Your speech's beginning has to connect emotionally, launch into the theme of the speech, set expectations for tone, and give your audience a reason to keep listening

Stuck for a beginning to your speech? Here are 13 quick ways to get moving.

Figuring out how your speech is going to start stymies a lot of writers. I’ve spent too many hours staring at the blank screen, starting a paragraph, backspacing, starting again, backspacing, doing the dishes, starting a paragraph, backspacing…

It’s one of the reasons I’m a fan of starting to write your speech at the end, and working backwards. But not everybody likes to work that way, and even you do, you’ll still have to confront that opening line sooner or later.

And your opening has to do a lot of work. You need to connect emotionally with the audience, launch into the theme of the speech, set expectations for tone… and give them a good reason to keep listening instead of digging out the ol’ mobile to check their email.

No wonder so many people resort to time-worn openers like weak jokes (“It seems there was a rabbi, a frog and Captain Kirk, and they all walked into a bar…”) or the please-don’t-ever-do-this dictionary opening.

But here’s some good news, o starer-at-blank-screens: your beginning doesn’t have to be perfect. At least, not the beginning that launches you into writing the rest of the speech. Afterward, definitely go back and hone it to razor sharpness.

Making an imperfect start is one of the best ways I know to combat speechwriter’s block. But we all have times when even that imperfect start seems out of reach.

So here’s something that might help: a baker’s dozen ways to open a speech that aren’t “It’s great to be here today.” Maybe none of them is perfect for your speech… but I’ll bet you can find one that can get you unstuck.


“I’m going to talk to you today about governance: how we’re falling short today, what we want for tomorrow, and what we can all do to get us there.”

Object at hand

“Have a look at the plate in front of you, and the piece of chicken that’s on it. Or your neighbour’s plate, if you’re a vegetarian. To get that one piece of chicken from egg to boneless breast took about 200 gallons of water. To serve chicken to everyone here, 30,000 gallons of water. That’s just one dish, for one meal. Behind everything we  eat, everything we consume, there’s a huge invisible well of water. And today, I’m going to talk about what it takes to keep that well from going dry.”

Provocative question

“Why are we still cold-calling when we know for a fact it’s a waste of time?”


“I want you to get out a pen and paper. You’re going to write down the name of someone who made a difference to you.”

Big promise

“Ten minutes from now, you’re going to know how to defy gravity. And twenty minutes from now, you’ll know you to use that to overcome any challenge in your life, no matter how big.”


“Imagine yourself on a beach, on holiday. It’s warm. You hear kids laughing, seagulls. And then you notice something strange…”


“Ever wonder why we still can’t cure the common cold? There’s actually a good reason for that… and believe it or not, it’s the same reason we can’t eradicate terrorism.”


“Two weeks ago, the chancellor of this university said that our priority is applied research. Today I want to tell you why he’s wrong.”

Startling fact

“In the forty-eight hours of this conference, we will collectively miss the opportunity to raise more than $10 million from our donors.”

Story with a twist

“On July 13, 1995, Maria Adler took a break from her job in a Copenhagen library. She got a cup of coffee, sat down on a bench outside, and promptly spilled the scalding coffee all over the woman next to her. That could have been the beginning of a lawsuit. Instead, it started the romance that brings us all here today.”

Warning signal

“A lot of marketers promise to give you guarantees, foolproof tactics and can’t-miss plans. If that’s what you’re expecting, I’m sorry — because I’m here to give you the opposite.”


“Anya told us this morning about how the flow of information is erasing international borders. I want to tell you the next chapter of that story: what that means for international law, and how borders might end up being more important than ever.”

News story

“I was watching the news channel this morning. And a headline crawled across the bottom of the screen: ‘Builders ignored warning signs, inquest says.’ It was about the Dunbar bridge collapse last July, but it could have been about so many other catastrophes. We — all of us — have a habit of ignoring the warning signs, of seeing only what we want to see and hoping for the best. Well, there are some warning signs right in front of us today. We’ve been ignoring them for a long time. And if we keep that up, the catastrophe that results will cost us a lot more than just a bridge.”

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Got a favourite way to start a speech? Add it in the comments!

photo of audience with upraised fists

Communicators, it’s time to end audience abuse.

Audience abuse comes in many forms.

It happens in speeches.

An unprepared speaker who just can’t communicate.

A bait-and-switch session that doesn’t deliver what it promised.

A speaker who spends their time pitching themselves.

A speaker who leaves you cheering… until you realize they said nothing of substance.

Presentations that choose the path of least resistance and the way it’s always been done over actually engaging people.

Speakers who won’t deliver anything of value, but get the mic to satisfy some stakeholder or board member, and then talk forever.

It happens online.

Fake profiles.

Email spam. Twitter spam. Facebook spam.

Increasingly intrusive online ads that grind browsers to a halt—or open them to security breaches.

Clickbait posts that sensationalize and overpromise.

Worthless “content” churned out to keep you moving through a sales funnel.

It happens in media.

Clumsy product placement that yanks you out of a story with a hamfisted pitch.

Ads deliberately designed to irritate you to the point where you can’t get their slogans out of your head.

Pitches geared to making you feel worse about yourself, your body and your life.

Children’s TV and books churned out for a quick buck, palming off boilerplate dreck because they can get away with it.

Every square centimeter of white space slapped with ads, because a marketer somewhere decided they were entitled to an audience’s eyeballs.

Let’s end audience abuse.

Communicators of the world, whether we write ad copy or election leaflets, whether we produce television or tweets, whether we deliver speeches or the evening news—it’s time to stop abusing our audiences.

There is no inalienable right to audience attention.

“But it works” cannot defend an indefensible tactic. “We’ve always done it that way” can’t either.

Everyone’s time is precious, everyone’s attention is precious, and both deserve to be treated that way.

And there are objectives in communication far more important than racking up another conversion. It’s time to treat our audiences with respect.

It’s not just time to behave as though they were human.

It’s time to behave as though we were, too.

Used under a Creative Commons license

It's not just time to behave as though audiences were human.
Do you want it to be good, or do you want it to be yours?

A speechwriting lesson from House of Cards

I’m (finally) watching the convention episode (“Chapter 48”) of season 4 of House of Cards. And early on, there’s a great exchange between a new speechwriter and the pair of writers who’ve been with the Underwoods from the beginning.

They complain about his revisions to the convention speech: “You changed everything we wrote.”

“There was no imagination to it,” he says. “No rhythm.”

They counter, “We’ve been writing their speeches since they took office. We know what we’re doing.”

And he replies — devastatingly — “Well, do you want it to be good, or do you want it to be yours?”

It’s kind of a rotten management style, but it’s a great TV moment. And as advice goes, it’s every bit as important to heed as it is hard to swallow.

As speechwriters, we care about words. Our liveliest work often comes because we’ve dug deep and found a primal emotional connection to it.

But if that work doesn’t work for our clients — if it isn’t in their voice, or isn’t true to their message — then it’s our job to scrap it. And (maybe even more painful) if someone else comes along with something that works better, then it’s also our job to set ego aside and use that instead.

The speaker is the one who has to own those words, imbue them with life and answer for them later on. (And speakers have to do the same thing, by the by. If they’re in love with an anecdote or turn of phrase that doesn’t serve the speech well, they have a responsibility to turf it, too.)

House of Cards gets it absolutely right. The moment you realize the speech you’re writing for a client isn’t yours, the moment you surrender ownership and embrace working in service to the speaker, message and audience… that’s the moment your speech turns toward being good.

"Good performance is authentic behaviorin a manufactured environment." —Michael Port

Speaker as performer: Michael Port’s “Steal the Show”

When I coach speakers, there are many moments that feel like breakthroughs. When they show a little vulnerability, and share something of themselves. Or when they internalize the text of a speech well enough to hit every point effortlessly.

But few moments give me the joy and satisfaction of seeing a speaker breach the barrier between reading a speech and delivering it. Between recitation and performance.

“You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not,” I’ll tell a client. “But you do need to intentionally project an amplified part of yourself. Let’s try that passage again.” They do, and the difference is enormous. When they see it played back, their jaws drop. And they never want to go back to reading a speech again.

I’ve said many a silent prayer for a book I could point people to that would help readers learn to deliver an authentic performance. And this month, I finally read one: Michael Port’s Steal the Show.

The cover promises “a standing ovation for all the performances in your life,” and Port doesn’t just mean speeches: he’s talking about everything from job interviews to asking someone out on a date. In every case, he says, whether you want to move a hall of people to action or just arrange a romantic dinner for two at a cozy restaurant, performance skills can help you carry the day.

If “performance” carries overtones of insincerity, Port quickly dispels them, stressing that it isn’t about feigned emotion or forced enthusiasm. Instead, it’s taking the skills we’ve instinctively developed around conversation to convey emotion and connect with people, and adapting them to the demands of presentation to an audience.

And “performance” isn’t a metaphor in Steal the Show. Port comes from an acting background (if you watched Sex and the City or Third Watch, you may well have seen him), and much of the book explains how you can apply the tools of acting to public speaking. With techniques such as the improv principle of saying “Yes, and…” and an actor’s meticulous, relentless preparation and rehearsal, he shows you how you can elevate your delivery far above the vast majority of speakers.

The book addresses speechwriting, and offers an interesting take on the kinds of structures a presentation can use. But the heart of Steal the Show lies in performance, and that’s where I’d argue the need out there is greatest. This is one of those books I know I’ll be returning to often, and I recommend it highly.

Failure is always an option. -Adam Savage (photo of a dropped ice cream cone)

Speechwriting mistakes: four ways I screwed up (so you don’t have to)

I’d love to tell you that every speech I’ve written has been a roaring success, that every word was purest gold and that I never once face-planted into the metaphorical pavement.

Or that yeah, I did screw up, but it was only once. Or only twice.

But the truth is, I’ve made plenty of speechwriting mistakes along the way. And you will, too (if you haven’t already)—but maybe if I share some of mine, I can help you make different mistakes.

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Photo of bundled letters and papers

Writing to be heard

Wil Wheaton recently posted something to Medium, and it’s well worth reading on its own merits. But one passage jumped out at me in particular:

Please note that I wrote this to be spoken/performed, and it may not translate 100% to the written form.

The piece itself (both as a speech and an article) could do a lot of good in encouraging people to be kinder and more thoughtful, and to avoid cruel, bullying behaviour. But that little preamble could do a lot, too.

Wheaton acknowledges an often-overlooked fact: writing for the printed page is different from writing to be heard. There are things you can do in print (or in pixels) that often don’t work nearly as well spoken aloud: complex sentences, parenthetical asides, inverted structures.

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Photo of Edward Snowden

Speaking from half a world away: Edward Snowden on big data, security and privacy

Last night, I joined hundreds of other Vancouverites at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre for an evening with Edward Snowden.

For more than an hour, the intelligence-contractor-turned-whistleblower spoke to us via videoconference. He was articulate, quietly passionate and completely focused…at 5:00 a.m. Moscow time.

Set aside for a moment the substance of his talk. Just consider this:

Speechwriters often have to write for less-than-ideal events; speakers often have to deliver despite jet lag, poor acoustics or recalcitrant LCD projectors.

But if Snowden can speak with such energy, intelligence and poise at the end of an all-nighter, into a video camera, in exile… well, it puts any challenges I’ve faced into context.

Here are my sketchnotes from the evening (drawn in darkness, by the light – ironically enough – of my privacy-nightmare iPhone). Continue reading

Donald Trump notwithstanding, oversimplification and bluster aren’t winning strategies for speakers.

Will Donald Trump kill speechwriting? (Spoiler: no.)

A few months before the GOP convention, the leading contender for the party’s presidential nomination is Donald Trump: a man who draws huge, rapturous crowds… yet delivers long, rambling speeches that are apparently entirely off the cuff.

Now, let’s be clear: there’s a lot more on the line here than what that means for speechwriters. (For instance, I believe the presidency of an authoritarian race-baiting con artist would be bad for nearly everyone and downright catastrophic for most, American or otherwise. In related news, I don’t sleep too well these days.)

But a lot of leaders have to be looking at Trump and asking if that approach would work for them, too. Could they command audience adulation and overwhelming ovations if they just ranted from the stage for an hour or so, as long as they kept boasting, pressing the right hot buttons and insulting the right targets?

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