Of the countless ways to begin your speech, I am going to detail the three types of openings that the most compelling TED speakers use to engage their audiences. Remember that the first ten or twenty seconds of your speech is the peak of your audience’s engagement level. It is not going to get any better as one by one your listeners will get distracted by their mental grocery lists or the next day’s outfit. Hook them fast with benefits by giving them an implicit or explicit reason to pay close attention.
Opening #1: The Personal Story
The most consistently successful opening is the personal story. Here is what you need to know. First, your personal story should really be personal. Tell your own story and share your observations. It is a good idea to make others the heroes in your stories. Second, make sure your story is directly relevant to your core message. If your goal is to inspire people to volunteer their time to feed the homeless, a cute story about how your dog can bark ‘I love you’ just does not belong. Third, fourth, and fifth, make your story highly emotional, highly sensory, and rich in dialogue. The story should be so specific that your audience is able to relive it with you. And sixth, start your story somewhere in the middle so that you immediate prompt your audience to wonder who, what, where, whey, why, or how.
In his TEDTalk, author and success expert Richard St. John demonstrated the power of using a personal story for his opening:
This is really a two hour presentation I give to high school students, cut down to three minutes. And it all started one day on a plane, on my way to TED, seven years ago. And in the seat next to me was a high school student, a teenager, and she came from a really poor family. And she wanted to make something of her life, and she asked me a simple little question. She said, “What leads to success?” And I felt really badly, because I couldn’t give her a good answer. So I get off the plane, and I come to TED. And I think, jeez, I’m in the middle of a room of successful people! So why don’t I ask them what helped them succeed, and pass it on to kids?
Did you visualize yourself on the plane? Did you turn your head and eavesdrop when the teenage girl, who came from a poor family, asked Richard for the secret of success? Could you feel Richard’s disappointment about not having a good answer and his zeal to be ready to help kids in the future? Moreover, and more selfishly, are you now intensely curious what Richard St. John found to be the key to success? To find out, you will have to watch his talk on TED.com; I cannot spoil all the fun. But, at least you now know Richard’s secret to capturing his audience with a personal story opening.
Opening #2: The Powerful Question
If you go the powerful question route, I recommend that you use “why” questions and “how” questions. “Why” questions are by far the most enticing since they tap into our natural curiosity to understand the world around us. Once we know why things happen, then we want to know how to make good things happen and how to prevent bad things from happening. If the “why” is implied or well understood, then you can open with a “how” question.
Simon Sinek demonstrated the most effective powerful question opening of any TEDTalk that I have encountered. Here is how he began a talk that ultimately provided people with a how-to framework for being an inspiring leader or an effective corporation:
How do you explain when things don’t go as we assume? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example: Why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, after year, after year, they’re more innovative than all their competition. And yet, they’re just a computer company. They’re just like everyone else. They have the same access to the same talent, the same agencies, the same consultants, the same media. Then why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement? He wasn’t the only man who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. And he certainly wasn’t the only great orator of the day. Why him? And why is it that the Wright brothers were able to figure out control-powered, manned flight when there were certainly other teams who were better qualified, better funded, and they didn’t achieve powered man flight, and the Wright brothers beat them to it. There’s something else at play here.
A single opening question is sufficient. But, Mr. Sinek instead chose to bombard his audience with a string of “why” questions. This approach, an extended “why-tease”, is extremely effective but most be done carefully. To successfully string multiple questions together in an opening, they must all have the same answer. Simon even mixed how and why questions together, a bit like playing with matches and dynamite; however, both types of questions were rooted in the same underlying reason. I would just leave you confused if I opened a speech with “Why is it that the sky is blue? And why is it that that a rolling stone gathers no moss? And why is it that elephants are afraid of mice?”
Opening #3: The Shocking Statement
Though shocking statements most frequently rely on statistics, they can also express strong opinions that challenge conventional wisdom. The important thing is that your point must trigger a range of audience emotions. If you share a “what”, then people will have a burning need to fill in the gaps on why, how, when, and where. In his TED2010 talk, celebrity chef and child nutrition advocate Jamie Oliver used exactly this recipe in his opening. Listen to how he started:
Sadly, in the next eighteen minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead from the food that they eat. My name is Jamie Oliver. I am thirty four years old. I am from Essex in England and for the last seven years I have worked fairly tirelessly to save lives in my own way. I am not a doctor; I’m a chef. I don’t have expensive equipment, or medicine. I use information and education. I profoundly believe that the power of food has a primal place in our homes that binds us to the best bits of life.
Chef Oliver captured his audience by sharing what is happening – people are dropping like flies from the food they eat. And, they are not half way around the world in a developing country; they are in the same modern nation as his audience. You should have little doubt that most of the audience is wondering if they will survive lunch! Such is the power of a shocking statistic that is deeply and personally relevant to the audience. Remember the magic four needs: physical health and safety; love and belonging; desire and self-interest; hope in a brighter future. Jamie went primal, life and death, and had his audience waiting with bated breath to find out why this is happening and to learn how to stay alive.
Try It Out!
Your opening should have caused your audience to consider the benefits of your talk in an implicit way. Rather than starting your speeches with a whimper such as “Hello ladies and gentlemen…” or “In the next 45 minutes, I am going to share with you…”, start your next talk with a bang. You can do that by telling a personal story, asking a powerful question, or sharing a shocking statistic. Just make sure that your opening completely supports the primary theme or objective of your speech.