Start Your Talk Strong: The First 30 Seconds Matter


As any 100M sprinter knows, it’s much harder to win if you get off to a weak start. As I’ve learned, the first 30 seconds of your presentation can determine the rest of the duration as easily as the sprinter’s time off the block.

If the first 30 seconds will set the tone for the rest of your talk, then rehearse this 30 seconds the most. This is your time to grab the audience’s attention and get a quick laugh. Tell them who you are, why they must listen to you, and do it in a manner that makes them like you. I have had nights where I have told the exact same jokes and stories but to very different reactions. The nights that did not go as well were the ones in which I experimented with or messed up the first 30 seconds.

“Teaching anyone to be funny sounds like a fool’s errand. Teaching businesses to have a sense of humor seems downright impossible. But David Nihill, the FunnyBizz conference’s cofounder, offers himself as a success story. Though he swears he had terrible stage fright before taking it upon himself to study the strategies of comedy (an adventure he recently turned into a book), his entrance showed no signs of distress, as he charmingly introduced the event in a thick Irish accent. – If I say something funny and you don’t laugh,” he jokes, “I’m just going to assume you didn’t understand.” Of course, the crowd laughs.”

The above extract is taken from an article in Fast Company. My quote referenced is a line I have used many times and it always gets a laugh. Developed in comedy clubs and at open mic nights following learning principles from the world of standup comedy, it’s the same line I use when speaking in a business environment and it’s one of many. Yes it is very specific to me (unless you are Irish) but the underlying principles can be adapted and personalized for you.

Acknowledging the obvious often provides an opportunity to get an quick and early laugh. If you’re visibly nervous, have a fresh stain on your shirt or if there’s anything unusual about you physically—anything that the audience might fixate on at the start—now is the time to address it, get a laugh, and move on so the audience can focus. In my case, I have an Irish accent that stands out where I live in the US. I will work to quickly address this and tell them that I’m Irish and try building a joke about it. That way, I can get the audience to focus on what I’m saying rather than spend the first 30 seconds trying to figure out where I’m from.

Watch a perfect, funny start from the world of TED that uses comedy writing techniques here

Try and develop an opening line, bearing in mind the importance of the first 30 seconds of a talk. This exercise is taken from an article by best-selling author and comedy coach Judy Carter:

Make a list of your ethnicity, parents’ nationalities, your hobbies and your current and past professions.

Pick two of the items you wrote and insert them into the following formula:

“You may not know this, but I’m ______________ and _____________ (or “I’m part this and part that”), so that means I ___________________________.”

For example, “My father is from New York and my mom’s from Texas, so that means … I like my bagels with gravy.” Or,

“I have a degree in astronomy and I’m an actress, so that means … I know exactly why the sun revolves around me.”

Experiment with your opening lines until you find something that works for you. How you start your talk will always impact how you finish it and we want to start strong and finish even stronger.