Begin Your Speech in the Middle

Last Updated Feb 11, 2011 5:11 PM EST

How many times have you sat down anxiously to hear a talk, only to be stultified with blah-blah-blah. "Thanks for coming. I'm honored to be here today. Thanks specifically to Dennis and his team for bringing me to Acme Anvil to talk about developing marketing strategies in a global world. First, let me tell you a little bit about myself."

The audience is already reaching for its collective Blackberries.

That's why speech expert Nick Morgan advises executives to begin their speech in the middle. Here's a great opener.

"Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown ... That world has changed ... The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there's an Internet connection."

Unfortunately for President Obama, who delivered those words at the State of the Union last month, they didn't open the speech. They came after minutes of greetings to people in the audience and platitudes about democracy and jobs. He should have started his speech in the middle.

How can you tell what needs to be cut? Morgan advises:

"You can tell when rhetoric is empty -- and therefore should be cut -- because it would never be possible to say the alternative. Could a president begin by insulting the Speaker, 'dissing' a tragically ailing representative, trashing the democratic process, or coming out against jobs? Of course not. Therefore, nothing is being said. Speeches are much more interesting for the audience when they dispense with the polite nothings and get right to the meat."
For more valuable advice, read his HBR.org blog post, How CEOs Can Improve Speeches.

I agree completely with Nick. If you want to capture the audience from the starting line, don't begin with the obvious, the expected, the empty words. My BNET colleague Geoffrey James, who writes the terrific Sales Machine blog, takes up this theme as well. He says sales presentations should start with a "heart stopper,'' such as telling a company they've just lost $100 million, and here is what can be done about it.

How do you begin your speeches? Do you futz around or get down to business?

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(Image by Flickr user William Brawley, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.