It's the moment you've been preparing for; the time arrives and the attention in the room shifts to you. Your heart speeds a bit, you take a breath and dive in.
As you begin to share, people shift in their seats - settling in to hear your thoughts. You pretend not to notice, but in time you take a quick scan of your audience, briefly breaking the flow of your speech, and as you do you see the worst thing you can imagine: eyes slightly glassy, people dazing out. A person towards the left stifles a yawn, a feat of will keeping their mouth closed, but your stomach tightens nonetheless. Hardly a minute in, and this already is far cry from all the work you put in for this...
This scene plays out myriads of times across world as we step into that deep fear: public speaking. Whether you are preaching a sermon, pitching to make a sale, or explaining a new policy to your team, many of us have to share our thoughts publicly in some form or another, and knowing how to kick things off well is a critical skill.
What is it about that First Window?
Studies in business have indicated that the first impression in a meeting is formed in as few as seven seconds. From what I can tell, these first seven seconds form a kind of "mental frame", which the listener will fit the rest of what you say around the expectations set in that first precious window of time. It doesn't matter if you have the most revolutionary idea, the most life-changing product, if those first few seconds say, "boring", you probably won't have their full attention for however long the rest of your presentation is. My experience as a writer shows some version of the same thing is not just true with the word, it is with the pen (or these days keyboard) as well. I don't know how many words you've got, but however long it is, the first impression frames the rest of the reading experience.
So here's the bottom line: no matter how much time, energy, thought, and whatever else has gone into your presentation, article, chapter or otherwise, if you don't spend those first few words right, you get diminishing returns on all the other work you've done. Nailing that first window is critical, and it's worth giving way more time to the beginning of the beginning of your communication. Unfortunately, I see often the opposite: speakers who meander their way around the beginning of their talk, or writers who start with more of a whimper than a bang. Fortunately, it's not that hard to catch people effectively at the beginning, you just have to know how it works.
A Lesson from George Lucas
When God called me from physics to ministry, I had a steep learning curve in pretty much everything that was pastoring. A few years in when I started preaching, I made myself a student of the craft, carefully watching what worked well and what didn't. Eventually I connected the dots that the first few words out of my mouth were probably the most important in terms of how effective the message would be, and I began to ponder how to open a message effectively. I knew what I wanted: people sitting on the edge of their seat, pin-drop silence as people held their breath, their attention rapt on the word of God. (Okay, so that's probably a little excessive, but you get the point).
After trying (and mostly failing) some different things, I had a thought: maybe I needed to start in the middle of the action. As I reflected on that thought, I realized that's a common trick they do in the movies; they trust you into the thick of things, before you have any idea who is who and what is what.
One of the most iconic examples of this technique to me comes from the original Star Wars (episode 4 for those who are asking). It's a brilliant piece of storytelling; we have no idea what this movie is even about, and in the first moments we have star ships shooting at each other, soldiers and droids, a princess with a creative hair do, and of course the one-and-only:
By the end of the opening scene, you're totally hooked! You have no idea what's going on, but you're absolutely there for whatever journey George Lucas is about to take you on.
Make 'em Catch Up
In Star Wars, George Lucas starts the story by putting the views into catch-up mode. He's already telling his story; the viewers have to choose to jump in and catch up with him, or get left behind. That brilliant, bold, bit of storytelling technique hooks you entirely and gets you right in that on-the-edge-of-your-seat place I was dreaming about earlier. Could it be that this kind of thing could work for a sermon? I knew I had to give it a try, and since I did, this has become a regular feature in my communication. I don't use it every time, but I use some form or fashion of it probably more often than not. In fact, that's how I started this article! (How's that for taking my own medicine?).
What is the "Star Wars" opening? Simply put, it's diving into the action right away. The first words to come across. No introduction, no "welcome this morning", no any of that stuff. If you want to introduce yourself or welcome people, that's fine, circle back and do it after your opening "action sequence." Do it right, and you'll grab people effectively and quickly. Here are a few observations I've made about this communication technique:
1. The first thing you start with needs to be a story
Our brains are wired for story arcs. It's actually how we make sense of the world, and our mind connects with stories far more quickly than with facts, opinions, or other forms of information. There is a reason people say, "facts tell, stories sell" - it's because story grips us in a way other things do not. This is why you absolutely should not with a bunch of boring fact-y type things at the beginning of your communication. You know, stuff like, "Welcome everyone, here is my title, here is what we're going to be talking about..." Give them that first thing and they'll tune you out quickly.
Now the story you start with may or may not be directly linked to specifically what you're going to be talking about. In this article I started by painting a picture of communication itself. Sometimes it's fun to do that, but often I start with a story that somehow illustrates the value of what we're going to be talking about. Sometimes it is someone else's story, sometimes it's something that happened in my own life. Sometimes I've even colored in detail and fleshed out a biblical story and used that to introduce the character we'll be visiting that day.
2. Start your story quickly
You can blow a "Star Wars" opening by taking too long to get into the meat of the story. Again, you're not looking for information to set up the story, you're looking for the action. Even more specifically than that you're looking for the tension of the story. If you want to be really bold, start the story in the middle, not the beginning - like Star Wars does. The quicker you can get the audience into tension (again, see my opening for this article), the quicker you'll grip them. You're basically hijacking the natural tension of the story to add an intellectual investment in what you're saying.
3. It feels more risky as the communicator than it does to the audience
I've found that a good "Star Wars" opening actually makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. I feel like I'm stepping too far too fast and I feel a bit of concern that I might be losing people if I jump in that fast. Don't I need to take them along with me a little more than this? This kind of opening is more of a risk for the communicator, but I've found it does pay off. Yes, it does bend the typical rules of communication a bit, but that sense of "I'm not entirely sure what's happening yet" is exactly what gets people on the edge of their seat.
4. Don't keep the audience in the tension too long
The psychological tension of the catch-up experience is a very effective way to get started, but it also can be mentally draining for people listening. Start your story, hook people with the tension, but don't take too long to close that opening scene up. I usually am aiming for 3-5 minutes at the longest (and sometimes 1-2 minutes is all you need). After that, you can circle back and give the contextual information (like George Lucas does when he starts introducing Luke, etc). In my context, it's after this kind of opening that I'll explain the sermon series, the topic for today, etc.
A World of Difference
I don't nail my openings every single time, but sometimes I do, and occasionally I'll have a moment that does feel like what I dreamed: a pin-drop silence as all secondary distractions in the room have fallen away. Whether I get pin-drop silence or not though, I'm far more consistently spending those first seven seconds well, grabbing people's attention and bringing them on an emotional journey, which frames everything else I'm about to unpack. In my opinion, it's well worth spending the time to hone this simple (albeit slightly uncomfortable at times) opening technique for any communicator.
Putty Putman has traced a wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication and journeying towards the future God has for the church and the world.
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