Why the Opening to your Speech Sucks

Updated to Business on December 30, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

You’ve just been introduced, the room is silent—this is your moment.

You step on stage.

You know the first few minutes of any speech are critical—you need to grab the audience.

And then it happens – blank stares.

But it gets worse…

You notice two people leaning over to talk. A few people are finding the conference agenda more interesting and someone just pulled out their cell phone.

Don’t blame the audience – the problem is the opening to your speech sucks.

In this post I’ll go over the 5 biggest mistakes I see speakers making in their opening. For more reading, here are my 3 most popular posts about mistakes speakers need to avoid:

15 mistakes you should never make on stage

The Five Biggest Mistakes Most Speakers Make on Stage (and how to avoid them)

Five mistakes you never ever want to make on stage

Alrighty, here’s the 5 mistakes to avoid in your opening:

1. Thanking the host

We know you’re happy to be there (you are, aren’t you?) – you don’t need to tell us. You also don’t need to thank the host, the audience, the A/V crew, the guy that brought you breakfast or your taxi driver from the night before.

Let’s assume you love ’em all. Not get on with your speech.

2. Talking about your trip

If you want to alienate an audience fast, talk about your hotel, flight and your taxi ride to the hotel. Remember, that’s not how most people live.

Instead, talk about things that matter to them, like: their boss, clients, making sales, paying a mortgage, kids, marriage and health. The more they know you know them, the more they’ll trust you and learn from you.

3. Making excuses

Shit happens – don’t make excuses. When you make excuses you put more attention on what’s wrong. Assume something will go wrong and know how to roll with it.

Running out of time? Skip some slides and end on time. Forgot the next piece in your speech? Move on – nobody will miss what isn’t there.

Excuses are self-serving. And your audience doesn’t need to hear them.

4. Not getting to the problem

Unless you juggle for a living, we need to know what’s the problem you’ve come to solve. Preferably in the first 5 minutes.

Just like a good movie, at the start we get the reason to watch the rest of the film.

Better still: at the end of your speech loop back to the beginning, and remind them how your solutions deal with the problem you came to talk about.

5. Low batteries

You don’t need to come out like Tony Robbins (although that might work for some), but you do need to charge up your batteries and bring some energy to your opening.

I always squeeze in a hard workout the morning of a speech. Even 15 minutes is enough to get my blood pumping, my heart rate up and my energy ready to launch my speech.

You may have 60 minutes on stage, but the first 5 can make or break your speech – nail the opening and you’re halfway to nailing the whole speech.