As an administrative law judge for 26 years, I have heard and written decisions in about 6,400 cases. My unscientific estimate is that in about 95 percent of them, I knew what I would decide before the hearing was over. After 19 years in Toastmasters and 16 years as a professional speaker, I have learned that the audience, too, will make quick decisions. They will judge a speaker and his or her speech well before the presentation is done.
That is why I have come to believe that the most important part of my speech is the opening. It is more than just a matter of beginning with punch, which refers more to the delivery. It is about providing solid evidence as the basis for the listener to make his or her decisions. Three of four crucial decisions the audience will make are based on the speaker’s opening.
Here are the issues each member of the audience will decide:
- Am I going to listen?
- Am I going to benefit from what is said?
- Will it be valuable enough to take with me?
- Am I going to act on what I hear?
If you, the speaker, want to make your presentation meaningful for your audience, you must convince them to make Yes! decisions to these four questions, and you must do so early. The audience will make their decisions in the first minute or two of your presentation.
Am I Going to Listen?
The answer to this question will be the first decision your listener makes. If the answer is No, nothing else you say will matter. If this happens when you’re giving a six-minute speech in your Toastmasters club, your supportive fellow Toastmasters will grin and bear it and give you another chance the next time you are on the schedule. But if it occurs in a heart-to-heart talk with your daughter, an interview for a new position at your job, or a 45-minute presentation at a training conference, you’ve created a disaster you may never be able to clean up.
You are more likely to get a “No, I’m not going to listen” decision if you start your presentation with:
• Thanking the person who introduced you for “that lovely introduction.” This often-feigned expression of gratitude is about the speaker, not the audience. Besides, the phrase is trite, overused and lacks sincerity.
• Thanking the program planners or “the people who made it possible.” Again, this expression of thanks is not about the audience but about specific organizers.
• Noting the presence of certain people in the audience. When you focus your attention on only certain people, you leave out others. Those others – the majority of your audience – is likely to decide No on listening to you. Why should they care about you when you have given indication that you don’t care about them?
• A joke that is too familiar, poorly told, not relevant or not funny. This way of opening your presentation suggests to the listener that you are about to give them something they’ve heard before, won’t be relevant or well-presented.
• “My name is ...” or “The title of my speech is ...” Such openings communicate that your presentation is about you and not the audience.
There are many ways to open your presentation and obtain a “Yes, I’m going to listen” reaction from the audience. You can use a story that is humorous or suspenseful, ask a question, recite a poem or noteworthy quotation, make a bold assertion, or even sing. The key is that whatever you do, focus on the audience. Your objective is to provoke thought and/or stimulate emotion. You’ve got the bodies in the room. What you must do with your opening is to gain their hearts and minds.
Am I Going to Benefit From What is Said?
You cannot get a Yes! to this second question if you didn’t get a Yes! to the first. You’ll be talking just to fill up your scheduled minutes while you waste the time of those who have decided that their minds will be on something else.
To get your audience to see the benefit to be gained from listening to you, you must clearly and concisely state the purpose of your presentation. If the purpose is not evident from the title of your talk, you must state it in your opening.
In general, the purpose of your speaking should be for the audience to learn something, think something, feel something, and possibly do something. Specifically it can be represented in assertions or questions such as:
- “Want to know how to make a million while sleeping?”
- “Beneficial health care services must be made available for all citizens of this country.”
- “I am convinced that where I stand now is the happiest place on earth.”
- “It is better to give bad advice than no advice at all to your child.”
As you prepare your talk, condense its purpose into one sentence, so if a news reporter asks, “What will you talk about this afternoon?” you can answer with a clear and concise statement that you’d be proud to see as a headline in tomorrow’s paper. Once you have such a statement, put it in your speech several times, particularly in the opening and in the conclusion. Then when the reporter asks an audience member, “What did the speaker talk about this afternoon?” the person interviewed will give the same answer you gave.
Having a clear statement of purpose in your speech does not guarantee that everyone in the audience will see a benefit, but it does guarantee that everyone will be able to make an informed decision as to its benefit.
Will It Be Valuable Enough to Take with Me?
Do you know what facilitates your going into the store and walking out with what you went to buy? Organization. A retailer organizes products on the shelf or in a display case to make it easy for you to find what you need and walk out with it. The same concept applies to an oral presentation. It is not enough that you offer a benefit. You must organize the content to make it easy for your listeners to pick out what they need and take it with them. One sign that the audience has decided that there is something of value to take with them is their taking notes.
The decision to take notes or commit to memory what the speaker has to say is made early from the speaker’s setting forth his or her outline. This is where specifics are important.
A statement included in the opening such as, “Let me share with you five ways to...” helps the listener decide if there is something of value to take with her or him. First, it indicates that something substantive will be offered. Second, the elements of the presentation will be identifiable, with clear transitions, so the audience will be able to distinguish one point from another. Third, having the number helps the listener decide whether to use memory or pen and paper.
If what you said is embedded in the listener’s memory or written down, he or she can then take it and refer to it later.
The only people for whom this third issue matters are those who have said Yes! to listening and Yes! to expecting a benefit. It would be a shame to disappoint this portion of your audience by not presenting an organized talk that clearly identifies the substance of your message. These people are already in your corner, and you don’t want to lose them.
Am I Going to Act On What I Hear?
The people who will say Yes! to this fourth question are the people for whom your presentation was planned and presented. They’ve decided to listen, to glean something from your speech, to write it down or commit it to memory, and now to act. The Yes! to action decision is the one that will be made at the conclusion of your presentation. Hence, you ought to conclude with a clear statement of what action you seek to induce. Don’t expect the audience to figure out the purpose you had in mind.
Inducing action is more than just making the listener feel good. It is more than just presenting a strong conclusion to incite a standing ovation. When you look for a standing ovation, you have turned your focus away from the audience and onto yourself. Action will occur when you have specified the action, you have given a reason to act, and you have built up the audience’s confidence about taking action. When you conclude your speech having brought these three elements together, the listener will want to pop up out of his of her seat and shout Yes!
This article is not about the content of your speech. That is something on which you must decide. Instead, it’s about what the audience will decide from listening to what you have to say. If you want to make your presentation meaningful to the listener, you must present your content in such a way to persuade a Yes! to decisions about listening, seeing a benefit, taking value and acting on it. The decisions the audience makes in the first couple of minutes of your presentation will determine whether or not your presentation is meaningful for your audience.
Dana LaMon, DTM, is an Accredited Speaker and Toastmasters’ 1992 World Champion of Public Speaking. He is a member of four Toastmasters clubs in Lancaster, California. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.