The Opening Speech, to start out well

The Opening Speech

The tone of an event is set during the first few minutes. It is during this time that the participants “sense” the type of event to come: Interesting? Boring? All talk or action?

How to use those precious minutes well in order to pave the way for what follows?
Events are often opened by a speech given by a person within the company.
These early messages are critical: an ambiguous or boring speech can ruin the mood. On the contrary, if it defines the event’s goals, style and added values, it can contribute to the success of the event in an essential and irreplaceable way.

The hotspots of a good opening speech are:

  1. To hold the audience’s attention
  2. To send a clear and memorable message
  3. To provide indications of style

Hold the audience’s attention
The dynamic of attention follows its own sequence: the attention must be captured right away, held with increasing intensity, and fully engaged through the conclusion of the speech.

Capture it right away.
It seems trivial, but a very common mistake is to start too soon. If I start speaking while the participants are still chatting, my first precious sentences will be lost. Those who did not hear the introduction won’t be able to understand what follows and will be easily distracted. If the person opening the event doesn’t have much experience, it is a good idea to have someone else introducing him/her and wait for silence before the presentation.

The goal of the first sentences of the speech is to create an attentive participation and to obtain a certain level of involvement by the audience. If (and only IF) it is in your nature, you could also begin with a witty joke, as many (American) manuals suggest. Otherwise, you could begin with a statement that might catch people off guard. For instance, when speaking of sustainability in a very strict and formal company, you could start by saying: “Today I would like to talk to you about my daughter (pause, look around the room), my daughter is very young (short pause) and like many young people, she is sensitive to themes that have never been considered by companies in our field in the past…” Or else you could make a “physical” opening, such as: “Who here is from Spain or Portugal? Come on, stand up…Thank you for making such a long journey!” (round of applause). Then, group by group, have all the participants stand up and sit down.

The Opening Speech

Hold it with increasing intensity
The entire speech (the content, tone of voice, the impact of technical aids, etc.) should be structured in a crescendo: the topics addressed from the least to the most important, from the most predictable to those that push towards change, up to the long-awaited result. For example, to announce an organizational change, you must first explain the problems and then you can ask a series of questions (“So let’s ask ourselves: how is it possible that…?”) . We should present the solution only when curiosity and attention are at their maximum levels.

Fully engage the audience through the conclusion
The importance of the conclusion is often underestimated. Speakers who start with a strong argument (the need for change, innovation, etc.) often think that it is enough to demonstrate its being useful and correct. But our credibility is strengthened if we keep the listener’s perspective in mind. For example, once the validity of the new management system has been demonstrated, we may conclude saying: “I realize that for many of you it will be hard to give up the efficiency achieved through the current system…and the thousands of tricks that you have learned along the way (pause with a conspiratorial smile)…so, for this reason we are asking you to share every idea that could help in shortening this transitional period.”

Send a clear and memorable message
To take advantage of the occasion, you may want to say everything and more. However, what can be understood, remembered and retold is subject to human limitations.
Choose one topic only, talk about it generally (for no more than thirty minutes) and repeat several times a rehearsed and effective sentence that summarizes, maybe even provocatively, the main idea.
Here is an effective statement that Marchionne made to the managers of FIAT: “Being a Fiat leader is a life choice. It is not the Buena Vista Social Club.” Not only it is clear and concise, it also creates an enlightening suggestion. If it is repeated during the speech, it will certainly be discussed, quoted and remembered.

Provide indications of style
During management courses it is taught that “collaborators don’t listen to what you say but observe what you do.” In organizations, the most effective behavioral norms can be found in the actions and reactions of management. Therefore, if the event needs to communicate informality and fun instead of obligation and reflection, the clothing and attitude of the speaker should be consistent with this.

A nice pinstriped suit would not go well with the message: “Consider this as an informal moment for getting to know each other!”