The importance of introductions
The moment you walk onstage, you have the audience’s attention. They’re there to listen to your ideas, regardless of whether it’s a business presentation, a TED talk or a toast. Don’t throw away that attention with a weak introduction.
It’s your task and your responsibility to keep them compelled throughout the entirety of your talk. And keep in mind that you can win or lose their attention within the first seconds. You have to woo your audience in less than 1 minute. This is especially true if your speech is going to be recorded and showed online, where something new is just one click away. Even when you’re speaking in front of a live audience, they can zone out the moment they start to get bored. They’ll wonder about what they’ll eat later, or daydream about getting home later that day. Or worse: they may take out their smartphones, answer emails, check Facebook, or swipe through Tinder.
And so the introduction must accomplish the task of hooking your audience in. It must pique their curiosity and want to know more. It must compel them to listen and devote time of their lives to your ideas.
The way you begin your speech is of utmost importance for its final success. You can surmount a weak introduction, but it will be hard.
Are you ready to start with a jolt, to begin with a bang?
An example of a good introduction
Let’s start with an example of how to land an introduction.
In his 2017 talk “There’s no shame in taking care of your mental health”, Ghanaian entrepreneur Sangu Delle begins with the statement “Last year was Hell. It was my first time eating Nigerian jollof”. Following his words, roars of laughter erupt from the Nigerian audience.
With those words, he endears the audience by making a local reference. He uses humor, and a challenging statement. He has a few more seconds of our attention.
And then he lands the blow: “Actually, in all seriousness, I was going through a lot of personal turmoil. Faced with enormous stress, I suffered an anxiety attack. On some days, I could do no work. On other days, I just wanted to lay in my bed and cry.”
With this personal story and show of vulnerability, he has hooked us for the rest of his talk. He’s going to talk about mental health, and about his experience with anxiety. I want to know more.
What should the introduction accomplish?
A good introduction should get the audience interested in what you’re going to tell them. It should help them connect with you. It should pique their curiosity and want to follow you on that magic carpet ride. It should give them a reason to trust you, and to leave their phones and distractions behind.
In order to do that you should:
- capture their attention with your first sentence, and
- give them an idea of what you’re going to talk about.
In order to capture the audience’s attention, you want to do something that generates a reaction, whether by connecting with them, piquing their curiosity or leaving them awestruck.
How can you do that? By considering your audience and by:
- Issuing a challenging or dramatic statement;
- Asking a fascinating question;
- Using a relevant, non-cliché quote, or
- Employing a stunning visual.
And then you pause. Stay in one place (remember the importance of standing still?). Leave a couple of seconds for your words to sink in. Don’t jump straight into what you’re going to say.
You can then follow that with a personal story or an anecdote that’s relevant to your message, possibly employing humor.
In Sangu Delle’s case, starting with “Last year was Hell” is a great way of connecting – because probably everyone experienced something bad, and they can relate to it. That he followed that statement with a reference to Nigerian jollof just makes it land even more.
Giving a roadmap
It’s also a good idea to give the audience a short roadmap of what you’re going to talk about. Give them some highlights and tease your content. It depends on the type of talk you’re going to give, but saying “I’ll give you three reasons to eat insects: economical, environmental and nutritional” and actually delivering on that promise will help you:
- structure your speech better, following the outline you give in the introduction;
- keep them invested, since you’ve given them the basics of why they should listen to you, and
- help them in case they zone out – since they’ll know that reason 3 comes after reason 2.
What if you have to start by thanking someone? What if you are giving an acceptance speech at the Oscars? What if…? My recommendation is: always start with an attractive beginning. You can then move on to the thanking part – but give the audience something to look forward to. And even if you have to thank someone, make it in a way that’s entertaining and that can give something to the other people in the room.
It’s important to remember that you’re onstage to give. Every speech should be a gift to the people who are committing time of their lives to listening to you. Keep that in mind, and think about a great introduction with your audience in sight.
How to continue?
How will you know whether an introduction is powerful or not? The more you practise, the more you’ll know whether an introduction can work or not.
- Join your local Toastmasters group (if you’re in Barcelona, there’s over 15 in the city!);
- Join your local Agora Speakers group (they’re small and just starting, but the people are great);
- Go to events like Ignite, which are all over the world (here’s Ignite Barcelona);
- Go to networking events with open mics so you can pitch your ideas and get some stage experience.
Follow these tips, and you’ll get better at hooking your audience. Remember to use questions, challenging statements, quotes, personal stories, stunning visuals, pauses, humour… and you’ll be on your way to starting with a bang!