38. Open and Close


Once upon the end.

A GREAT TALK NEEDS a remarkable opening. The creativity exercise from the last chapter can be used to help find your opening line(s). Like before, create a first version, then a second, then put them both aside and go crazy.

Sometimes you don’t need to do that. Sometimes the opening is hiding in plain sight a minute or two into your story, in a transition from topic to topic, or in some otherwise offhand, but interesting comment. Sometimes that powerful closing line you came up with should instead be your opening line.

One thing is for certain, you shouldn’t start with “Hello,” or “Thank you for inviting me here to speak today,” or anything else that doesn’t immediately catch the attention of the audience and make them want to hear more. Here are four examples of compelling opening lines from fledglings’ stories:

This is a love story… between bees, farmers, and family.

25 years ago, my grandfather taught me how to fish. Fishing is what my grandfather did, and his grandfather, and his grandfather.

Access to savings and credit is a human right and basic need, especially in Africa, where access to finance is as important as access to food, clean water, education and energy.

How can one company address the issues of poverty, hunger, and food security when all is goes is grow fresh fruits and vegetables?

A love story? Finance is a human right? How can one company do all that? These opening statements prepare the audience to hear a great story. They don’t present facts or figures. They set a mood that everyone has experiences thousands of times before when the movie starts or the storybook dives into a new world.

Jumping back to Herve, his opening line in English came from the third or fourth paragraph of a much earlier draft:

My country has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, growing at an average of 7 percent per year over the last 15 years. It is also one of the easiest places in the world to start a company. So easy that I’ve started two.

There were a lot of facts about how good the economy has become in Rwanda, how little corruption is left, and how easy it was to start a company. We grabbed that last fact and turned it into the setup for a pitch that includes two company.

We tried a few more interesting lines before that, but ultimately took a far more creative path, to help solve two other problems. First, Herve does not have a lot of experience in public speaking. The idea of presenting in front of 100+ people made him extremely nervous. Second, Herve has a thick Rwandan accent. Thick enough that it takes a few words before a native English speaker understands what he is saying, and that 100+ audience was in Peru, where English is a second language.

The solution was to have Herve’s opening line in Kinyarwanda, his native language. In fact we tried having him present his whole story in Kinyarwanda, only discovering then how much of his nerves were from the language. But given no one in the audience spoke that language, we thought that would be going too far, and thus just added a short bit at the start, to let the audience have a taste of that language and of Herve as a Rwandan.

To make this amusing to Herve and the pitch coaches, the words he speaks translate to:

I am so happy to be here to tell you about my project. If only I could make this presentation in my own language, it would be much easier.

The effect is the same as the other opening lines. The audience sits up, wondering whether the whole talk will be in a language they don’t understand. Then a few seconds later he starts speaking English, and by the time they’ve started parsing his English he’s saying something about having started two companies.

The Close

The closing line is just as important as the opening. Five or ten minutes into your talk, the audience has probably forgotten your opening line. If you are doing everything right, they are not thinking about anything that isn’t part of your story. But that story has to end.

The simplest closing line is simply a reprise of the opening line, with whatever slight adjustments are needed in tense:

This was a love story… between bees, farmers, and family.

More often it’s a play on that opening line, sufficiently similar that it reminds them how the story began, but without repeating the words verbatim.

We invite you to join us in this love story… between bees, farmers, and family. Thank you.

For Zirconia, they close on their tag line, echoing the theme of the whole story, rather than just the opening line.

Zirconia, the end of rust.

Herve was supposed to end back in Kinyarwanda, but instead ended on the standard, “Come talk to me” that close most Demo Day pitches, and which he had practiced for a week before we changed his opening line.

From beginning to end

Delivering the close can be difficult for many speakers. Too often people practice the opening over and over again without practicing the whole speech. They’ll also trying practicing the whole speech, only to go back to the opening when they start forgetting the lines in the middle. Don’t do either of these. Always practice the whole speech from beginning to end.

Those close is your last chance to leave an impression with the audience. Make it as dramatic as the opening. Make it memorable. And practice the whole talk so that you deliver it with strength and confidence.


HardcoverThe Next StepThe Next StepThe Next StepThe Next Step The Next StepThe Next StepThe Next Step



Recent blog posts