“The beginning is the most important part of the work”, says Plato. Plato is considered an essential figure in the development of philosophy. Not only did he found the Academy in Athens, which was reportedly the first institution of higher learning in the Western world, he was taught by Socrates and he had Aristotle as his student. Perhaps you will agree with me that we can trust his judgement. It is at the beginning that we lay the foundation for the rest of the work. A clear, direct, purposeful, inspired and energized start will set the right course for the achievement of any task.
In public speaking, your first step will determine the next one. Your first statement after being introduced to the audience will determine whether they bring out their notepads or their phones to play games. How then can we ensure that we take a first step that will grab and sustain the attention of our audience? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Ask a question: this is a popular and effective way of beginning a speech. One of the most important attributes of a good speech is that it engages the audience, and asking questions helps to achieve this. It transforms the audience from being passive to being active. When you ask a question, you make your listeners think and this holds their concentration. It is, however, important to note that this technique is highly sensitive so it must be properly used. For instance, never ask an evaluation question until your listeners are comfortable with you. Since they may be right or wrong, they may not be sure of what your reaction will be or how you will judge them. Of course, after they are used to your style and they see that being wrong is part of the fun-filled learning process, they will be more comfortable to participate. At the beginning, however, it is safer to ask general questions that participants can easily respond to.
For instance, you may ask, “How many of you agree that you can do a lot more than you are doing right now?” You are likely to have several people raise their hands. First, people always hope for a better future so they won’t mind responding, and second, raising hands is a group action so nobody feels exposed. Again, you may ask rhetorical questions- questions that you don’t expect direct answers to. Of course, your listeners will answer the questions in their minds and you will see them react to it. You can then build on the momentum you have created by delivering a great speech.
2. Use an anecdote or story: an anecdote is a short but interesting or amusing account of a real incident. As long as the public speaker is a good story teller, this is a foolproof technique for grabbing the attention of the audience. Everyone loves a good story. When a speaker begins a presentation with a story, the listeners immediately get interested for three major reasons: first, it gives them a relief that the presentation won’t be the boring and “very serious” type; second, it lays the foundation for lessons they can hope to learn from the presentation; and third, it gives them an insight into the personality of the speaker. Of course, the type of story told tells a lot about the sense of judgement of the story teller. That is why a pointless story will always leave the impression that the speaker is uncoordinated. According to Les Brown, one of the world’s foremost public speakers, “Never make a point without a story, and never tell a story without a point”.