Opening Words: Make Them Count

Speakers should make the first words of their presentations count. Use as a model Colin Firth’s acceptance speech last night for Best Actor in “The King’s Speech:”  "I have a feeling my career's just peaked.”

Don't spend opening seconds thanking the group for the opportunity, or talk about what a beautiful facility you are speaking in, or what a marvelous day it is. Choose opening words that make the audience want to listen.

Significant speeches in our history illustrate how important the opening words are. Remember that Abraham Lincoln began his ceremonial speech on November 19, 1863, to honor the soldiers who lost their lives at Gettysburg by saying, "Four score and seven years ago…." 

Franklin Roosevelt began his Declaration of War speech in 1941 with these words: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan." 

Ronald Reagan eulogized the Challenger Astronauts on January 28, 1986 when he began with "Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering.”

Begin with a sentence that makes the audience think. Begin with words that motivate the audience to listen. My after-dinner speech, "Be Present When You Are Present" begins with "The greatest single secret to success is paying attention."  Another speech I deliver often is "High Bid."  My opening words are the auctioneer's chant as I introduce my analogy that “life is like an auction. We sell ourselves by what we say and how we say it." 

Your opening words need to relate to your topic and show why it is important to listen to what follows. There are various ways of doing this. You might open with a startling statement about a product the audience members produce or a statistic that demonstrates the quality of work of the people in the room. Perhaps you could open with a provocative question that stimulates discussion.

Certainly words of appreciation to the audience for your being there are fine, but not in the opening words. For example, after you speak for a few minutes and the audience is really staying with you, you might say, "I really appreciate your careful attention and the way you have received me. Your reactions energize me as I speak."  Or if you have a question and answer period at the end, you might begin by thanking them for the opportunity. That also gives the audience more time to think of questions.

Never waste words in speaking, but especially make the opening words count.

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Visit his site to read other valuable articles on effective speaking and listening or call him at 800.727.6520.

“I Prefer Listening”

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been criticized for not asking questions during oral arguments.  His response is "…in law school, I could learn better just listening," as quoted in USA Today.  He further stated in the interview, "I think there are far too many questions (in oral arguments). I prefer to listen and think it through more quietly." 

This is good advice for all of us. I find that people have better human relations when they spend more time listening than talking. That begins with just being silent. In fact, the letters that spell silent are the same letters that spell listen; they are just arranged in a different order. People are sometimes startled by this idea when I point it out in my Power Listening seminar. An effective way of listening is silence, but you must arrange your thoughts differently to concentrate on the message instead of retreating into your own little thought world. 

Keep track of your talk time versus your listening time in the course of a day. You might be surprised that you learn more by "…thinking it through quietly." 

Comedy and CliffsNotes

For years in my presentation seminars, I’ve taught that business speakers must learn to use humor in their presentations to be successful. Our audiences of younger people who have grown up on “Sesame Street” and “Electric Company” often need a light approach in our content. Add to that today’s entertainment choices due to current technology, and keeping attention with humor is even more important.

However, there is now a new level to humor in presentations. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, reality-show producer Mark Burnett is teaming up with an independent movie company and AOL, Inc., to make comedic videos based on CliffsNotes. We all remember those from our high school days as a way to assimilate in two hours what we missed due to lack of attention or misbehavior during a semester of class.

Joseph Castelo, the president of Coalition Films, said, "The idea is to bring classic works of fiction to the online masses by using humorous, irreverent shorts that still manage to present the plot, characters, and themes to the viewer." The rationale, according to the article, is the desire to help youth remember key points and perhaps "…inspire them to actually read the books." 

As presenters, we need to keep this point in mind. We must have variety, including a little humor along the way, to keep the attention of our audiences and to motivate them to act on our ideas.

The Attraction of the New

Even if you are not a racing fan, you can't help but be interested in yesterday's Daytona 500 winner, rookie Trevor Bayne. We pay attention to the new. The new attracts us, and wow! was everything new for Trevor. In only his second Sprint Car start, the 20-year old Bayne stunned NASCAR's biggest names with a thrilling overtime win. He held off such racing greats as Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, and Kurt Busch, who had a total of 74 years of racing experience without a Daytona 500 victory.

We admire the person who accomplishes something big for the first time. Those kinds of events hold our attention. For most professional race car drivers, winning the Daytona 500 is a career culminating event, not their first victory.

One of the ways to improve attention—and of course improving attention is my emphasis in many of my presentations—is to look for the new during your routine activities throughout the day. A new restaurant, a new highway billboard, or a new way to work might catch your eye.  

Clear your mind by attending a new movie, a play, or an art exhibit. This will give your mind a break from the mundane, and refresh your thinking in general.

Bask in the euphoria of Trevor Bayne (even his name invites newness) because he gives us the warm positive feelings of the new!

Valentine’s Day 2011


Saturday night was lots of fun for Lanita and me! We attended the St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic Church Valentine Banquet where I was privileged to speak. Wonderful food and conversation abounded, and my speech, “Coming Home to Love and Laughter,” was well-received. 

For the benefit of those from St. Al’s who have actually found my blog, here is one husband-wife story I didn’t tell.                                              

A friend asked a man: “Did you hear the joke about the dirty window?”

“No,” he answered.

“Well, you couldn’t see through it anyway,” his friend answered. The husband thought that was pretty good, so he wanted to tell his wife.

He said, “Did you hear the joke about the window you couldn’t see through?”

“No,” she answered.

“Well,” he replied, “it’s too dirty to tell, anyway.”

Hope your Valentine Day was as much fun as ours!

Listen, Ask, Listen Again

The words in the title of this piece are part of key training skills Delta Airlines is using to send 11,000 agents back to school, according to a recent article in the Wall Street JournalAnother  training skill  stressed is "be there."  This is another way of saying, pay attention to your customer!  Why are these skills being taught?  Because among major airlines this past year, Delta had the highest rate of customer complaints. 

            One of the points I stress in each listening seminar and in my keynote, “Be Present When You Are Present,” is the importance of listening and paying attention to the bottom line in any situation.  Many companies have similar products and cost.  The competitive edge, as Delta knows, is that customer service is based on these people skills of listening and attention.  On my website, I even offer wallet cards with reminders of “How to Keep Listening Instead of Talking.”

            If these skills are at the crux of profit and loss in a company, think how important listening and attention are in day-to-day living!  As Henry David Thoreau said, "The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought and attended to my answer." 

Preparation Requires Going to the Source

          With everyone having access to materials on the internet, we as speakers have more challenges in developing content that is new, original, and recent. A joke I had used for years which few audiences had heard before appeared on one of the “humor for the day” sources. I realized that I could not use it anymore because some audience members might have read it on the internet. That is why personal experience or spontaneous humor is so important to develop and master. Thus personal research and preparation are essential for our presentations.

          One of the reasons Clint Eastwood at the age of 80 is still an excellent actor and director is because he adheres to this rule. For example, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, he is preparing to direct a movie about J. Edgar Hoover. In the interview,  Eastwood said, “I don’t rely on others to do this research. I went back and read probably all the material….I went and visited with the FBI in Washington, D.C., and tried to find out as much as I could about people who had worked with Hoover.”

          Another example from the movie industry is in “The Apostle,” a movie written, directed, and personally financed by Robert Duvall. “The Apostle” was the culmination of a 14-year effort on the part of its creator, who also stars as the dynamic, God-fearing Texas preacher Euliss “Sonny” Dewey. Duvall, not a religious man, spent several months before making the movie going to as many church services as he could find to learn as much about the type of preacher he would portray. Research and preparation make the difference between great and average. One quotation that is attributed to various motivational gurus is “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

          Pay attention to sources that other people might not consider in learning about a topic. For example, if I meet someone who has been in a career for several decades, I often ask this question: “What is one lesson you have learned in all of your years as…?” Or “What advice do you have for someone just starting out in ….?” I remember once asking a longtime university president the first question and his response was, “Don’t stay too long in a CEO-type  position because after 7-8 years you have had to make tough decisions that will inevitably create some enemies and you will be limited as to what you can accomplish after that.” That was an idea I had not heard or read anywhere else and I have pondered and shared the idea many times when a CEO is facing challenges in a position. Some of these ideas are included in my presentation, Be Present When You Are Present .

          Listen to the experienced and be present when important matters are being discussed. That attentiveness may lead you to a new speaking opportunity or opportunity in whatever you are pursuing. As Brooks Robinson stated, “If you’re not practicing, somebody else is, somewhere, and he’ll be ready to take your job.”


Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Visit his site to read other valuable articles on effective speaking and listening.