Speech Introductions

Writing the Introduction

It’s no accident that most good Hollywood movie scripts follow this pattern: exciting opening (think Saving Private Ryan), an interesting and easy to follow story line, and a memorable finish (think Shawshank Redemption). Screen writers realize that their audiences put a lot of stock into first and last impressions. Guess what? Your audience does, too. Because of this is, your introductions and conclusions always need to be exceptional.

An exceptional introduction will do all of the following:

  1. Gain the audience’s attention
  2. Establish credibility/rapport
  3. Preview the speech
  4. Motivate the audience to listen
  5. Clearly indicate that the body of the speech has begun

Gaining the audience’s attention is always the first thing to do in your speech. People generally don’t tune into speeches beginning in the middle, so you’ve got to capture their attention right from the start.

There are a number of different devices that work well for gaining the audience’s attention:

  1. Jokes - People love to laugh. By telling a good joke early in the speech, you not only build your rapport with the audience, you also motivate to listen with the promise of more humor. Just make sure that the joke isn’t offensive and that it fits well with the rest of your speech.
  2. Quotations - Quotations are great attention-getters. Typically, if a quotation has stood the test of time, it offers some sort of humor or insight that will interest the audience. Also, a good quote by a known author will enhance your credibility.
  3. Anecdotes - A good story is a very effective attention-getter. If you tell a story about yourself, you can build your credibility, and the story will probably be more relevant to your audience.
  4. Statistics - It’s a public speaking myth that statistics shouldn’t be used in speeches. If you use too many statistics, perhaps, it could be problematic. However, if you select a few really startling statistics that illustrate your point, they can be quite effective. If you are going to use a statistic as an attention-getter, make sure that it’s relevant and has a lot of impact.
  5. Facts - Just as with statistics, you’re looking for relevance and impact.
  6. Props - A visually interesting prop can be a good attention-getter. If the audience can’t figure out what it is or can’t figure out what the significance to your speech is (and you eventually explain of course) then you have a potentially effective attention-getter.
  7. Audience Involvement - This involves asking the audience to become part of your speech. That could mean asking them a question (rhetorical or otherwise), asking them to do something physical (raise their hands, close their eyes), or asking them to think about something related to your speech.

Establishing credibility and rapport begins with your attention-getter and continues throughout the rest of your introduction. The basic formula for credibility is this: COMPETENCE + CHARACTER = CREDIBILITY.

“Character” basically refers to the audience’s perception of your goodwill and trustworthiness. Some ways to enhance your perceived character in the introduction include:

  • Smiling: Smile at your audience and guess what happens? They smile back. Smiling is a good idea in 99% of all speech situations, even business presentations and other “serious” speeches. It’s the easiest way to show your character to the audience.
  • Show enthusiasm: This is the second easiest way to show your character. Besides, if you can’t get excited about your speech, your audience certainly won’t.
  • Demonstrate similarity: In most cases, audiences prefer speakers whom they feel are similar to themselves. Even if your not similar to your audience on a superficial level, there is always some area of commonality. Stress it.
  • Compliment, thank, or show knowledge of the audience: Make them feel important, because for the rest of your speech they are very important.
  • Be truthful: Simple enough.

Perhaps the audience will know of your credentials before you begin speaking, whether through a separate introduction of you as a speaker or through your reputation on your topic. If they don’t, you can mention your competence by simply stating your experience and expertise relative to the topic. Of course, you don’t want to damage your perceived character by bragging, but if you just state the facts it shouldn’t be a problem.

The average audience member asks themselves this at the beginning of every speech: “Why should I care?” It’s up to you as the speaker to show the audience how the speech you are about to give is relevant to their lives. Think in terms of the audience’s needs and let them know how your speech will help them fulfill those needs.

Typically, the preview of the speech will come near the end of the introduction. All that is required is just a few lines dedicated to outlining the main points that will be discussed in your speech.

Finally, the last goal of the introduction is to let the audience know that the body of the speech has begun. This can be accomplished with a signpost, a blatantly obvious transitional statement. Examples of signposts that can be used at the end of the introduction include: “my first point today”, “to begin with today”, etc.

Overall, your introduction should be about 10-15% of the total speech length. Any shorter, and you probably haven’t accomplished everything that you should. Any longer, and you are taking valuable time away from the body of the speech.