[This is the sixth post in our Public Speaking in the Church Series]
The first five minutes of your talk, no matter what the topic, are the most important. That’s because people decide to keep listening within those five minutes—if you’re lucky. Sometimes, it can be as little as one or two minutes.
If your audience knows you, they’ll cut you a little slack, and that’s also true if the topic is somehow of great interest or importance to them. But listeners are fickle and brutal, so you must give them plenty of reasons to keep listening. That’s the whole goal of the opening of a talk: to ensure your listeners decide to keep listening instead of tuning out.
This ‘decision’ to keep listening sounds more rational than it is in reality, by the way. Most of the times this is an unconscious process that doesn’t make it to the conscious part of our thinking. That’s also what makes it so fickle and hard, because you as a speaker are battling deeply ingrained behavioral patterns and thoughts.
There are circumstances beyond your sphere of control, for instance reminding a listener of someone they find boring or repulsive for some reason. Or simply hitting a nerve. I was at a youth retreat a while ago and one of the speakers had the most irritating voice ever. According to me. It seemed my fellow youth workers had no issues with her voice, so it was a personal thing. There was nothing she could have done to prevent it, but I did indeed stop listening—at least emotionally.
That being said, there’s also a lot you can do to make the opening of your talk as compelling as possible. Let’s look at a few important elements of a compelling opening.
1. Skip the Intro
If you are new, make someone else introduce you because introducing yourself is quite frankly a boring way to start your talk. If you have to say something about yourself, keep it short and sweet and ditch the platitudes. Everyone knows it’s an honor to be there, blah blah blah.
A personal pet peeve of mine is people who start by apologizing for something. The fact that they’re late, that their mic wasn’t working, or that they spilled coffee all over their shirt. All three may be true—though hopefully not all at the same time—but there’s no need to inform the audience. They were there. They know you’re late, they’ve seen the red face of the tech guy as he tried to get the mic working and they’ve certainly seen that huge wet coffee stain on your shirt and have deduced you didn’t plan on doing that. They’re okay with all of that, as they know life happens, but there’s no need to make a highlight out of it.
Also, don’t start with general remarks that have nothing to do with your talk. Small talk is awesome, but not at the beginning of your talk. Dive right in and get to it.
2. Be Active
An important characteristic of your opening is that is has to be active, as opposed to passive. This is one reason why I personally dislike starting with reading a long passage of Scripture. I love God’s Word, don’t get me wrong, but merely listening to someone else reading it, especially if it’s a long passage and even more if it’s complicated (Paul, anyone?) is very passive.
Start with something that requires active listening, for instance a story. Our brains are wired for stories and we listen in a different way to a story than to ‘information’. Stories are easy to listen to and they captivate our attention. Plus, we always want to know how it ends, so it’s an effective way to make sure people keep listening.
Another active element is asking a solid question, rhetorical or not. If your audience is big, you may want to opt for rhetorical, though I’ve been known to let people really answer even in bigger audiences. This cannot be a lame, Jesus-is-the-answer question though; you have to come up with a good one.
Be especially careful in trying to connect with your audience through a question that supposes similar experiences, like “Have you ever been completely in love?” or “Do you recognize this fear of death?” You’d think these are obvious ones, but what if someone never had those feelings? You just lost him or her.
It’s better to ask open questions—questions that cannot be answered with yes, no, or another one-word answer. “What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?” (sorry, another death-related one…guess I’m feeling a bit mortal today!). This is a question everyone can answer. Or: “If you could ask God one question that He’d have to answer, what would be it?”
Questions like these are awesome to start a talk with, because they require active listening and thinking. And hopefully, you’ve made sure the question is connected to your topic so that it ‘primes’ your audience for your topic.
3. Be Energetic
There’s a fine balance in displaying the right amount of energy at the beginning of your talk:
You want to be positive, without looking like you skipped your meds this morning
You want to be enthusiastic, but not so much you get on people’s nerves
You want to radiate energy, not I’ve-had-too-many-energy-drinks-bounce-ball-off-the-charts-hyperactive
In short: this is a bit of a balancing act. First let me say this: if you can’t start your talk with a positive attitude, you either picked the wrong topic or you shouldn’t be speaking at all. Speaking is a privilege and sharing God’s Word is an incredible honor and responsibility. If you can’t get excited over your topic you can be assured your audience won’t be either.
Secondly, it helps to picture your energy and ‘attitude’ as a graph throughout your talk. If you start all the way at the top in terms of energy and ‘bubbliness’, you have nowhere to go but down. What you want is a graph that gently flows with a few peaks thrown in for either serious moments (an example would be when you exhort your listeners), or really excited moments (for instance when you share a funny story). If it’s all at the same level, whether high or low, it gets monotone.
4. Be Real
Maybe I should have started with this, because this is the single most important aspect of your opening. Audiences will forgive you for reading long passages of Scripture, they’ll overlook you fumble and stumble or being monotone, and they’ll even endure you doing a long intro of yourself or make lame jokes…as long as they like you.
What makes listeners like a person, a speaker in particular? It’s really simple: when they can identify with this person, when they have something in common.
Recently, I watched a Professor, someone who I admire greatly and who is wicked smart, bond with a room full of women by sharing a story of her pregnancy. Bam. All of a sudden she wasn’t a PhD anymore, she was a woman we could relate to.
If you want people to connect with you, you have to be real. That means having the guts to put down your mask and let them see the real you. I love, love, love Brené Brown’s teachings on vulnerability and how our shame erodes when someone else shares their story in vulnerability and makes us feel like ‘me too’ (if you’ve never watched her TED talks, go do that now…This post will be here when you get back!)
It’s another reason why I love using stories in my opening, especially personal stories. Listeners can learn so much about you as a person if you share something from your life—preferably something related to your topic.
To circle back to what we started with: the goal of your opening, your intro, is to persuade people to keep listening to the rest of your talk. Think about yourself: what makes you decide to keep listening to a speaker? How do some of your favorite speakers open their talks or sermons? Spend as much time on creating a compelling opening as on the message as a whole, especially if you’re starting out as a speaker.
What makes you decide to stop listening to a speaker?
What are some of your frustrations or pet peeves in this area?
P.S. If you want to learn more about the power of story and how to use stories in your talks, check out my book Storify!