How to Open a Talk

August 13, 2012

Dale Carnegie once asked Dr. Lynn Harold Hough, formerly president of Northwestern University, what was the most important fact that his long experience as a speaker had taught him. After pondering for a minute, he replied, “To get an arresting opening, something that will seize the attention immediately.”

Dr. Hough planned in advance almost the precise words of both his opening and closing. John Bright did the same thing. Gladstone did it. Webster did it. Lincoln did it.

Unfortunately, however, the beginning speaker seldom does it. Why? Because planning takes time, requires thought, and demands will power—all of which zaps one of his or her energy. The problem is that energy is being spent in less-productive areas, and thus, delivering a less-than-favorable return to the speaker.

Sir Joshua Reynolds nailed on the walls of his plants: There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.

Novice speakers are often prone to opening a talk with a humorous story or by making an apology. Both are a bad idea. Few people can relate a humorous anecdote successfully, and usually end up embarrassing the audience instead of entertaining them. And apologies usually insult an audience as it quickly bores them.

Instead, Dale Carnegie offers the following suggestions for winning the immediate attention of an audience:

Arouse curiosity — Open with a statement that immediately captures the audience’s attention and heightens interest as it progresses.

Begin with a story — People love stories. Stories hook the attention of the audience and are almost foolproof in keeping people engaged in what you have to say. We naturally want to know what is going to happen.

Begin with a specific illustration — It is difficult for the average audience to follow abstract statements very long. Instead, open with an illustration to arouse interest; then follow with your general remarks.

Use an exhibit — Similar to an illustration, perhaps the easiest way in the world to gain attention is to hold up something for people to look at. It immediately engages them and can be used with effectiveness before the most dignified audience.

Ask a question — Opening with a question gets the audience thinking with the speaker and cooperating with him. It is one of the surest ways to unlock the minds of your audience and let yourself in.

Tie your topic to the vital interests of your audience — A sure way to get attention is to begin on some note that goes straight to the personal interests of the audience. We are mightily interested in the things that touch us significantly and momentously.

Provide a shocking fact — Shocking information jar us out of our daydreams. They seize us and demand our attention.

Keep it casual — No matter which opening you choose to employ, don’t make it too formal. Make it appear free, casual, and inevitable.

This post is brought to you by the good folks at Dale Carnegie Training of Northern New Jersey. We would love to connect with you on Facebook!

Photo credit: Grant Cochrane


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