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Chapter Five. Beginning Well > What an opening must accomplish

What an opening must accomplish

Constructing an effective opening is a challenge for the speech writer. An opening may, in a very short time, need to accomplish as many as half a dozen things:

  • First, the opening must establish a common ground, or a rapport, between the speaker and the audience. There are many ways to do this. Presidents of the United States almost always establish a common ground by addressing the audience as "My fellow Americans." This, of course, is the president's way of saying, "You and I share this one great attribute. We are Americans. We may have differing ideas. We may be of different political parties. We may be of a different race or creed. But we are Americans. This is our common heritage; and this is the common meeting ground for this speech."

    John F. Kennedy, speaking in the divided city of Berlin at the height of the Cold War, established rapport with his audience by saying "Ich bin ein Berliner." Although Kennedy's use of the German idiom was flawed, the people loved it. The popular young president of the United States was expressing a sort of symbolic solidarity with the people of Berlin by saying "I am a Berliner."

    In a comedy routine in the old TV show Laugh-In, Lily Tomlin, as a telephone operator, asks, "Have I reached the party to whom I'm speaking?" Establishing a common ground with the audience is the speaker's way of making sure he or she has reached the "party" to whom he or she is speaking.

    At times, the common ground between speaker and audience might be inherent in the occasion. When Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, there was certainly no need for additional common ground. Sorrow for the loss of young servicemen, concern for the country, and outrage at the surprise attack by the Japanese were the shared emotions that brought the president and his audience together.

  • An opening should set the tone for the speech. Serious. Relaxed. Friendly. Formal. Informal. If you open with a joke or a humorous comment, you're telling the audience to relax, that although the topic may be an important one, your speech is not going to be without some lighter moments.

  • The opening might need to reinforce, or perhaps even establish, the speaker's credibility. The degree to which this is important might depend upon how the speaker has been introduced or how the speech was publicized to members. And, of course, the speaker must be careful not to seem boastful.

  • The opening ought to arouse interest in the subject and lay the groundwork for the discussion. Again, there's the matter of degree. It depends upon how much interest the audience already has, how much the speech has been promoted to the audience in advance, and the speaker's qualifications.

  • The opening should take advantage of what I think of as "the speaker's grace period." This is the period in which the audience is most attentive. A weak opening might squander those precious minutes or seconds.

  • Finally, the opening should be used to segue smoothly into the topic. It is a bit jarring to the audience, not to mention wasteful of their time, for a speaker to open with, let's say, a joke or an anecdote that has no relevance to the subject of the speech. As we continue the discussion of different kinds of openings, you will begin to see how good speakers use the opening to lead into the topic.



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