Some Good Themes For Your Opening

We live in an information and image saturated, fast-paced, vivid culture. Entertainment value is a concern of anyone seeking to penetrate and hold the attention of an audience. Audience attention passes swiftly. Isn’t the channel changer the cultural icon of our age? Speakers need openings that immediately engage the audience and hold their attention for as long as needed to deliver their message. Here are a few suggestions for themes that can be developed into arresting openings.

  • Tell a story. The best stories are about real people. Keep stories short. Include vivid details. Great stories are those the audience can "feel" (See Bringing Stories Into Your Presentations).
  •  Use an analogy. An analogy compares or contrasts things or concepts that may not be related ("life is like a baseball game"). Good analogies are found by thinking outside the confines of the subject matter of a presentation. They permit presentation of topics through the language, structure, and imagery of topics that a particular audience may like more or may find more familiar.
  • Use descriptive or vivid statistics. There are many sources of interesting statistics on most any subject. If you use statistics, don’t just report raw data. Use such data sparingly. Be sure that there is a specific point that can be clearly and directly inferred from the data. If possible, convert the statistics and use them in a visual format.
  • Use props or visual aids. A classic example was Vice President Gore’s press conference announcing his Commission to reduce government regulation with a seven foot tall stack of papers that represented the regulations of a particular department. The image said it all. You can be your own prop. Remember astronaut John Glenn representing how small a distance into space his first orbital flight was by holding his hand just a few inches above his head.
  • Use an audience participation event. This can be very effective in getting an audience engaged, especially if they have been sitting too long or are otherwise restless. The simplest form is to ask for a show-of-hands on a question.
  • Use a quote. Use it directly, paraphrase, or build your own opening off the theme or meter of a favorite quote. Some very effective "quotes" to which many audiences can relate are in song lyrics. If you use song lyrics, use small amounts and resist the temptation to sing unless you are very good.
  • Talk about something that is universally experienced. One example—time. How many great speeches opened with a reference to time? [FDR, JFK, Lincoln]
  • Pose a provocative question to the audience. If you chose to pose a question to the audience as an opening, it must go somewhere. Either you must truly present it (e.g. poll the audience) or you must answer it in your presentation.
  • Make an historical reference. History is a broad canvas with many potential events and characters (some well known, some less so) that one may be able to fit to a particular audience or its interests. What did happen today in history? Many web sites will answer this question.
  • Talk about the audience. There are few topics about which an audience has more interest than themselves (e.g. their organization, history, city, etc.) especially if it is a fresh (and flattering) perspective they have not heard before.
  • Using Humor. Humor is a very connecting devise if used successfully. In some situations, people expect a presentation to include some humor. But humor doesn’t necessarily mean "telling a joke" nor does it have to be your opening move. To see more on this topic see The Effective Use of Humor).

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