I’ve previously given you the extensive benefit of my free advice on How to Start a Speech (or Presentation). The authorities agree. You start STRONGLY.

One good idea is to treat the opening formalities, greetings and expressions of gratitude as not part of the speech.

Depending on the occasion they may or may not need to be done, and at some length. In some countries this part of the event is almost as important as the speech itself, the various dignitaries nodding deferentially in each other’s direction and showing everyone else just how important they all are.

Plus we remember from the legendary First Post-War Diplomatic Ball in Warsaw what happens when someone important who is present and expects to be mentioned in the greeting formalities is not mentioned. Disaster!

So do whatever formalities and greetings need to be done. In the UK keep all that to the bare minimum. No-one likes what they see as useless waffle.

But that accomplished, give a deliberate extended pause to signal the start of the speech, get everyone’s attention, then start STRONGLY.

I was at a fine OFFLINE dinner in London the other day. A smart, warm occasion. The host started his opening remarks with aplomb. He took off his jacket. The audience were gripped.

One tried and proven way to start a speech is to tell a story or anecdote that gets everyone amused and/or creates a motif that can be picked up to add wisdom or humour as the speech/presentation unfolds. Look at this example, where Lord Mance opens a distinguished legal speech about the role of judges in a democracy thusly:

The topic suggested to me reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s fable of the fish.

Two young fish are swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?

This no doubt raised a laugh. But Lord Mance then launches into an erudite if rather too dry analysis of cases and principles reflecting on judges/democracy without really explaining why the fable matters to the issue at hand. Fish never swim back into the speech, alas.

This good opening would be far better without the first sentence, and made direct/snappy with all irrelevant detail removed:

Two young fish are swimming along.

They meet an older fish, who says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?

The two young fish swim on for a bit.

One of them looks over at the other.

What the hell is water?

This sounds much more confident. It dives SPLASH straight into the action, so to speak. It gives the speaker control.

Plus it does not leave some people in the audience wondering who David Foster Wallace is, and why if at all he might be relevant to the subject at hand: while they’re mulling that over, they’re not listening to the speaker.

The speaker can then use this fable to develop a core interesting idea through a series of big questions:

When judges are so immersed in law as they need to be, do they notice what’s going on and what all that law means for democracy and society?

Are they supposed to notice?

Does it matter if they don’t?

The speech with all its examples then unfolds with a nice strong structure around those questions and possible competing answers. The audience know where they are. Amidst all the learned analysis throw in a case or two about water or fish to illustrate the wider themes, and everyone is having a Good Time.

One way or the other, always start a speech or presentation STRONGLY. Don’t mess about, dangling a toe to test the water. Plunge in!