How to Start a Speech with a Story

The question of how to start a speech seems simple and there are several ways to open your presentation. Using a story is a great way to start a speech.

I just attended the fabulous KEY5 Conference in Charlotte, NC.  The concept is simple – put professional speakers on the stage for five minutes, create top-notch videos of them, and capture audience testimonials. Think TEDx, demo reel, conference, and marketing push all mixed together.  Every one of the speakers had something worthwhile to say and the audience was never put to sleep because the event moved really fast.  Every speaker did a FANTASTIC job.

But I have some inside information.  I helped coach many of the speakers.  It was one of the few times I have gotten to see the live delivery of a speech I’ve coached. That was a special treat.  But there is one other surprise.  I was also one of the speakers at the event.  Five minutes to get my message out. I felt that people would expect me to be at least decent.  And I wanted to be much more than decent.

It was probably the toughest speech I’ve ever written.  I was trying out new material (a no-no when the stakes are high – try it in a risk-free environment first!).  I was slammed for time and utilized a skill I perfected in college – procrastination.  I had preached to the speakers in our monthly coaching calls that the way to write a five-minute speech is not to trim your one-hour keynote, but to build a new speech from the ground up.  I did just that.  My core message was fleshed out a long time ago and it was solid.  I had to make some decisions about which example, story, and data backed up my points the best (and in some cases, the fastest), but I was happy with the core block of my talk.  It was just under four minutes.

It was the open and close where I was struggling.  The opening I wanted to use was the personal backdrop of why the topic (coaching and self-evaluation) is important to me.  I could easily use 20 minutes to hash that out.  The trimmed version was over three minutes.  That won’t do for an intro to a five-minute talk (I usually use the guideline to use about 10% of your talk time for an open AND a close combined).   I was at a frustrating crossroads driven by the external constraint of time.

The saving way out came in the form of my own teaching on how to start a speech.  I led a discussion for part of our fantastic PRiSM Speaker’s practice group the day before I left for the conference.

We were discussing… openers and how to start a speech.  Few people doubt that stories top the list, but the #1 question is always “How do I know what story to use?”  I had the answer.  Find your core message.  Reduce it to a sentence or a phrase.  Then brainstorm stories that talk about or imply that singular point.  Make the segue to your content.  And come back and end the way you started.

As I was helping lead this discussion by using some examples from our group, I had one of those sky-parting-angels-singing moments.  “Hey, speech coach!  Why don’t you do that on your own speech!”  There was one complication, I had almost no time to sit and brainstorm and think.  So I used the three-hour commute to the conference and the Bluetooth connection to my truck and my phone to record my new opening.  The new opening did nothing I originally set out to do – covering why the topic mattered to me.  And that probably violates rule #1 (it’s not about me) anyway.  But it did what I said it would do.  It got me into my content (in 37 seconds) and gave me an exit and call to action at the end.  And when I sat down to compose what my phone recordings were telling me worked, it took less than 15 minutes to have it all ironed out.  I was very pleased with the result.  My experience doing this for others helps, to be sure, but once you have the message hook and use it to start a speech, it’s a relatively easy task to find an opener.

The morals of this story:

Moral #1: if you believe in your system/product/secret enough to sell it to clients, it better work for you!

Moral #2: Don’t be so married to your content that you are not willing to change it.  More than one speaker told me they resisted my suggestions to their speech, but their practice and their frustration eventually told them they should just give up and take the suggestions.

By the way.  Several of the speakers confessed that they spent over 40 hours preparing their five-minute speeches.  I meandered into the room late on the eve of the big show and there was a speaker on the stage practicing.  The next time you see a keynote speaker and think it’s easy work, please reconsider your position.

How much time are you willing to spend to make your next meeting, talk, or message stand out? 

We will give you insights on how to start a story in our Power of Storytelling in Business and Life workshop.  We also cover how to segue to and from the story, how to make it interesting, making sure your audience applies your story, and how to practice storytelling.  Great speakers tell stories well. Come and join us to find out how!

Communication matters, what are YOU saying?

This article was published in the February 2018 edition of our monthly speaking tips email, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today and receive our FREE download, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.” You can unsubscribe at any time.


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