Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Those who would do public speaking must understand the importance, the crucial importance, of the introduction, the first ten percent of their speeches.

1. Vocally one must establish one's the dominance of one's voice. All attention must be drawn to the speaker. No little voices, no hemmng and hawing, no slinking to the front. If one wants the right to speak, one must take that right with a voice everyone can hear, that everyone can get used to listening to in the first 20-30 seconds, that everyone can find listenable and authoritative. This may sound old-fashioned, but if so, it's only because we have become such a bunch of mumblers not taking care to use the English language in an effective way.

2. Any textbook can tell you the six or seven ways to introduce speeches:
  • anecdote, funny or otherwise
  • startling statistic or fact
  • quotation, identified or not identified
  • reference to a recent incident
  • immediate reference to title
  • personal reference
  • reference to the importance of the topic/issue'
  • using a visual aid

However, these methods only do so much, and I'll address them one-by-one on a later blog entry. An introduction has to have a structure of four parts:

a. the attention getter

b. the bridge showing the relationship of the attention getter to the topic

c. the thesis, which is discussed below

d. the preview/map/overview/plan of content

An attention getter without a bridge to the topic confuses listeners, and that is the fault most speakers commit--not seeing or hearing their speeches from the perspective of an audience, not being self-aware enough to realize that how it sounds within one's head is not how it sounds to others sitting ten to fifty feet away.

3. In college composition and speech classes instructors spend a lot of time on thesis or central idea statements, but most of that information is impractical for real audience situations. A thesis should be either of the following:

a. a succinctly stated, aphoristic "BIG IDEA" that can be restated, developed, and easily remembered by the audience. Jesse Jackson used to have a sermon where he wanted the audience to remember "I am somebody!" Anyone who heard it never forgot it. I am not suggesting that level of conciseness, but I am suggesting that the speaker should be able to capsulize the real message of the speech in a relatively short sentence (at least less than fifteen words). These long, convoluted thesis sentences preached in textbooks are too wordy for oral communication, which demands, for most audiences, short sentences with a certain amount of repetition. This method takes a good deal of panache and practice, but all who have to speak should move toward it as a goal. I recently taught a Bible lesson centered on the phrase "Jesus includes the excluded." It worked in that context (a lesson on Matthew).

b. If the BIG IDEA method is too much, it's all right to just say, "Today I want to address the issue of ..... and do so by breaking it down into X number of subtopics." Or even better, "In the next few minutes I will explain why ..... To do this, I'll first explain ...., then ...., then ...." This second example works for a persuasive speech, and I would suggest "explain" instead of "prove" or "persuade you that." Audiences do not want to be told they will be persuaded; they reserve the right to persuade themselves. This approach has the value of being clear. No one will miss the point, and to be honest, being sure your main topic and preview is not missed trumps clever. Clever is good; clear is better.

This is not to say the textbooks are wrong. The authors want the students to understand argument and support; so much of what is taught in college is about critical thinking and proving intellectual skills, not about what will work particularly well in the "real world" (a phrase I really despise but have to defer to).

4. However, an introduction can look great on paper and still be a disaster in reality. A speech is what comes out of one's mouth at a specific place and time; that is the key difference between oral and written communication. Therefore, a speaker must practice and get feedback to be sure that the attention getter is vocally attention-getting: Slow and distinct (making the mouth work), energetic, full eye contact (never read introductions, conclusions, or jokes to an audience), appropriate facial expression (no goofy grin if a serious subject, no scowl if a motivational speech), and loud enough to make everyone know you are the one in control for the next so many minutes.

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