Tips from a Speech Writer | Writing a Powerful Speech Opening to Connect with Your Audience

It’s often said that an effective speech opening is vital for connecting with your listeners. Besides making a good first impression, a good beginning to your speech helps you win the trust and attention of your listeners.

The speech opening is where you have the best chance to build a bridge of understanding between you and your audience. But how do you connect with a new audience when delivering a speech?

In The Lost Art of  the Great Speech, Richard Dowis describes what he calls reference opening to establish common ground between the speaker and the audience. When using a reference opening, the speaker usually makes reference to the speech, the group, the event or something related to one of these.

Some of the possible references you can use are the date, the location, the weather, the organisation you are delivering your speech to, a historical event, a current event, the topic, and the speech title.

Dowis shows how one executive speaking at a forum sponsored by the JC Penney Company, a US department store chain, used a reference opening in his speech.

I’m honoured to have been invited to represent the credit-reporting industry in this discussion of consumer credit. At the outset, I want to commend the JC Penney organisation for its sponsorship of this forum. I can recall many years ago reading about the late JC Penney. He was a dynamic man whose success in building one of the great retail enterprises of all time is testimony to the enormous potential of a free economic system. Mr Penney was also a man whose concern for people and society was apparent throughout his long and productive life.

Another example of a reference opening is found in 50 High Impact Speeches and Remarks by Michael Kador. He shows how Michael Askew, Vice Chairman of United Parcel Service, used a reference opening when he spoke at the Annual Meeting of the Air & Waste Management Association.

It is truly an honour to be addressing an organisation that has done so much to further our understanding of the environment. And you’ve done so in a way that promotes working cooperation among businesses, governments and communities.

What I find most impressive is that you’ve been doing this for 92 years. You don’t stick around 92 years unless you’re doing something right. We’re very aware of that at UPS.

In fact, the Air & Waste Management Association and UPS probably have more in common than you might think. For starters, we each were both founded way back in 1907 at a time when most environmental philosophies governing business and society were fledgling, at best.

This opening highlights what the speaker’s company has in common with the organisation he is addressing. It was a fortunate coincidence that both were founded in the same year, but you can usually find some point that connects you, or your organisation, to the audience.

As mentioned, location can be the basis for a reference opening. The following example from Dowis shows how an executive based in Atlanta used a location reference to connect with his audience in Chicago.

It’s good to be here in the company of such distinguished men and women in the great city of Chicago. Back in Atlanta, we refer to Chicago as the ‘other city the works.’ Chicago and Atlanta do have a great deal in common, quite apart from being the economic and cultural capitals of their respective regions of the country. Atlanta was burned in 1864 by a Yankee general named Sherman; Chicago was burned in 1871 by Mrs O’Leary’s cow.

Dowis also shows how to use literary references in a speech opening to connect with the speech topic. An executive of a forest products company used a literary reference when speaking to the company’s shareholders.

Dr Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s Candide, was fond of the statement: “All’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Well, in the field of for-sale residential construction, in finance, and in many other areas for which I have responsibility, we are close to, if not in, the best of all possible worlds.

If you’re having trouble finding a reference opening to help you connect with your audience, you can always try using the date of your presentation as a reference. Sites such as Today-In-History ( list important events, births and deaths that occurred on each day of the year. You might be able to find an event that is relevant to your speech topic or audience in some way.

The options for creating an effective reference opening are as boundless as your imagination and creativity. Writing an effective reference opening requires thought, planning and research. The effort spent, however, will help you get your messages across to receptive and attentive audiences.