The Worst Way to Begin a Speech

The Worst Way to Begin a Speech

“I was just asked to give this speech ten minutes ago.” Nothing screams amateur quite the same way as speakers who begin with some variant of this opening line. Upon hearing these words, I always get comfortable in my seat and prepare to be underwhelmed. Right away, I know a couple things about the presenter in that they have:

  • No qualms about throwing the event coordinators under the bus in front of an audience.
  • Low expectations for their own speech. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t start out by trying to reset my expectations by justifying their circumstances.

If you’re ever asked to speak in front of an audience at the last moment, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Either accept the speaking role or don’t, the decision is entirely yours. But if you do choose to speak, maintain appropriate professional distance by not informing the audience of the circumstances going on behind the curtains. First, revealing these types of last-minute logistical changes to the public shows the speaker lacks a basic understanding of diplomacy. Second, it’s not that interesting and the audience members simply couldn’t care less.
  • Try to get yourself away from the event, even for a few minutes, to organize your thoughts on the presentation you’re about to give. If possible, give some iteration of a presentation you’ve given in the past and feel comfortable with doing again. Review how you will open, the main points, and come up with a strong close.
  • Find out if someone is introducing you, and if they need any information to personalize what they say when they welcome you onto the stage.
  • Breathe and do your best. Regardless of what happens, this will serve as a great learning experience.

Accepting last-minute speaking roles can be a great way to challenge yourself as a professional speaker. It forces you to stay fresh and in-the-moment. But only take on this role if you feel comfortable holding yourself accountable for the quality of your presentation.


Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here.

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