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  • Bruce Rule

Effective Ways to Start a Speech When Public Speaking (Part 2)

rule communications Bruce Rule
Asking The Audience a Question Is a Good Start

In the last post (here) we began to explore ways you can grab the attention of your audience at the beginning of a public speaking appearance or a presentation. These icebreakers are designed to make sure your listeners are focused on you when you present the main point of your speech.


Let’s continue with some more ways:


2) Ask a thought-provoking or provocative question.


For example, “Have you ever thought about what impact artificial intelligence is going to have on your job?” might be an ear-catching way to begin a presentation on AI.


For a company presentation on the need to invest in cybersecurity measures, you could start with, “Have you ever tried to imagine what would happen to us if we were the target of a cyberattack? Well, let me tell you how bad it could be.” That is sure to get the attention of the boss.


3) Take a poll of the audience.


Say you were giving a presentation on how much money is spent on pet food in the U.S. each year. (Hint: it’s a lot!). You might start out by asking audience members who own a cat to raise their right hand. Then ask audience members who own a dog to raise their left hand. Then, just for the fun of it, ask audience members who own both to raise both hands.


By then you would have made the point that most people own a pet. Then hit them with the amount that is spent on feeding those pets. The American Pet Products Association estimated it was $64.4 billion in 2023.


Here is another example using cybersecurity. You might ask audience members to raise their hand if they receive emails at work from outside the company. Presumably, almost everyone will raise their hands. Then ask if they ever receive phone calls from outside the company. Again, most will raise their hands. Congratulations, you might say, you now know two of the most common ways cyber hackers will try to breach our security systems. Let me explain.


Be a Storyteller


4) Tell a compelling and appropriate story.


For example, if you were doing a presentation about a proposed new product, you might start with how you came up with the idea. “One day last September, I was looking at our Dynamo X and thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to use it in the dark?’ I spent the next several months experimenting with adding this material, subtracting that material. Nothing seemed to work. Then it hit me! What if we doubled the concentration of X? And you would not believe what happened!”


Going back to cybersecurity, if you were doing a presentation on the need for vigilance you might start an example of what happened to another company. Like so: “In 2011, the top executives of email marketing company Epsilon faced a nightmare that you would not wish on anyone. They were told that the company had suffered a data breach that affected some 250 million people. That’s 250 million people. In the following days clients worth about $45 million walked away. And Epsilon ended up paying an estimated $225 million to clean up the mess. We can’t afford that kind of breach at our company. That is why…”


5) Do an activity or display a prop that is relevant to your presentation.


I once saw a scientist who wanted to impress on her supervisors how involved her role was on a project bring in all the lab equipment that she uses every day. The table was covered with vials and beakers and has she talked she would pick up one piece and then another to emphasize what she did all day. I don’t know what her bosses thought, but I certainly was impressed.


Doing an activity is an especially great way to start when giving a presentation to students or children. This is especially true if the props involved are things they not have had a chance to see up close. A firefighter giving a talk on fire safety could do very well if he dressed in uniform and brought in a fire ax or gas mask to show during the talk.


Famous People


6) Share a famous or newsworthy quote that is appropriate.


If you are presenting a company forecast for annual sales, for instance, you might start out with a recent quote the president said about economic growth. Or perhaps something a famous investor such as Warren Buffett said about what he thinks might happen. Make sure the person is well known enough that you won’t have to spend time explaining who he is.


For example, if your forecast is for strong growth, you could find something the president said recently that was optimistic. “The president says we can expect GDP growth of 3 percent for the second half of the year. I’m happy to say that we can expect our growth to….”


An historical quote can work if it fits, but make sure that it is accurate or you may lose some of your audience. Don’t rely on your memory or Wikipedia. Find a primary source for the quote if you can.          


You don’t have to master each of these types of icebreakers to be a strong speaker. You may find that only one or two work for the types of presentations or speeches that you give. That’s fine. Stick with them. Or you may find that you aren’t comfortable with some of the openings. If you aren’t comfortable, don’t do it.


Remember, with public speaking there are many ways to be effective. Choose the one that works best for the situation and for you and you’ll be fine.





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