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Speech openings: When to start slowly, when to start fast

There are two schools of thought on how to open a speech. And there’s a lot of debate about which one to use.

Some speechwriters and speech coaches prefer the slow open. They want you to warm up the audience, establish a connection, and ease into your content.
Other experts say the slow open is stodgy and mundane. They push for the fast open.

You need to launch right into a compelling story—one that will grab the audience’s attention and establish you as the driver on this journey.

So who’s right? In my view, this debate is moot. There are times and places for both the slow open and the fast open.

Which one you use depends on the answers to two questions. How well do you know the audience? And how well do they know you?

You may think you’re speaking to a group. You’re not. You’re standing in front of a room full of individuals. Every audience member sees you as speaking right to them. Think of your speech as a conversation with just one other person. How you speak to that person depends on how well you know each other.

In a social conversation, if you’re meeting someone for the first time, you use the slow open. “Hi, my name is Pete. My friend Jeff is the host. We were roommates in college. How do you know Jeff?”

But with someone you know really well, you jump right into content. You see a golfing buddy in the clubhouse and say, “That putter you suggested? Unbelievable! Bought it on the spot.”

Here’s a slow open for an audience you don’t know and that doesn’t know you. “Thanks, Jim, for that flattering and mostly true introduction. Good evening, everybody. I’m a big fan of the Churchill Club. Years ago, when I lived in Silicon Valley, I was a member and attended just about every meeting. Tonight I want to talk about something that Winston Churchill was very interested in—the international balance of power. These days we call it ‘globalization.’”

Now here’s a fast open for that annual ritual: your motivational remarks to your sales force. When you’re introduced, you walk out, take an extended pause, and begin, “Last week I had a long talk with our biggest customer. Guess what he said.” In 15 words, you’ve got their complete attention.

So the speed of your opening—slow or fast—is not a one-size-fits-all formula. It depends on what it takes to engage your audience on their terms and on their turf. Think about using the “audience engagement yardstick” for every aspect of your speech.

Pete Ryckman has written more than 800 speeches in his 24 years of writing at the CEO level. He’s now teaching an intensive speechwriting course, Speechwriting 101: Learn by Doing. This article is adapted from Ryckman’s blog Memo to C-Level Speakers.