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How to Open a Speech: Getting an Audience to LOVE you at "Hello!"

One of the questions speakers and comics ask over and over again is, “What should I open with?

It’s something we all struggle with. Just think, how often have you figured out a so-so opening, and then had a last minute brainstorm, where you thought, “This is much better; it will really get them laughing!

But -- when you try your great idea -- your audience stares at you like you’re a priest who just strolled into a strip club.

So, what went wrong? You didn’t fit in with your audience. You didn’t show them that, at least on some level, you’re just like them.

Openings are critical: studies show that an average person will form an opinion within your first 17 seconds onstage. In comedy clubs, you’re judged even more quickly – and harshly. Plenty of us comics have had hecklers scream, “You suck!” as we were WALKING UP to the stage.

So – what SHOULD you open with?

After 35 years in front of audiences, I’ve finally found the secret to a killer opening that works on almost any audience: make your opening about THEM.

People want to be appreciated – or at least noticed. Go to any children’s swimming pool and you’ll see kids standing on the diving board screaming, “Mom, look at me, look at me!

Remember yelling that when YOU were a kid? But -- mom didn’t always look – and some of us spend the rest of our life searching for that person who will pay attention to us.

The performer who can truly see, hear, and understand the challenges facing an audience, will be loved by that audience -- no matter what their topic is. So -- when you plan your act or speech, change words like “I,” “me,” and “my” -- and replace them with “you,” “us,” and “ours.

Take the time to really learn about the people you’ll be speaking to. Know your audience, and find that bridge where your life and stories intersect with theirs. Don’t just talk about the problems you solve (or at least joke about) – until you connect with your audience by talking about the things that are bothering them.

Once your audience is truly with you, you’ll be going on a journey together – instead of having them listen to stories and jokes as passive observers.

And if they enjoy that journey, soon you’ll find them following your tweets, joining your Facebook page, buying your stuff -- and paying to see you again.


Victoria Labalme said...

Wonderful piece, Judy!!!

Nicely done.

AND...when you make the opening about them and add humor,'s even better.


Fran said...

Really helpful, thanks ... I have this dilemma to solve before Friday evening ...

Logan 5 said...

As someone trying to break into screenwriting, I do think this is valuable advice for the pitch - that is your audience is a producer or a handful of individuals and you are trying to convenience them to drop several million dollars on your idea.

Fred Moore said...

What a timely piece; I am working on the customization of a keynote I'm giving this Friday.

Of all the emails I get, yours is the one I always read, thanks Judy!

Linda McKenney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda McKenney said...

Thanks Judy, this is helpful. I recently bombed in a speech contest and am still trying to figure out what happened. The first time I delivered the speech, people were laughing out loud and the second time - snickers. And I don't mean the candy!

Anonymous said...

Great piece!

Scott Wood said...

Always open with a laugh. Find out what works and go with it. People always look at me and think "Hey look John Elway and Gary Busey had a baby." That one always kills for me as my opener as I look like a combo of both of them.

Julie Kertesz said...

Perhaps, it is not the I or you, but as you say:

"find that bridge where your life and stories intersect with theirs."

In my gig set, I find it first, with my body language " happy to be with you" then, using some of vocabulary they use, then tell lining them "but she is not here!" All of us experienced it: doing something because we know someone who would not approve of it is not present.

Greg Scheirer said...

Judy your right. Its the best way
to start your act. You can't go wrong with the words you, us,and ours.

Have a great day!


Toni said...

Thanks for this, Judy and all comments. I get stumped as to how to really identify and address those things that are most important to audiences. In some cases, it is obvious, but certainly not all. Sure, sometimes we can do the research but then there is a "town hall" where your presentation is the only unifying theme.

I sometimes ask questions, inviting audience members to to answer this themselves (in an entertaining way). But in larger groups, this is impractical. Thanks so much for any input!