Select the right words. Say them well.

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Your first words should always be great. That should be your only standard. If you stand up to speak, your first words should grab the audience – make them want to hear more. If you are writing, it should be clear from the first words that this will be a worthwhile use of your time. Listening to my friend Pat Hazell’s terrific podcast “Creativity in Captivity” author and teacher Colette Sartor said an opening line “Needs to create a compelling voice that I can’t wait to keep reading and has to put me right in the middle of conflict.” What a great standard to set.

“Oh,” you might say, “but I’m not writing short stories, or anything designed to have drama.” Really? Perhaps that’s the problem! A cover letter that starts out, “Thank you very much for the opportunity to…” has already put the reader to sleep. It is EXACTLY what might be expected and therefore totally lacking any level of engagement. Let’s try to do better.

To that end, I suggest two of the greatest words in the English language are, “What if…” With that simple start, you can set off on an adventure. You can take your audience into the future, have them consider a completely different direction or show them a new way to look at a plan they already are contemplating. The point is you have terrific potential anytime you begin your communication. Use it well. Let’s look at ways to make that happen.

Talk about them: Most business presentations weirdly begin with the speaker talking about themselves. “Our dedication to customer service is second-to-none…blah, blah, blah.” Instead, talk about something the audience absolutely cares about – namely themselves! Talking about them guarantees an engaged audience who will, at the very least, be fact-checking your comments to make sure you’ve done your research. At best, you will confirm you know and care about them. Without that you have very little possibility of a relationship.

Take them by surprise: If everyone is sitting, stand up. If speakers are only at the front of the room, start from the back. Following a high energy speaker? Use your quiet voice. If the document you’re writing will be read by subject matter experts, hit them with a first sentence demonstrating knowledge only insiders are focused on. If the reaction is, “Huh, I wasn’t expecting that,” they’ll stay engaged. 

Tell them a story: That’s where words like “What if…” can come in very handy. Within the first words you use they could be off to a future world where their problems are under control and new opportunities await. It is within your power to take them there with the right words. Need further inspiration? I’ve loved diving into “Stories that Stick” by Kindra Hall. The power of your words can take your audience to another place – don’t overlook that opportunity.