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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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!