Supercompetent Speaking: Breaking the Ice

The right opening remarks encourage a sense of trust that fosters a welcome, participatory audience.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

Connecting with your listeners can be the hardest part of presenting, especially if they don’t already know you. They might come into your presentation thinking, “Oh, boy, another dull speech.” Or they may feel alone, out of place, or unprepared for the experience. Worse, if your session is mandatory, and they have “better” things to do, they might even feel a little hostility toward you.

You have no choice but to overcome these hurdles if you expect to do your job effectively. So use a verbal strategy to punch through this initial resistance: an “ice breaker.” Properly used, ice breakers will help you convey a personal touch that shapes how your listeners feel about you; this, in turn, determines how they listen. The right opening remarks improve the group dynamic, encouraging a sense of trust that fosters a welcome, participatory audience.

So as you prepare your speech and think about how to break the metaphorical ice, keep these points in mind:

  1. Watch your attitude. Your audience automatically will go on the defensive if you seem like you’d rather be elsewhere, so act persistently positive, even perky. Smile even if you don’t feel like it; if you must, “Fake it ’til you make it,” as the old saying goes. Treat your listeners like friends you’ve invited over for a cup of coffee, so they can relax and get comfortable. Have fun, and draw them in. Make your enthusiasm for the subject obvious, so it rubs off on your listeners. Confidence also can entice, with an added benefit: It enhances your credibility in the audience’s eyes. That said, don’t deliberately try to impress them or wow them with your intellect; just let your competence and passion for the subject shine through.
  2. Know your opening down pat. While I don’t recommend using a script for mostof your presentation, the introduction—including your ice breakers—is an exception to the rule. Since the beginning of your presentation is so crucial, script it, fine-tune it, and rehearse it relentlessly.
  3. Involve your audience immediately. Start off with something that catches their attention right away. If appropriate, consider playing an upbeat song as the emcee introduces you. You might even jump-start the presentation by projecting a question on a screen for the audience members to consider while they wait for you to begin; or you can provide handouts asking the same question. Begin your presentation with a pithy, attention-getting opener: the answer to that question you’ve presented them with, a news item, an interesting fact or statistic, a thought-provoking quote, or even a joke if appropriate.
  4. Choose your material carefully. As long as it’s cogent and relevant to the discussion to come (and again, thoroughly rehearsed), the actual format of an ice breaker usually doesn’t matter much. However, you should ask yourself these questions as you consider each option:
  • Does it fit my topic?
  • Is it appropriate for the occasion?
  • Can the audience relate to it?
  • Is it short and to the point?
  • Will it grab their attention?

Many people choose humor as an ice breaker, because if you can get people laughing, you put them instantly at ease. But remember two things: First, general humor works better than jokes, because jokes demand a response—and at the beginning of the presentation, the audience members may not be ready to give you one. Depending on the audience, a story or anecdote they can just listen to and laugh at may work better. Second, don’t hesitate to poke fun at yourself...but never do so in a way that undermines your credibility and purpose, or you may hobble yourself right from the start.

As a speaker, you want to communicate to your audience members in a way that resonates with them, causing them to think deeply about your ideas—not just during your talk—but also after the presentation is over and they’ve gone on with their lives. The quicker you can overcome any resistance with ice breakers and put them at their ease, the more likely they are to open up and internalize your message.

Laura Stack has consulted with Fortune 500 corporations for nearly 20 years in the field of personal productivity and is the best-selling author of several books, including “Supercompetent.” She is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and the 2011-2012 president of the National Speakers Association (NSA). Stack’s productivity-improvement programs have been used worldwide at companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, and Bank of America. She is the creator of The Productivity Pro planner by Day-Timer. For more information, visit www.TheProductivityPro.comor www.NSAspeaker.org.

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