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In the Beginning

How to create a winning first impression.

By William Neuman, CL, ACG


PHOTO BY TOASTMASTERS INTERNATIONAL

In psychology class, I learned that when someone first meets you they form an impression of you in the initial 12 seconds. And once they have formed that impression, they typically never change their opinion, even after knowing you for a while.

When delivering a speech, the timer starts the clock with your first word. But if you think the audience’s first impression begins with your opening words, you’re missing something important. You actually create a first impression before you open your mouth to speak.

Let’s consider your next speech. After you determine the theme of your speech, you formulate its beginning to give it “punch.” If you come up with just the right combination of words, coupled with meaningful physical gestures and the perfect amount of vocal variety, there’s a good chance you will set the tone for something close to a contest-winning performance. However, you also have several seconds from when someone introduces you to the time you begin speaking. These are “free seconds.” How can you use them to your advantage?


Don’t Speak Prematurely. You’ve probably seen speakers start talking as soon as the Toastmaster withdraws from the handshake. This does nothing to enhance your image; it may even give the impression you are trying to rush things.


Look at Your Audience. Some speakers look down at the floor for a second or two before beginning their speech. The first time I saw someone do this, I thought he might have dropped something and I spent the first part of his speech trying to see what it was! I have also seen a speaker look up before beginning to speak. It makes me wonder if he is beseeching the heavens for divine guidance. Both are distracting, and the speaker misses an important opportunity to connect with the audience. Use this time to engage your listeners.

Now let’s break down the whole process step by step.


1 The Approach. In two of my clubs, we get up from our seats as soon as the introduction ends. In my third club, Chats Toastmasters in Scottsdale, Arizona, we enter the stage area from an adjoining room. In each case, we have a choice: We can rise from our chair unpretentiously or spring up energetically and enthusiastically. We can enter the room casually or put a little “hustle” in our stride as we make our appearance.

“Be sure to smile warmly to indicate you couldn’t be happier to present your speech.”

We also have the choice to walk calmly or put a lively bounce into our step. The latter says, I can’t wait to get up there and give you the very best of what I’ve got!


2 The Greeting. This is when you shake hands with the Toastmaster right before she turns the podium over to you. Extend your hand first by reaching out a few paces before you connect with the Toastmaster. This creates an impression that you are eager, prepared and in control of the moment, and of everything that will happen from this point forward. Be sure to smile warmly to indicate you couldn’t be happier to present your speech.


3 The Lectern. This is the barrier between you and your audience. It may seem like a safe harbor to hide behind when you are nervous and unsure of yourself. You can place your notes there and refer to them, if necessary. You can hang onto it for support and keep your hands from trembling and your knees from quivering. This is OK when it’s your first or second speech, but make it a goal to get rid of the notes, and the lectern—push it aside in a deliberate and determined manner that says, I don’t need this. I am in control up here. I can stand alone and face all of you with confidence and pride.


4 The Final Five Seconds. These few seconds are essential. How you use them may create the impression that gets you one more vote to earn you the Best Speaker award. What should you do in these important five seconds?

Keep smiling—not just any smile, but one that exudes confidence. A smile tells your viewers you are about to deliver something remarkable—you are a pro¬≠fessional who is well prepared to share your story with them. How do you do this? By practicing. Look in the mirror and determine what look best accomplishes this purpose. Actors can move their ¬≠audience with their facial expressions without speaking a word, and so can you. Also, make eye contact. Connect with as many people in the room as possible. Get their attention.


Now, go ahead and speak, and let the pearls of wisdom come tumbling out.