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Great opening lines to a speech get us curious and can set the direction for a powerful talk.
In those first few seconds you have the chance to gain your audience’s attention, earn their trust, and persuade them you are someone worth listening to.
The best introductions to speeches are a mile away from the standard welcomes and thank yous that set the snoozometer to max. Get it right, and those initial words can captivate the crowd from the off, creating a connection with every individual in the room.
But how do you go about opening your speech with something different and memorable? A great place to start is looking at examples of introductions to speeches to see what you can learn from them.
To show you what we mean, we’ve picked some of our favourite opening lines from TED talks, home to some of the best conference speeches in the world. From funny stories to hard-hitting introductions, TED talks show the art of the possible when it comes to getting your speech off to a kick-ass start.
Have a go at guessing the speaker, or the focus of the rest of their talk (hint…we give you the answers later on).
Speech A: Good morning. How are you? It’s been great, hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I’m leaving.
Speech B: For a long time, there was me, and my body. Me was composed of stories, of cravings, of strivings, of desires of the future. Me was trying not to be an outcome of my violent past, but the separation that had already occurred between me and my body was a pretty significant outcome. Me was always trying to become something, somebody. Me only existed in the trying. My body was often in the way.
Speech C: Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead from the food that they eat.
Speech D: Okay, now I don't want to alarm anybody in this room, but it's just come to my attention that the person to your right is a liar. (Laughter) Also, the person to your left is a liar. Also the person sitting in your very seats is a liar. We're all liars. What I'm going to do today is I'm going to show you what the research says about why we're all liars, how you can become a liespotter and why you might want to go the extra mile and go from liespotting to truth seeking, and ultimately to trust building.
Speech E: Imagine a big explosion as you climb through 3,000 ft. Imagine a plane full of smoke. Imagine an engine going clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack. It sounds scary. Well I had a unique seat that day. I was sitting in 1D.
These examples pack a punch for very different reasons. There’s absolutely no chance of the audience zoning out when the speaker goes straight in with such a powerful start.
So, who gave these speeches, and why are the introductions so good? Time for the big reveal....
A: Sir Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity
Deceptively simple, the opening lines for this speech set the tone for what has become the most viewed TED talk of all (currently nearly 57 million views). Far from being just ‘throat clearing’, Sir Ken’s funny introduction cleverly paves the way for a talk that will gently but profoundly show us a new way of looking at education. It’s as if we are at a dinner party, being hosted by Sir Ken – he makes us feel comfortable, interested and open all at once. We are not being lectured to (which is always a possibility when education is the subject matter of choice), we want to learn and hear more. Very skilful indeed.
Ginger tip: funny introductions
Using humour in your introduction can be a great way to get your speech off to a flying start – but only if you do it in a way that feels natural. This example shows how you can make people laugh without telling a joke. It’s about finding your own funny and feeling totally comfortable with what you’re saying. If it feels a bit forced to you, it definitely will to your audience. You don’t have to make people roll around on the floor laughing, but light-hearted and amusing anecdotes can add energy and engagement to your talk. Remember, when you open your speech with something funny, you are setting the tone for the rest of your talk – so you’ll need to pepper humour throughout.
Extra Ginger nuggets
How to write a funny speech
What kind of funny are you
Funny inspiring speakers talks
B: Eve Ensler: Suddenly, my body
As you’d expect from a the writer of the Vagina Monologues, the start of this speech opening was profound, stark in its honesty and inviting. We empathize and want to know more. Unfortunately this speech suffered from a common affliction that writers face; in getting focused on the precise words of the speech (in this instance, Eve Ensler read her speech), we can get disconnected from the full power of the material. Whilst the words were powerful, we would have enjoyed the rest of this speech more if Eve had given herself permission to find the right words in the moment, rather than needing to be perfectly scripted.
Ginger tip: going unscripted
You want it to be perfect. You’re worried about forgetting something vital. You’re scared of doing it wrong. These are common and perfectly understandable reasons why people opt to script their speech and read it word for word. But rather than delivering a foot-perfect performance, you’re more likely to lose the vital connection with the audience. Not to mention risking plunging yourself into the dreaded ‘I’m sorry I’ve lost my place’ scenario. More than anything, people want you to be human and to speak from the heart. It takes confidence to ditch your notes, but with some simple techniques, you can prepare and remember your speech in a way that allows you to deliver a clear, compelling and authentic talk.
Extra Ginger nuggets
How to start a speech with power and confidence
How to remember a speech without notes
Public speaking pitfall: over preparing
Becoming a naked speaker
C: Jamie Oliver’s TED Wish: Teach every child about food
This is one of our favourite ever TED talks, and it doesn’t pull its punches from the very first line. Jamie Oliver manages to balance preparation (statistics, stories, well-developed ideas) with heart in his TED talk. This speech opening line both makes our jaws drop to the ground in shock at such a statistic and opens our hearts to the human side of the story. Powerful stuff.
Ginger tip: punchy facts
Opening your speech with a hard-hitting fact can quickly add credibility to your talk and demonstrate the scale of an issue. It’s best to keep statistics simple and make them as relevant to the audience as possible, so it feels memorable rather than dry. Resist the urge to stuff the rest of the speech with stats. Try to stick to a few powerful facts and bring them to life with real examples.
Extra Ginger nuggets:
The key to presenting data…is not to present data
How to make a powerful point with your speech
D: Pamela Meyer: How to spot a liar
We love talks that balance humour and connect us to the subject matter in hand – and Pamela Meyer does this perfectly in her TED talk opening line. By bringing a challenge straight to us, in our very seats, Pamela engages us and makes sure the talk is about ‘me’ the audience member. We’re laughing and ready to listen. Great job.
Ginger tip: setting up a problem
Setting up a problem at the start of your speech immediately creates a reason for listening and a direction for your talk. And if you involve the audience in the problem, it’s even more powerful. It doesn’t have to be something completely new, in fact telling us what we already know and explaining why that’s a problem can be a really engaging way to start. Depending on the subject matter, you can frame the problem in different ways – from serious to humorous. And it gives a natural structure to the rest of your talk as you explore how to solve the issue.
Extra Ginger nuggets:
The best way to engage your audience
Five methods to master audience interaction
E: Ric Elias: 3 things I learned while my plane crashed
Wow, what an opening! Who wouldn’t want to know more? Ric Elias showed here how powerful it is to jump straight into a story, with no fussing around with thank yous and throat clearing. Unfortunately after the winning start, the rest of the talk lacked some of the gusto and drama of its opening lines. What can we learn from this? Start with power, but make sure you back it up with a journey that will continue to keep us involved all the way through.
Ginger tip: start with a story
Stories are one of the most effective ways to inspire others. We’re hard wired to connect with stories and your experience of the world is one of the most valuable speaking tools that you possess. Telling a story is a popular way to open a speech because it can quickly build that all-important human connection with your audience. If you have a message that’s personal, or if you’re trying to influence your audience to make a change, a story is a great place to start.
Extra Ginger nuggets:
Why is it so important to tell your story?
3 storytelling secrets for public speaking
We hope these examples of great opening lines demonstrate that you don’t have to conform to the ‘safe’ introductions we’re all used to hearing at corporate conferences. In fact, at Ginger, we dare our speakers to rip up the ‘rulebook’, to be courageous, and to take a different approach to setting the scene. You can find even more tips in our free guide, The 10 best ways to start your talk.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other examples of great opening lines – so please share your ideas in the comments below.
Of course, it’s all very well creating a captivating introduction, but you don’t want the rest of your talk to fall off a cliff edge after you’ve built it up so spectacularly. Maintaining the audience’s attention for the rest of your speech is just as important.
We’ve developed the TED-styleTalk Guidebook to help you through the process of writing a brilliant speech. Whether you’re crafting a short talk or a keynote, it will help you create a speech that’s as good as a TED talk - so you can wow your audience from the first word to the final thank you.
If you’d like to get hands-on support with becoming a better public speaker, then take a look at our training courses. There’s something for every level, from nervous beginners to becoming a leading speaker on the world stage. We’d love to welcome you along.
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