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How to be a better public speaker instantly.

Roughly 99% of public speakers ruin their speeches in the first sentence.

How?

They start off their speech by thanking the audience.

No one cares about that.

No one doubts that you’re excited to be there.

No one needs you to reintroduce yourself right after the host of the event did.

But you’ve heard speeches start that same way.

“I’m so honored to be here. My name is Jon Acuff and I’m excited that I get to be here with you today.”

There’s nothing exciting, interesting or engaging in those words. The worst part is that you never get an audience to join you in the middle or the end of your speech.

The beginning seals the deal or ruins everything for you. (Great books like Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln first exposed me to this common problem.)

What should you do instead?

I suggest a “lean in line.”

That’s when you start with an opening statement that forces the entire audience to lean in and wonder what you are going to say next.

For example, I’m speaking at an event this Friday. Know what I’m going to say, right out of the gate?

“Six weeks ago, a balloon animal guy looked down on me in the middle of a dark playground.”

Then I’m going to pause and give the questions in the crowd a minute to bloom.

Why did the balloon animal guy look down on you?

Why were you on a dark playground with a balloon animal guy?

Where is this going to go next?

You’ve got the briefest moment of time to create some curiosity. Don’t throw it away on a hollow “thanks for having me” sentence. (You can thank the audience in the middle of the speech if you must.)

Open with a lean in line.

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Jon Acuff
Jon Acuff

84 Comments

  1. Interesting! It’s definitely better to start with a lean line from a listeners perspective. The beginning of your story sounds like a Seinfeld episode. Reminds me of the one where George is wondering why his dad is downtown with a guy in a cape…

  2. Good call. guilty! (not that I speak in public often)

  3. Can you do a brief parallel for preachers. I know we’re public speakers, but would you say do it the same way? I started Sunday with “You’re not God.” People looked at me like I had a third eye.

    • Jon Acuff

      That sounds like a great opener to me!

    • Heath Kramer

      That’s because you offended them. Most people in church think they are God…or, are just as good as God. They were never admit it, but they certainly don’t want you telling them that. I think that’s an AWESOME opener!

      Great blog Jon!

    • Dean

      I do. My Confirmation message yesterday afternoon started with three tennis balls and “There was that time when I almost broke my nose juggling…”

      That sounds like a great message starter to me.

    • Bob Beaudreaullt

      They looked at you like you had a third eye….. But they also listened to what you said next!
      mission accomplished

    • DIanna

      Yes, I would agree, sounds great to me… I can only imagine how the rest went!

    • RevAdam

      That is nice. Mine started with, “I want to be god”

      Solid article, dreamweaver. I believe this will get me through the neeeext sermon

  4. Mark

    Great advice but come on I’m about to fall over face first I’m leaning so hard to hear about the balloon maker on the dark playground hovering above you!

  5. Jay Lamborn

    Our church sent 70 men to Promise Keepers last weekend. Next Sunday I get a few minutes to share about that experience. Jon, you just helped me do it better. Thanks.

  6. In conjunction with catch-playing world record attempts, I’ve been speaking at churches to talk about modern-day slavery. My opening sentence is repeated multiple times throughout the presentation, “We must ot forget, as people of faith, the story of slavery is our story.”

  7. Jon Forrest

    First of all, Jon it’s an honor to comment on such an incredible blog. Thanks for having me. Awww. Shoot.

  8. Great point! I also tune out if a speaker starts with, “Webster’s dictionary defines…”

    • Jon Acuff

      Very true.

    • Melissa#2

      Melissa’s think alike. Hearing the words “Webster’s defines” says to me, I don’t know what I’m doing, I have no interest in the talk I’m giving and I’d rather be anywhere than here.
      fun fact, we can all read Webster’s and probably have. We want to hear why your an “expert” on the topic.

  9. Kevin

    I’ll be at Love Does Austin on Friday! Can’t wait to hear the rest of that story!

  10. Good call Jon. I’m always more confident rolling into a message if I have my first lines scripted. I need to add that next step of intentionality in crafting it.

    Thanks also for the book recommendation. Added it to my Wish List on Amazon.

  11. Great advice! I am just starting to speak more and this is brilliant!

  12. Drew

    Thanks! I’ll remember these tips once I’ve moved on past the cold sweats and shaking limbs when I’m speaking in public, haha.

  13. “What’s with porta potties?”

  14. Great timing for this. I am speaking at a men’s retreat on Saturday.

  15. Dave

    Worst intro I hear all the time:

    hey! hey! heeeeey! Good morning! ***awkward pause*** I said “GOOD Morning”! (audience stares while speaker painfully waits for reciprocation and a wonderful feeling of acceptance before proceeding)

    • I would say,” One more time, just like we rehearsed it; Good Morning!!” I know a very successful performer who would not start his act until he was satisfied with the audience reaction. He was kidding them, but it worked as an ice-breaker.

  16. Loved this. It makes so much sense. Why not grab them the same way we are instructed to write. In the beginning. Thanks.

  17. Christiana

    Thanks for the inspiration. Now I have to re-write the speech I was going to give tonight. I bet it will be better for it.

  18. I wish this had been posted last Thursday… I had to give my first speech as the Executive Director at our fundraising banquet… guess how I started… Thanks for being here… welp, here’s to next years banquet. 🙂

    • Louise

      I too wish I had seen this last week. I gave my first speech at our annual gala dinner last Friday and started poorly. Well, next year it is!

  19. The “lean in line” is pure gold. It’s small details like this that make a BIG difference in audience engagement.

    Thanks for the reminder Jon!

  20. This is awesome…I’m going to use this in my up coming sermon….Thanks Jon!

  21. Kathy McDaniel

    I used to teach 8th graders how to write. I focused on the hook more than anything. I told them that if I didn’t WANT to read their essays after the intro paragraph, then I wouldn’t grade it. Best one I ever got started with “I never knew the damage a flaming marshmallow could do to a person!” 15 years later I still remember the essay and am now FB buds with that student! Same goes with speaking! Wish more people saw this blog!

  22. “So, I’m in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of southern Haiti when this shark sneaks up underneath me…”

    We can lie, right?

    Great advice, Jon!

  23. Robert Faulkner

    Amen! It’s always driven me crazy when visiting pastors or evangelist comes and spend 20 minutes thanking the pastor, talking about how wonderful the church and it’s people are, and just basically kissing everyones backsides. Just GET TO THE WORD MAN… especially in a pentecostal church, where we all stand there… just waiting on him to say, sit down.
    (We have one evangelist who comes by often.. everyone loves him… He greets us in the name of Jesus, and tells everyone to sit down…. then most of the time makes a jab at preachers who make you stand up for 30 minutes lol… love that guy)

  24. Jon I think that topic could be an entire book – really thinking about what actually matters to the audience, and what just matters to me, and worst of all, what’s just filler because I’m not prepared.

    Kind of like “attention allowance” – there’s only so much of it in your pocket and every word spends a little bit of it.

  25. jen

    Simple and instructive…not to mention awesome!!!!

  26. Just wait until the balloon animal guys catch wind of this and the implication that they are condescending.

    Watch your back, the balloon animal guys are twisted.

    Boom! (or “Pop!”…oh the balloon puns I could blow up on)

  27. I have a small speech on Thursday for a business networking group. I have no idea how to start. I am trying to inform the group about how small business need to develop more mobile friendly websites so that they can be used by a public that is increasingly using mobile devices in lieu of laptop and desktop computers. Any Ideas?

    • cshell

      Try….You are not God.

    • Mark

      Start with “Hold on….I need to put this on facebook.” Then take a picture and put it on facebook.

    • I’m betting a lot of them will have smart phones on them. I would have a very poorly done mobile website for them to look up and navigate first off. Let them get frustrated and draw it in to how they can make theirs better for the mobile user and back it up with the statistics of how may people are going mobile and what it can mean to them. Show them in their own hands why they need good mobile websites…(sorry, married to a web programmer who fights this stuff at the university he works for on a daily basis by people who think mobile optimization is stupid….)

  28. The other way is to start with an engaging story or a joke that is actually related to the theme. Most people will listen to a story for a few sentences. You still need to make sure the first few lines get them interested.
    For instance, I think I did well for speaking by beginning this homily (http://22catholic.com/?p=535) with a joke/story that led straight into the theme event though the first line was “There once were two evil brothers” which is not 100% a lean in line.

  29. Adam M

    Love this.

  30. Christine

    I needed to hear this – I have a recital for 40 of my violin students this coming weekend. I always feel like I need to say something at the beginning and usually thank everyone for coming and introduce myself. This is a good reminder to change my approach! Great post . . . thanks.

  31. It’s worth mentioning that this technique probably isn’t best for greeting your spouse when he/she comes home from work. In those cases a simple Hi, or Hello will probably be a better choice 🙂

  32. Kay

    Amen! It’s NOT about me. It’s about the audience and engaging them. Thanks for your practicality.

  33. Jon, you could start off by saying: Sorry, but Jon was not able to make it tonight, but I am his twin brother and he gave me his notes. Then proceed to start your message in third person. After a few minutes you could then say: Wait a minute. This message sounds familiar. Wow, I am Jon, I wore the wrong sweater when looking in the mirror.

    OK, that does sound a little cheesy, but you could tweek it.

    Then, again, if at the end of the evening your speech didn’t go so well, you could always end with: Sorry about tonight, come back when my brother Jon can be here.

  34. Brilliant engagement – Thank you!

  35. Same with writing. You must have an opening sentence that makes the reader want to read the next sentence, and then the next. I started my blog the day after I finished your book START, and I try to begin each of my posts with what you call a “lean in line”.

  36. Speaking of lines to eliminate from any talk, you should never tell an audience you have no idea what they’re going thru right now. The distance between the stage and the seats is large enough as it is, don’t give them room to think its even bigger. Don’t alienate them with language that gives breath to any idea that you’re any different than them.

  37. Sheila

    Great advice! Thanks Jon!

  38. “It’s great that you all made the effort to be here. Give yourselves a hand.”

    Do we have to? If I don’t will I look bad?

  39. Thanks for the great tip. I believe this will help me get my team more engaged in our meetings at work.

  40. Lolly

    Don’t Ieave us hanging! I am going to lean in and listen while you deliver the punch line.

  41. I just sat down to draft the outline for a speech at my alma mater in a couple weeks. My first line was going to be how honored I was to be there again, this time speaking – blah, blah, blah.

    Now, I’m starting with a story instead. Thanks Jon.

    P.S. Love the new site! Great design.

  42. Excellent timing on this one. Giving a speech/presentation tomorrow, and I would’ve started with some boring thing, but thanks to you, I will start with something, well, better.

  43. I think its a bit of a stretch to say speakers RUIN their speeches by thanking the audience.

    I also think it depends on the context. I’m 36 years old. When I speak to an audience of retirees, they give off a “distrusting vibe. They also tend to be old-school formal (where saying thank you from the start is expected). They same goes for groups that follow strict parliamentary procedure in their meetings and conferences. I might thank that audience and spend some time talking about my experience with the content I plan to discuss as a means of building rapport. That way, when I go for the lean in line, they’re more apt to listen than think “Who are you and why should I care what you have to say? Its 3:30…its almost dinner time!”. I agree that a lean-in line (or a rhetorical question) is a more engaging way to start a speech in the general. However, the general doesn’t work 100% of the time.

  44. My name is Daren and I am really exited to be able to write this commen……..dang it!

  45. Josh N

    Guilty as charged. Thanks for making my next speech better, Jon.

  46. Man I have been screwing up the opening. Makes so much since. This is huge for me as I am getting more and more speaking engagements. Thanks Jon!

  47. Erin

    your commenters are almost as funny as you are =)

  48. This can work in fiction, too, but only if it’s done right.

  49. Leesa

    Hey Jon! I remember when you shared this point with us. It was the God, Booty, God speech. It has stuck with me to date! Love ya and miss your light here.

  50. Jaamez

    Am I the only one curious as to why he was in a dark playground with a balloon animal guy?

    C’mon… Spill the beans. 🙂

  51. Josh N.

    I have also noticed a big turn off is when the speaker starts by talking about being asked to speak and not being sure what they should talk about and then they recount some of the mental gymnastics they went through to come up with a topic.

    I’ve heard people start with this kind of introduction and go on to give a very inspirational speech but it took me half the speech to overcome the introduction.

  52. Sean

    Jon,

    What do you do after the initial pause? Do you adress the lean in line or proceed into your presentation and explain later, or not at all?

    Sean

  53. No seriously

    73% of bloggers make up statistics to sound smart and/or funny. They usually fail at both when they do.

  54. I agree with the idea and I think there’s a good next step to help get the intro idea rolling:

    In Andy Stanley’s “Communication For a Change” (which is my favorite book on communication so far) he states that you HAVE to connect with the audience through your intro otherwise they won’t listen to the rest of what you say. Why should they listen? Why should they listen to you? What makes you unique when speaking to this topic?

    It sounds like Jon’s example is a setup to a personal story that will connect with the audience and not just a “Like Frank the Emcee said, my name is Adam and I believe in repeating repetition.” type statement.

    It will connect better and be a breath of fresh air.

    *Freebie – I used to work with a sales trainer years ago and he had some great wisdom on public speaking. This is pretty unrelated to the main point, but too good not to share and it is one of my pet peeves with public speakers. DON’T READ THE SLIDES WORD FOR WORD. People are smart enough to read for themselves. Word it another way if you can and let them read the slide for themselves.

    Good luck, Jon – I’ve always enjoyed your writing and humor!

  55. Amanda

    Ok…I’m leaning…still leaning…if I lean in anymore I’m going to hit the computer screen! Where is this story going?!?!?!

  56. When I heard you tell the balloon guy story at the Lipscomb Spark Center it was one of the funniest and simultaneously sad moments of the afternoon… You know, when people start their reaction with laughter than it organically turns into an “awww…..” Now those are two emotions that when woven together are food for the tribe…

  57. I put this into practice yesterday to open a new business pitch, and they were instantly engaged. Asked me to get them a long-term proposal to them ASAP – pretty sure I heard a seriously bruised Fear say “Oof!” when I stepped on it while walking out the door with a bounce in my step. 🙂

  58. Rachel

    Ugh – I started a talk with those exact (well, substituting my name, of course) words 4 days ago. I’m cringing at the memory, now that I’ve read your post. Luckily, it worked out okay but I definitely saw the dreaded eye-glaze set in. I’ll never make that mistake again. Thanks!

  59. Thanks, Jon! I read this the day before I was giving a talk that was being taped for a segment on the local news. Whew. So glad I read this! I changed my intro per your advice and am so glad I did. I also immediately ordered the book you mentioned and can’t wait to read it.

    Your content is consistently excellent. Thanks for all the great material you generously pour into us.

  60. Kayleigh Hudson

    I used this technique of yours when giving a speech while running for SGA Historian at my school, and it worked! I won! You were an awesome speaker at BigStuf, keep it up 🙂

  61. Great advice Jon! I wonder if we do this more out of nervousness. I give a lecture at colleges on “How To Make It In The Music Business.” I usually opened with something similar, but last time I opened with, “You CAN make a living in the music business,” and then wowed them by performing an opening song. My hosts said it gave me instant credibility.

  62. Haha! Awesome. I want to speak publicly more often and am learning the value of a solid opener. It sets the tone and can make or break a speech.

    Thank you for sharing from your experience.

  63. Jon, have you watched Mike Birbiglia’s stand up special My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend? He does this PERFECTLY. It’s on netflix and he does this so well.

  64. Robert

    You’re right.

  65. Matilyn

    I didn’t know that thanking people was boring? But, it makes TOTAL sense why starting the same as every other public speaker is boring

  66. Your post’s title made me sceptical, I must say. But now I see what you mean. (Nice job at not just getting me here, but also giving what you promised!)

    I love the term “lean in line”, because the aim is to have the audience LITERALLY drawn in by our first words.

    In a recent talk (about being a survivor) I started with: “When I was just 10 years old, a hole was torn in my life.” Hopefully people were intrigued to know why!

    You might like these 20+ other examples too:
    https://bitly.com/1tBGDhN

    (Comments are always very welcome there!)