Starting Talks with Questions and Stories

It’s 4pm. I have the last slot in a parallel session at a major international conference. The mulling crowds that packed the room for the first speaker in the session have long since wandered off to find something else to do. Here I am, in front of about 10 people. Frankly, it’s a tough gig.

It doesn’t matter how great a speaker you are, some days, you will face tired audiences, tricky slots and tough topics. At times like that, you don’t just need to be good, you need to be great. And you need to be great right from the start.

If you have read the last two weeks’ posts, you will have two ways to do that. Now I want to add two more.

If you have the same slot I had at the start of this post, or if you have an unfamiliar crowd, you can’t beat asking questions. Simple things like asking people to put up their hands if they have been challenged or querying where people have traveled from can help you to connect with the audience and get them onside.

One thing needs to be borne in mind though, using rhetorical ‘think about this’ questions has an entirely different effect. With them, rather than eliciting an immediate response, you are asking people to pause. If you are asking people to pause, you need to pause too.

While questions are the most upfront way of trying to connect, stories sneak round the back. Start with a compelling, relatable or dramatic story and you grab people by the heart.

Well-told stories help people to feel more connected to you by putting them in your shoes. And it’s always easier to accept someone when you can viscerally feel where they are coming from. As smart as people are, we still tend to judge people by subjective, emotional characteristics. Do they seem friendly? Do I feel comfortable with them? Do they put me at ease? Are they like me in some way?

You can throw around all the facts you like but if people find you distant or shallow, your words will fall into the void. If, on the other hand, you help them to feel something from the start, you will prepare their hearts and later their heads for the help you want to bring them.

Prologues, stories, questions: three powerful ways to start a talk. Note that none of these involve giving an outline of your talk and none of them require flashy PowerPoint background. The truth is, if you get your introduction right, outlines are an unnecessary waste of time. Connect well and you set the groundwork for the message your words, actions and visuals will bring.

So go on, experiment with introductions. You never know where they might take you.


About Jonathan Downie

I am a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher.
This entry was posted in Audience, Delivery, Preparation, Public Speaking. Bookmark the permalink.

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