My son’s first word was… “bye-bye”.  Maybe that’s two words.  Regardless, it seems like he was ready to leave even as he entered.  And he’s out on his own now.  Gone, but not forgotten.  My daughter’s first word was… “Daddy!”  There aren’t many moments that give greater joy than a father hearing that awesome word.  And I was first! (I’ve never let her live that down).

First words give us anticipation. Something to celebrate.  They make us stick around for more.  The Serial Position Effect hints that we’ll probably remember the first (and last) things that are said more than anything else we hear.  Opening well is critical for leaders and communicators, whether it’s a keynote address, a training program, a run-of-the-mill meeting, or an online call.

But my observation is that most presentations are doomed before they ever get going.  The vast majority of opening lines rarely have the audience clamoring for more.  Perhaps the worst opening of all time, which gives me hives and a bad case of the shakes: “Hi, my name is Alan, and I’m here to talk about…”  They either know your name or they don’t care. They either came to hear your topic or they’re just stuck in the event and it doesn’t matter.  Get on with it.  One of my missions in life is to rid the world of this and other horrid openings.

Your tips for today, in the form of three things NOT to do, and three things TO do in the first words you utter.

First, don’t open with your main idea, punchline, or big splash soundbite.  If your biggest idea is first, the entire presentation is a downhill slide.  The acronym (and usually good idea) BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) doesn’t mean the very first words.  You’ve got nothing to build up to (or return to) if you give away the best thing first.

(bad) example: “The beginning of a communication is too valuable to use a boring, stock opener.

Second, don’t open by telling people what you’re going to talk about.  We have a phrase for this: “Talking about talking.”  It should be avoided in most every instance in presenting, but especially as an open.  

(bad) example: “In just a second, I’ll be talking about the three things you need to do in an open.

Third, don’t talk about how happy you are to be there.  No one cares about your emotional state of being on stage (corollary: don’t talk about how nervous or unprepared you are, either).  

(bad) example: “It’s always a pleasure to help people with their opening and I’m thrilled to pass on these tips to you.  Special shout out to Peter for the idea and to Alaina for the invitation to speak today.  It makes me so happy.

Instead, here are three things TO do with your first words.

First, find some opening that sets up your topic without giving it away.  Lead people to what you want them to extract.  One of my MBA students said it best in a post course evaluation: “Each course starts with a story, often personal, which in its details gradually leads us to the main subject which then seems obvious.  You want to lead them to the subject.  It’s at that point that the opening becomes obvious.

Which leads us to our second opening words idea, consider a story.  Stories cause the brain to imagine, so they are great places to open a talk. They get their minds engaged from the FIRST words.

(good) example: “The summer after my sophomore year in high college, I emptied my bank account to purchase my first car: a high-mileage, gray, manual five-speed Honda Accord.”  Your mind is picturing a car, perhaps reminiscing about your first car, or wondering how that car turned out for me.

Lastly, jump right in.  Don’t set it up.  You can pause until you’re ready, but the first words should be impactful and delivered with a purpose.  Stories don’t start with, “I’m going to tell you a (funny) story…”  If you’re opening with a quote, you don’t need to say how you found the quote, why you like the quote, or how many times you’ve used the quote.  Just give the quote.  I opened a networking event this way once:

(good) example:  “Mark Twain once said, ‘The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.’”

Audiences make evaluations very quickly.  It’s our job as communicators to interest them and lead them to what they need.

From the Very. First. Word. 

Communication Matters.  What are you saying?


Want more speaking tips? Check out our Free Resources page and our YouTube channel.

We can also help you with your communication and speaking skills with our Workshops or Personal Coaching.

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

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This