave up.  Why did I quit?

Because the lists are 1) all the same and 2) really bad lists.  Let me explain.

The ‘experts’ out there (many of whom would really like you to buy their book on speaking or consulting) write about the best, most clever, and engaging openings for speeches.  Their lists all look similar in scope, with the differences coming in the context or anecdotes they use to explain the concepts.  But at the end of the day, the explanations change nothing.  So, you end up with:

  1. Tell a funny joke
  2. Use a controversial or shocking statistic
  3. Open with a quote or line from a song
  4. Greet the audience with a sincere “thank you”
  5. Get them thinking with a rhetorical question

rhetorical-questionsOK, I’m going to stop there.  There are 7-12 other common (and poor) pieces of advice, but let me specifically stop at the rhetorical question.  Or as I call it, Valedictorian of this Summer School line up.  No rhetorical device has been so underwhelming, so over-emphasized, and so poorly used over time as the rhetorical question.  Just stop using them – PLEASE!  There are so many rules associated with their proper usage it’s almost impossible to meet them all, under any situation.  So just avoid them like Ebola and move on.

So, some of you may be scratching your heads.  But wait, why are those bad ideas?  After all, they likely filled your own speech textbooks in school.  Or maybe you’ve seen one of these techniques used effectively.  Maybe you’ve even used one often in your own career.  I have to note that I’m not saying these techniques can’t work.  Just like in the hands of marksman a carnival rifle can hit the mark, so too are these mediocre openers.  No, what I’m saying is that people treat these ‘solutions’ like a piece of medicine.  They tick the box and move on.  Introduction?  Let me do a quick Google search for Einstein quotes…CHECK!  Which is why they are rarely – and I mean RARELY – used with any effectiveness.

You have seconds (anywhere from 7 to 70, depending on the research you value) to gain an audience’s attention.  (Cool cognitive science note – prolonged boredom actually floods the bloodstream with cortisol – the same hormone that leads to depression, obesity, fatigue, heart disease, and binge eating…)  But, that attention getter must be meaningful and contextual to the speech, or audiences feel tricked / manipulated.  So, the question then must be – did your joke or your “shocking” statistic (the quotations here are VERY deliberate) actually get their attention AND tie to your presentation?  Did that song lyric set you up for success IN KEEPING their attention too?  Or instead was the joke lame, the statistic not that shocking at all, or the rhetorical question less than thought provoking?

I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but a good opener takes some work. A great opener takes more. BUT take heart!  A good or great attention getter can not only save your speech, they can often be reused!  Remember, good material only needs to be new material with an old audience. Use the great stuff over and over!

Ok, so are you hooked yet? Time for me to put up or shut up?  Deal. Here are a few ways I like to create a truly memorable, GREAT opener:

  • Start with an inventory. Actually give the audience 10 questions that identify a trait, behavior, etc. One of my favorites is to give the ‘psychopath’ test without telling them what it is until the end!
  • Open with a video clip. My personal favorites are video captures I create of websites, simulations, apps, etc. But there are thousands of great clips out there for a myriad of topics.  (Note to speakers – actually START with the clip.  Save your “Hi, my name is…” for after.)
  • Speaking of apps, start with a poll taken using phones. Sites like poll have free options for occasional usage. (Better – display the poll to be seen in real time.)
  • Gain attention through a group game. ‘Nuff said.
  • Get them focused by performing a trick or illusion. From ‘mind reading’ to math tricks, there are several easy-to-learn ideas out there which require no props or technical skill.
  • Work up a ‘bit’ – like an iband song or a sketch (starring you OR others) in a complex, touching, or funny situation, etc.
  • Perform a bookend. Use the old Paul Harvey trick and open with a story up to the cliff-hanger part.  Then, conclude with the ending – the REST of the story, so to speak.

See what I mean? These are only a handful of clever, engaging openers I’ve used over time. But here is the kicker. I have people ask me about those starters 4, 7, even 10 years later. Then, they’ll start tying the attention getter to the rest of the presentation and ask questions.

When was the last time your rhetorical question did that?

Good luck and good speaking!

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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