They say first impressions are solidified within 5 seconds of interacting with someone. In the same way, the audience’s first impression of what you are as a speaker is solidified after a few seconds of your speech. That’s why your introduction is one of the most important parts of your speech.
Because introductions to speeches are so important, I am always shocked at how many people begin with bad introductions like just saying their name, or asking “how everyone is doing tonight?”
A lot of people think that simply reading a quote is a great introduction, so they end up starting with an extremely generic, pre-memorized quotes. Or even worse, a corny joke.
6 Ideas for a better introduction
1. Story introduction
Tell a compelling story that illustrates a point you are trying to make. It’s hard for people not to become interested in stories. Make sure you include enough detail so that the story isn’t just a few sentences long. Stories that include some kind of mystery element are the best for introductions.
2. Question introduction
Asking a provocative question is a good way to start a speech. Watch out though—this can easily become cliché. If the question isn’t particularly good, or the answer is too obvious, then it’s not a good introduction.
A good example of a question would be “Have you ever wondered why school buses stop before a train crossing, opening and close their door before proceeding? Obviously, it has something to do with safety. But it doesn’t really seem necessary. Can’t they just look out the window and see if a train is coming? In fact, the answer to this question comes all the way from 1938.”
This is a question that most people have probably asked themselves before, but never bothered to find out the answer to. As a result, you instantly have their attention.
3. Humor introduction
This is a dangerous one. It is very easy to get wrong. Some people are simply not funny. Some audiences don’t like funny. Some occasions don’t call for funny.
There are many reasons why a decent joke might go wrong. And if it’s in your introduction, then you’ve ruined the rest of your speech. Think of the embarrassment of saying a joke in a loud voice and having people just stare at you blankly in response. This kind of gaffe can make you too nervous to properly complete your speech, and it will undermine your credibility with the audience.
However, humor can be done well. Here are some guidelines for properly using it:
- Larger audiences are generally safer bets. Even if there are a few curmudgeons who don’t like humor, there are bound to be a few people who laugh. Quiet laughter in a large room is still an embarrassment, however.
- Any humor you use should be tested before it’s debuted in front of a crowd. You don’t want to find out your joke isn’t funny when you’re giving an important speech. Naturally funny and comfortable people can probably get away with not testing.
- In 99.999999% of cases, don’t start with an actual “joke”. By joke, I mean humor that requires a setup. If you have a really good one, you could use it in the body of your speech where relevant. But starting off with a set up joke comes across as cliché.
- If you’re comfortable, make a humorous comment based on something that just happened, or audience reactions. Those are a lot more likely to work out than something pre-scripted. The downside to this is that it can’t be tested ahead of time. It goes without saying—but I’ll say it anyways—don’t try to squeeze humor out of a situation that isn’t humorous. Try-hard jokes or puns will likely backfire. I wrote that last sentence primarily for myself, an avid pun-maker who usually gets pity laughs.
4. Personal story introduction
This is one of the best ways to start a speech. People care about other people’s stories. The human element just draws them in.
If you have an interesting story from your personal life, tell it! Tie it into your subject artfully.
5. An object introduction
In some cases, you can bring up a prop to use as your introduction. You could hold it up and ask if anyone knows what it is (if it’s something most people haven’t seen before).
Maybe you’re talking about how companies can’t always predict how consumers will react to their products. You could start by holding up a Q-tip and asking the audience to raise their hands if they’ve ever cleaned their ear with one.
Then tie it in by saying something like, “As most of you know by now, Q-tips aren’t meant for cleaning ears, and most doctors recommend against it because you can puncture your eardrum. An injury which is horrifyingly called ‘perforation’. Despite this stern warning, most people clean their ears with it anyway. It goes to show that consumers have a mind of their own, and businesses can’t always predict what kind of strange uses for their product customers will come up with.”
6. Surprising statistic introduction
A TED talk from Jamie Oliver started with the line, “Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead from the food that they eat”. The wording is a bit awkward, but the general idea is great. This statistic is surprising and grabs attention easily.
Additional notes on introductions
- Although introductions that are prepared for your speech are good, sometimes it’s better to come up with one that applies directly to the context of the speech. Especially if it follows the principle of “relevant analogies”.
- As usual, do whatever is natural to you.
- Some presentations are more “intellectual” and “professional”, and a quote might be a more appropriate opener for these.
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