We’ve heard that first impressions are important. But how important are they, really?
Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov sought to answer that question empirically. In his research, he showed participants a microsecond clip of different political candidates. It turns out the participants predicted with 70% accuracy who would win the election.
Wow. That means our first impressions are not only lighting fast, but they are pretty accurate as well. So when you stand up to speak, there’s a lot riding on your first sentence.
Knowing the importance of that first impression, we compiled 4 tips to help you develop a strong opening sentence that has lasting impact. For each tip, we’ll provide an historical speech example to show you that strategy in action.
Speakers who want to make an impact and capture the audience’s attention don’t start out with phrases like, “Today, I’ll be talking to you about…” or “let’s start by…” or “my name is…”. They get right to what they want to say. Take for example, the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address. He opens by getting straight to the point. “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the southern states that by the accession of a Republican administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been a reasonable cause for such apprehension.” Your audience will appreciate a presentation that isn’t watered down with unnecessary information. Boil it down to what they need or want to hear right away.
The opening statement of presentation should contain elements of mystery just like the opening scene of a play or movie. That’s why a speaker’s opening line is sometimes referred to as a “hook.” It’s meant to grab the audience. Those powerful first words and images have to work hard to set the tone. During his 1991 speech at Columbia University at an event honoring the 200th anniversary of the First Amendment, Salman Rushdie opened by setting the scene with a metaphor that would run throughout his speech. He began with this sentence, “A hot-air balloon drifts slowly over a bottomless chasm, carrying several passengers.” The narrative has begun with an element of mystery. The audience is hooked. They simply have to know what will happen to the balloon and the people in it.
When you start your presentation with a rhetorical question, it gets the audience involved from the very start. It moves them from listener to participant and engages them in thought. Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior was Harold Ickes, a Chicago lawyer and reporter known for his impactful speeches. In a 1941 speech, he demonstrated how the use of rhetorical questions can be a powerful tactic to involve the audience. He said, “I want to ask a few simple questions. And then I shall answer them. What has happened to our vaunted idealism? Why have some of us been behaving like scared chickens? Where is the million-throated democratic voice of America?” Rhetorical questions invite the wheels to start turning.
Try using a shocking statistic or fact to get the audience’s attention. But handle these openers carefully, and don’t use them merely for the sake of shock. Instead, use bold statements to quickly and effectively communicate the gravity and weight of your topic. For example, during his speech for the re-dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial at Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1998, Carl Sagan opened his speech with the following sentence. “Fifty-one thousand human beings were killed or wounded here, ancestors of some of us, brothers of us all.” He wasn’t about to devalue the devastation that had happened with trite opening remarks. He got right to the point of honoring the lives lost with a bold opening sentence.
Let the context of your presentation and the topic of your speech guide you as choose which of these opening strategies to employ. But be intentional and creative in developing first sentences that have lasting impact. After all, first impressions matter. Make yours count.
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