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PUBLIC SPEAKING

The Art of Unforgettable Opening Lines

Whether you're giving a speech, pitching an investor, or just making small talk, your first line leaves a lasting impression. Make it a good one.
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How do you begin your presentations? Do you work on your opening to create drama and curiosity? Or do you play it safe, and tell them what you're going to tell them?

Stanley Fish, a professor at Florida International University, grabbed readers by the collar with the importance of first sentences.

Here's the situation he posits. You're at the mystery section of an airport bookstore. You hear last call for your flight. You have about five minutes to choose a book. How do you make a choice? Look at the back cover? No, because it's hype, written by an advertising guy paid to sell the book.

How about the blurbs? No, because famous authors often praise other books in publisher's lists to do the publisher a favor and increase the likelihood of getting their next book published.

The only thing left is to read the first sentence.

Professor Fish quotes a few doozies. "He cut through the morning rush-hour crowd like a shark fin through water." No thanks.

"Brianne Parker didn't look like a bank robber or a murderer--her pleasantly plump baby face fooled everyone." Too cliché!

"Some stories wait to be told." Too pretentious!

Time is running out. You open another book. "Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son." Pretty good but too self-conscious, especially that name.

And then Professor Fish finds the real thing. "Joel Campbell, 11 years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride." The name isn't too fictional. "11 years old at the time" takes away the seriousness. And "with a bus ride" is not self-consciously clever but matter of fact. It deepens the mystery.

How many yawning executives snap to attention when you utter your first sentence? How many people look forward to hearing you speak?

Everyone is rushing to catch a plane. Your ability to grab attention is key to your success.

Last updated: Apr 16, 2014

SIMS WYETH | Columnist

I'm a speech and presentation coach. I write speeches, work with executives on their content and delivery, run presentation skills workshops, and give speeches about speaking. My most recent book is The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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