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.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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