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13.6.1: Structuring the Introduction

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    A common concern many students have as the date of their first major speech approaches is “I don’t know how I should start my speech.” What they are really saying is they aren’t sure what words will be memorable, attention-capturing, and clever enough to get their audience interested or, on a more basic level, sound good. This is a problem most speakers have, since the first words you say, in many ways, set the tone for the rest of your speech. There may not be anyone “best” way to start a speech, but we can provide some helpful guidelines that will make starting a speech much easier.

    With that in mind, there are five basic elements that you will want to incorporate into your introduction. And while you have some leeway to structure your introduction in a way that best fits with your speech and you wouldn’t necessarily do all of these in the order below, the following order of these five elements is fairly standard. Unless you have a specific reason to do otherwise, it is probably a pretty good order for you to use.

    Element 1: Get the Audience’s Attention

    The first major purpose of an introduction is to gain your audience’s attention and make them interested in what you have to say. While many audiences may be polite and not talk while you’re speaking, actually getting them to listen to what you are saying is a completely different challenge. Let’s face it—we’ve all tuned someone out at some point because we weren’t interested in what they had to say. If you do not get the audience’s attention at the outset, it will only become more difficult to do so as you continue speaking.

    That’s why every speech should start with an attention-getter, or some sort of statement or question that piques the audience’s interest in what you have to say at the very start of a speech. Sometimes these are called “grabbers.” The first words out of your mouth should be something that will perk up the audience’s ears. Starting a speech with “Hey everybody. I’m going to talk to you today about soccer” already sounds boring and has not tried to engage the individuals in the audience who don’t care about soccer. Once your audience has deemed your speech to be boring, trying to inform, persuade, or entertain them becomes exponentially more difficult. So let’s briefly discuss what you can do to capture your audience’s attention from the onset.

    First, when selecting an attention-getting device, you want to make sure that the option you choose is actually appropriate and relevant to your specific audience. Different audiences will have different backgrounds and knowledge, so you should use your audience analysis to determine whether specific information you plan on using would be appropriate for a specific audience. For example, if you’re giving a speech on family units to a group of individuals over the age of sixty-five, starting your speech with a reference to the television show Gossip Girl may not be the best idea because the audience may be unfamiliar with that show.

    You will also want to choose an attention-getting device appropriate for your speech topic. Ideally, your attention-getting device should have a relevant connection to your speech. Imagine if a speaker pulled condoms out of his pocket, yelled “Free sex!” and threw the condoms at the audience in the beginning of a speech about the economy. While this may clearly get the audience’s attention, this isn’t really a good way to prepare an audience for a speech about the stock market. To help you out, below we have listed a number of different attention-getters that you may find useful for opening your speech.

    Anecdotes and Narratives

    An anecdote is a brief account or story of an interesting or humorous event. Notice the emphasis here is on the word “brief.” A common mistake speakers make when telling an anecdote is to make the anecdote too long. An example of an anecdote used in a speech about the pervasiveness of technology might look something like this:

    In July 2009, a high school girl named Miranda Becker was walking along a main boulevard near her home on Staten Island, New York, typing in a message on her cell phone. Not paying attention to the world around her, she took a step and fell right into an open manhole.

    Notice that the anecdote is short and has a clear point. From here the speaker can begin to make his or her point about how technology is controlling our lives.

    The second type of anecdote is a parable or fable. A parable or fable is an allegorical anecdote designed to teach general life lessons. The most widely known parables for most Americans are those given in the Bible and the best-known fables are Aesop’s Fables ( So if you decide your speech will focus on the benefits of remaining in college for more than four years in order to obtain multiple degrees, you may want to adapt some version of “The Tortoise and The Hare” as your attention-getter.

    It is sometimes helpful to begin your speech in a way that your audience finds familiar since this can make them feel more connected to your speech. This may be particularly helpful for topics with which your audience is unfamiliar. One of the best and easiest ways to do this is to begin with a story that your audience is likely to have heard before. These types of stories come in a number of forms, but the most common ones include fables, tall tales, ghost stories, parables, fairy tales, myths, and legends.

    Two primary issues that you should be aware of often arise with using stories as attention-getters. First, you shouldn’t let your story go on for too long. If you are going to use a story to begin your speech, your need to think of it more in terms of summarizing the story rather than actually reciting the entire thing. Even a relatively simple story like “The Tortoise and the Hare” can take a couple of minutes to get through in its entirety, so you’ll need to cut it down to the main points or highlights. The second issue with using stories as attention-getters is that the story must in some way relate to your speech. If you begin your speech by recounting the events in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” your speech will in some way need to deal with finding balance or coming to a compromise about a matter. If your story doesn’t relate to your topic, you will likely confuse your audience and they may spend the remainder of your speech trying to figure out the connection rather than listening to what you have to say.

    A personal story is another option here. You may consider starting your speech with a story about yourself that is relevant to your topic. Some of the best speeches are ones that come from personal knowledge and experience. If you are an expert or have firsthand experience related to your topic, sharing this information with the audience is a great way to show that you are credible during your attention-getter. For example, if you had gastric bypass surgery and you wanted to give an informative speech about the procedure, you could introduce your speech in this way:

    In the fall of 2015, I decided that it was time that I took my life into my own hands. After suffering for years with the disease of obesity, I decided to take a leap of faith and get a gastric bypass in an attempt to finally beat the disease.

    If you use a personal example, don’t get carried away with the focus on yourself and your own life. Your speech topic is the purpose of the attention-getter, not the other way around. Another pitfall in using a personal example is that it may be too personal for you to maintain your composure. For example, a student once started a speech about her grandmother by stating, “My grandmother died of cancer at 3:30 this morning.” The student then proceeded to cry nonstop for five minutes. While this is an extreme example, we strongly recommend that you avoid any material that could get you upset while speaking. When speakers have an emotional breakdown during their speech, audience members stop listening to the message and become very uncomfortable. They may empathize with the distraught speaker, but the effectiveness has been diminished in other ways.

    Startling Statement/Statistic/Fact

    Another way to start your speech is to surprise your audience with startling information about your topic. Often, startling statements come in the form of statistics and strange facts. The goal of a good startling statistic is that it surprises the audience and gets them engaged in your topic. For example, if you’re giving a speech about oil conservation, you could start by saying, “A Boeing 747 airliner holds 57,285 gallons of fuel.” You could start a speech on the psychology of dreams by noting, “The average person has over 1,460 dreams a year.” A strange fact, on the other hand, is a statement that does not involve numbers but is equally surprising to most audiences. For example, you could start a speech on the gambling industry by saying, “There are no clocks in any casinos in Las Vegas.” You could start a speech on the Har-

    lem Globetrotters by saying, “In 2000, Pope John Paul II became the most famous honorary member of the Harlem Globetrotters.” All four of these examples came from a great website for strange facts (www.

    Although startling statements are fun, it is important to use them ethically. First, make sure that your startling statement is factual. The Internet is full of startling statements and claims that are simply not factual, so when you find a statement you’d like to use, you have an ethical duty to ascertain its truth before you use it and to provide a reliable citation. Second, make sure that your startling statement is relevant to your speech and not just thrown in for shock value. We’ve all heard startling claims made in the media that are clearly made for purposes of shock or fear-mongering, such as “Do you know what common household appliance could kill you? We’ll tell you at 11:00.” As speakers, we have an ethical obligation to avoid playing on people’s emotions in this way.

    A Rhetorical Question

    A rhetorical question is a question to which no actual reply is expected. For example, a speaker talking about the history of Mother’s Day could start by asking the audience, “Do you remember the last time you told your mom you loved her?” In this case, the speaker does not expect the audience to shout out an answer, but rather to think about the questions as the speech goes on.

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    Immediate Reference to Subject

    The most direct (but probably the least interesting of the possible attention getters) is to tell your audience the subject of your speech. Here’s an example:

    We are surrounded by statistical information in today’s world, so understanding statistics is becoming paramount to citizenship in the twenty-first century.

    This sentence explicitly tells an audience that the speech they are about to hear is about the importance of understanding statistics. While this isn’t the most entertaining or interesting attention-getter, it is very clear and direct. And note that it justifies the importance of the audience paying attention while avoiding being completely snooze-inducing, as it would have been if it were reworded as, “I want to talk to you about statistics.”

    Reference to Audience or Appeal to Self-Interest

    As we have tried to emphasize throughout this book, your audience is the single most important factor is crafting your speech, so it makes sense that one approach to opening your speech is to make a direct reference to the audience. In this case, the speaker has a clear understanding of the audience and points out that there is something unique about the audience that should make them interested in the speech’s content. Here’s an example:

    As students at Dalton State, you and I know the importance of selecting a major that will benefit you in the future. In today’s competitive world, we need to study a topic that will help us be desirable to employers and provide us with lucrative and fulfilling careers. That’s why I want you all to consider majoring in communication.

    In this example, the speaker reminds the audience of their shared status as Dalton State students and uses the common ground to acknowledge the importance of selecting a major that will benefit them in the future. Earlier in the textbook we used the expression WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”) to remind you that your topic and approach should appeal to the self-interests and needs of the audience members.


    Another way to capture your listeners’ attention is to use the words of another person that relate directly to your topic. Maybe you’ve found a really great quotation in one of the articles or books you read while researching your speech. If not, you can also use a number of Internet or library sources that compile useful quotations from noted individuals. Quotations are a great way to start a speech, so let’s look at an example that could be used during the opening of a commencement address (a type of special occasion speech discussed later in Chapter 15):

    The late actress, fashion icon, and social activist Audrey Hepburn once noted that, “Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible'!”

    If you use a quotation as your attention getter, be sure to give the source first (as in this example) so that it isn’t mistaken as your own wording.

    Reference to Current Events

    Referring to a current news event that relates to your topic is often an effective way to capture attention, as it immediately makes the audience aware of how relevant the topic is in today’s world. For example, consider this attention getter for a persuasive speech on frivolous lawsuits:

    On January 10 of this year, Scott Anthony Gomez, Jr., and a fellow inmate escaped from a Pueblo, Colorado, jail. During their escape the duo attempted to rappel from the roof of the jail using a makeshift ladder of bed sheets. During Gomez’s attempt to scale the building, he slipped, fell forty feet, and injured his back. After being quickly apprehended, Gomez filed a lawsuit against the jail for making it too easy for him to escape.

    In this case, the speaker is highlighting a news event that illustrates what a frivolous lawsuit is, setting up the speech topic of a need for change in how such lawsuits are handled.

    Historical Reference

    You may also capture your listeners’ attention by referring to a historical event related to your topic. Obviously, this strategy is closely related to the previous one, except that instead of a recent news event you are reaching further back in history to find a relevant reference. For example, if you are giving a speech on the perception of modern music as crass or having no redeeming values, you could refer back to Elvis Presley and his musical breakout in the 1950s as a way of making a comparison:

    During the mid-1950s, Elvis Presley introduced the United States to a new genre of music: rock and roll. Initially viewed as distasteful, and Presley was himself chastised for his gyrating dance moves and flashy style. Today he is revered as “The King of Rock ‘n Roll.” So when we criticize modern artists for being flamboyant or over the top, we may be ridiculing some of the most important musical innovators we will know in our lifetimes.

    In this example, the speaker is evoking the audience’s knowledge of Elvis to raise awareness of similarities to current artists that may be viewed today as he was in the 1950s.


    Humor is another effective method for gaining an audience’s attention. Humor is an amazing tool when used properly. We cannot begin to explain all the facets of humor within this chapter, but we can say that humor is a great way of focusing an audience on what you are saying. However, humor is a double-edged sword. If you do not wield the sword carefully, you can turn your audience against you very quickly.

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    When using humor, you really need to know your audience and understand what they will find humorous. One of the biggest mistakes a speaker can make is to use some form of humor that the audience either doesn’t find funny or, worse, finds offensive. Think about how incompetent the character of Michael Scott seems on the television program The Office, in large part because of his ineffective use of humor. We always recommend that you test out the humor of any kind on a sample of potential audience members prior to actually using it during a speech. If you do use a typical narrative “joke,” don’t say it happened to you. Anyone who heard the joke before will think you are less than truthful!

    Now that we’ve warned you about the perils of using humor, let’s talk about how to use humor as an attention-getter. Humor can be incorporated into several of the attention-getting devices mentioned. You could use a humorous anecdote, quotation, or current event. As with other attention-getting devices, you need to make sure your humor is relevant to your topic, as one of the biggest mistakes some novices make when using humor is to add humor that really doesn’t support the overall goal of the speech. So when looking for humorous attention-getters, you want to make sure that the humor is not going to be offensive to your audience and relevant to your speech.

    For example, here’s a humorous quotation from Nicolas Chamfort, a French author during the sixteenth century: “The only thing that stops God from sending another flood is that the first one was useless.” While this quotation could be effective for some audiences, other audiences may find this humorous quotation offensive. The Chamfort quotation could be appropriate for a speech on the ills of modern society, but probably not for a speech on the state of modern religious conflict. It also would not be appropriate in an area that had just experienced damaging floods. You want to make sure that the leap from your attention-getter to your topic isn’t too complicated for your audience, or the attention-getter will backfire.

    This list of attention-getting devices represents a thorough, but not necessarily exhaustive, range of ways that you can begin your speech. Certainly, these would be the more common attention-getters that most people employ. Again, as mentioned earlier, your selection of attention-getter is not only dependent on your audience, your topic, and the occasion, but also on your preferences and skills as a speaker. If you know that you are a bad storyteller, you might elect not to start your speech with a story. If you tend to tell jokes that no one laughs at, avoid starting your speech off with humor.

    To review, think back to the factors of attention in Chapter 7. The best attention-getters are

    • concrete (they bring up or refer to real experiences);
    • novel (they use material that is new or that the audience is unlikely to have heard before);
    • movement-oriented (don’t spend too long in the introduction because the audience will wonder where you are headed);
    • need-oriented (your attention getter and introduction, in general, should relate to the needs or interests of the audience).

    Other factors like suspense (introduce a story and finish it at the end) or conflict (telling a story with strong opposing forces and tension) can also be used.

    Element 2: Establish or Enhance Your Credibility

    Whether you are informing, persuading, or entertaining an audience, one of the things they will be expecting is for you to know what you are talking about. So the second element of an introduction is to let your audience know that you are a knowledgeable and credible source for this information. To do this, you will need to explain how you know what you know about your topic.

    For some people, this will be simple. If you are informing your audience how a baseball is thrown, and you have played baseball since you were eight years old, that makes you a fairly credible source. You probably know what you are talking about. So let us know that by saying something like, “Having played baseball for over ten years, including two years as the starting pitcher on my high school’s varsity team, I can tell you about the ways that pitchers use to throw different kinds of balls in a baseball game.” With regard to persuasive speaking, if you are trying to convince your audience to join Big Brothers Big Sisters and you have been volunteering for years, let them know: “I’ve been serving with Big Brothers Big Sisters for the last two years, and I can tell you that the experience is very rewarding.” By telling your audience you volunteer, you are saying to them “I’m not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” If you do it (and have done it for two years) then it must be a good experience.

    However, you may be speaking on a subject with which you have no history of credibility. If you are just curious about when streetlights were installed at intersections and why they are red, yellow, and green, you can do that. But you will still need to give your audience some sort of reason to trust your knowledge. Since you were required to do research, you are at least more knowledgeable on the subject than anyone else in the class. In this case, you might say, “After doing some research and reading several books on the subject, I want to share what I’ve learned about the history and evolution of traffic lights in America.”

    Element 3: Establish Rapport

    The next element of your introduction will be to establish rapport with your audience. Rapport is basically a relationship or connection you make with your audience. In everyday life, we say that two people have a rapport when they get along really well and are good friends. In your introduction, you will want to explain to your audience why you are giving them this information and why it is important to them (answering the WIIFM question). You will be making a connection through this shared information and explaining to them how it will benefit them. One of the best examples of rapport we have seen came from an informative speech on the poet Lord Byron:

    You may be asking yourselves why you need to know about Lord Byron. If you take Humanities 1202 as I did last semester, you will be discussing his life and works, so after this speech, you will have a good basis for the class material.

    What is important here is that this speaker used the audience analysis techniques discussed in Chapter 2 to determine the demographic make-up of her audience and determine what would motivate them to listen. Knowing that they are all college students, she enticed them to listen with the suggestion that this information would benefit them in a future class they might take.

    Another important thing to note here is that there is not necessarily a right or wrong way to establish rapport with your audience. You as the speaker must determine what you think will work best and help make a connection. Take for example an informative speech on “how to throw a baseball.” How would you establish rapport with your audience on that topic? Maybe you choose to focus on the age of your audience and noting that they are all relatively young and that some of them are already parents, you might say, “A lot of people in this room have or may have children someday, and if you decide you want to throw a ball with them or help them with sports, here are three steps you can use to teach them how to throw a baseball.” Will everyone in the class have kids someday? Probably not, but it is reasonable to guess that most about your audience will relate to this approach based on demographic analysis.

    Element 4: Preview Your Topic/Purpose/Central Idea

    The fourth major function of an introduction after getting the audience’s attention is to reveal the purpose of your speech to your audience. Have you ever sat through a speech wondering what the basic point was? Have you ever come away after a speech and had no idea what the speaker was talking about? An introduction should make the topic, purpose, and central idea clear.

    When previewing your topic in the introduction, be explicit with regard to exactly what your topic is. Spell it out for them if you have to. While it may not be great writing, the sentence “I’d like to tell you about how to properly change your car’s oil” is clear and leaves no doubt what your speech will be about. This might be a good place for you to review the material in Chapter 4 about writing central idea statements and specific purposes.

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    While not a hard and fast rule, you will probably also want to avoid having the audience “guess” what your topic is through clues. Consider the following topic reveal:

    Today I’d like to talk to you about a man who overcame great adversity to become the President of the United States. During his time in office he faced increasing opposition from conservative voices in government, as well as some dissension among his own party, all while being thrust into a war he didn’t want.

    As an attention-getter, this may not be bad, but what it doesn’t do is reveal the topic. The speaker at this point might assume the audience has clearly figured out who this speech is about and moved on. Unfortunately, the above passage could refer to either Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama, and members of the audience might either be confused or disappointed when they figure out the speech isn’t covering what they thought it was.

    It should also be noted here that at no point in your introduction do you ever want to read your specific purpose statement as a way of revealing your topic. Your specific purpose is included on your outline for your instructor’s sake and to keep you on track during preparation. The language used in the specific purpose (“To inform my audience…”) is too awkward to be actually read aloud.

    Element 5: Preview Your Main Points

    Just like previewing your topic, previewing your main points helps your audience know what to expect throughout the course of your speech and prepares them for what you are going to speak on. Your preview of the main points should be clear and easy to follow so that there is no question in your audience’s minds about what they are. Long, complicated, or verbose main points can get confusing. Be succinct and simple: “Today, in our discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s life, we will look at his birth, his role a president, and his assassination.” From that, there is little question as to what specific aspects of Lincoln’s life the speech will cover. However, if you want to be extra sure they get it, you can always enumerate them by using signposts (as we discussed in Chapter 6): “In discussing how to make chocolate chip cookies, first we will cover what ingredients you need, second we will talk about how to mix them, and third we will look at baking them.”

    What these five elements do is prepare your audience for the bulk of the speech (i.e. the body section) by letting them know what they can expect, why they should listen, and why they can trust you as a speaker. Having all five elements starts your speech off on much more solid ground than you would get without having them.

    This page titled 13.6.1: Structuring the Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.