How not to start a speech

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The speaker steps onto the platform and walks purposefully towards the podium. You know little about them but, like most audiences, you want them to succeed. After all, life's too brief to waste time sitting through a speech that's dull enough to sedate a herd of stampeding elephants, isn't it?

The room falls silent. The opening of a speech is a once-in-a-speechtime opportunity to grab an audience's attention. Get it right and you'll have them eating out of your hand. Blow it and in the blink of an eye, they'll morph from an amenable and coherent entity into a distracted rabble.

Many years ago, we were approached by a client who felt disrespected by audiences whenever she gave a speech or presentation. She'd had a distinguished career and was keen to share her knowledge and experience with younger professionals working their way up the career ladder.

And yet, despite her desire to make a positive difference, time and again, her attempts to engage with audiences fell on stony ground. As we worked with her, it was clear she had a great deal to offer. She was interesting and articulate – so what on earth was scuppering her attempts to get her audiences onside?

It turned out that her undoing was her habit of starting every speech with her CV. She began like this because she felt it established her credentials. But a speech needs to open with a bang, not a whimper – and sharing your CV with an audience that hasn't heard of you is decidedly whimperworthy.

She would talk at length about how she'd been chair of this organisation and that organisation. How she'd sat on the board of this company and that company... blah, blah, blah... You get my drift.

Her desire to establish her professional credentials in this way is understandable, but it isn't rhetorical. In reality, starting a speech like this is a sure-fire way of not just losing an audience, but alienating it too.

It's never a good idea to begin by telling people about yourself. If they know you, it's boring; and if they don't know you, it's boring. Of course, there will be rare exceptions that prove the rule. The speaker who survived a shark attack. The speaker who crossed the Pacific in a bathtub, or the speaker who was transported to another galaxy on an alien spaceship. Sadly, the majority of speakers are not quite this noteworthy.

At the start of your speech, by all means tell them your name but don't go too far beyond that. Instead, concentrate on making what you say interesting and useful. When you've finished speaking, if people come up to you and ask you about yourself, you'll know you've got it right.

Monday April 26th, 2021
Sunday April 11th, 2021

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