It is often said that ‘You never have a second chance to make a first impression.’ But that is only one of three critical reasons why it is vital to make sure that your speech opening has impact:
i it gives your audience confidence in you;
ii more importantly it gives you confidence in yourself, but
iii it buys you time to settle and adjust.
Certainly ‘First impressions are lasting impressions’ and if you get off on the wrong foot it can be hard to recover. Starting well not only reassures the audience, it helps settle your own nerves. If you are in a strange room or a new environment it can take a few seconds to get used to the sound of your own voice, so speech openings are so important.
Obviously it is recommended whenever possible to try out the room beforehand, to check the sound and to get a feel for the place. However as any performing musician will tell you, acoustics change when bodies are added to a room.
On top of that, the sound of your own voice may feel different or actually be different when you are a bit nervous and it can be very off-putting if your own words sound strange in your own ear. It is a bit like trying to have a conversation on the phone with your voice feeding back half a second later.
Having trained as a classical musician in Eastern Europe, I discovered that all of their musicians seemed very well drilled. They looked and sounded so assured and confident whenever they performed, and it did not take me long to discover that this was not left to chance.
The opening few moments of any performance were meticulously rehearsed to make sure that they could almost ‘play themselves’; thus giving the musician a few moments to find his or her feet. In fact I remember one old teacher saying, ‘It should be possible to wake you up in the middle of the night, put an instrument in your hand and before you are even awake, you should be able to play the first few bars of your performance automatically.’
Should you learn the whole performance like that?
Of course not! That would be robotic and lack spontaneity. And certainly as a speaker it would deny you the freedom and flexibility necessary to respond to the people around you.
Nevertheless those first few seconds are vital, not just to give you confidence, or give your audience confidence in you, but to allow the whole event to settle in your mind. You can then almost listen like an outsider:
Am I speaking too fast? Is my voice shrill? Is there modulation and variety in my words?
In fact you could say that the first few seconds of a presentation should be like the pointed end of a rocket or the steel toe-cap of a work-boot, because they need to sustain the full force of your nerves.
Get it right and your presentation starts off on a solid footing. Get it wrong and you may never recover.
Speech openings are vital, so rehearse them well. Open with a quotation, a startling statistic or something vigorous to attract audience attention.
Article courtesy of College of Public Speaking & Presentation Skills – London