I once attended a breakfast lecture series to see a man speak about design for 30 minutes.
Five minutes into it, I wished I had stayed home to make myself some eggs.
The man committed many sins typical of inexperienced public speakers. He made his slide deck more important than what he had to say. He used advanced technical jargon instead of language that his layperson audience could understand. But his most egregious mistake happened before all of that.
In fact, it happened in the first 7 seconds.
What he did that morning is done often, by most speakers I’ve seen. First, he thanked the person who introduced him. Then he greeted everyone and asked how everyone was doing. In other words, he started his speech by being polite.
This seems appropriate, right? When we put ourselves out there to give what can be a nerve-wracking speech, we want our audiences to like us. Why wouldn’t we want to make nice to them? Though this approach makes sense, it actually misses a critical opportunity.
What we know from the most famous speeches throughout history is that they help the speaker to impact others. Think of how the “Ask not what your country can do for you…” line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address is quoted to this day. Consider how often the mere 272 words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address show up in popular culture more than 150 years later.
And few will need to be convinced of how Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech impacted the civil rights movement and the United States as a whole.
This is what we want for ourselves as speakers — to make an impact. We want to say and do things on stage that will somehow compel meaningful change in others. Whether we’re a CEO looking to rally our company for a robust fourth quarter or presenting our findings to our bosses to inform decisions they need to make about the company, we want them to somehow be empowered to solve a problem that’s important to them.
But, as mentioned above, most speakers falsely begin with politeness to foster this sense of empowerment.
Why is this such a flawed approach to starting a speech?
To answer this question, I’d like you to picture what happens at the start of a race. The runners are all poised, ready to run. But that moment right before they’re off? That moment after someone says “On your mark” and “Get set,” but before they say “Go?” That is the single greatest moment of tension in the entire race. Nothing has happened yet, so anything is possible. The audience’s anticipation is palpable.
The same applies to the start of a speech.
It’s the moment after you’ve been introduced but before you begin to speak. The audience is once again suspended in anticipation. When we say “How are you doing?” or “It’s so nice to be here,” we’re completely diffusing that tension. We’re throwing it away.
When the man from the breakfast lecture began with politeness, he squandered his greatest opportunity to captivate the audience — and as such, he squandered his potential to make an impact.
Your task is to milk this tension for everything it’s worth and thus completely dazzle your audience within the first 7 seconds of your speech.
Rather than visiting with the audience, simply take the stage and look at them. Perhaps pause for a moment to milk the tension even more (they may think: Isn’t this person going to say something?). Then, begin with a first line that lands. Begin with a story in which you or someone else is in a moment of crisis. Dangle a mystery. Make a confession. Say something in that very first line that both demands attention and is entirely relevant to the rest of your speech.
When you do this, the audience will likely be yours.
President Kennedy, President Lincoln and Dr. King have much more in common than the ability to give an impactful speech. They each understood that people are most likely to integrate a solution when they’re emotionally invested in doing so. Given this insight, none of them began their speeches with politeness. They owned their authority on that stage from the very beginning and therefore commanded everyone’s attention.
I was ready to leave that breakfast lecture five minutes in because that was how long it took for the speaker to begin his talk in earnest. As such, I had almost entirely tuned him out by then.
In today’s busy times, we have a tougher job of captivating others — but when we take on that task, we have the opportunity to provide an experience our audience could carry with them forever.