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Open Strong: How to Start your TEDx talk

Dr. Steven Hayward & Cesar Cervantes

“Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start.”

Julia Andrews, The Sound of Music

Whether it’s a TEDx talk or a keynote speech or a musical scale, the way you begin doesn’t just matter, it matters a lot. Indeed, the first moments of your talk often determine its success. That’s true also of the rest of the talk (it all has to be great), but the fact is that it doesn’t matter how strong your middle is, if folks don’t get past the beginning, no one will know. 

Effective talks open with an introduction that not only captures the audience’s attention but lays down the foundation for the message—the big idea—that brings you to the stage. It should also establish your credibility as an expert on the issue along the way. 

No matter how you start your talk, what’s most crucial is that it leads into a clear articulation of the problem you’re going to raise and the solutions you are going to provide. This is not new news, of course, and it was known way back in the day, before TED and before keynotes, when togas were really in, when the philosopher Aristotle—the one-time tutor to Alexander the Great—sort of answered this question. 

The words “sort of” are what’s crucial in that last sentence. TED was not a thing in ancient Greece...

The story is that Aristotle had been asked how long a tragedy—or any play—should be. His response was to say it should be shaped like a fish. This was not much help until he went on to say that the head of a fish is that part that makes you expect the middle, and that the function of the middle, in turn is to make you look for the tail.  

There’s a lesson there—however you begin your talk, the main function is to catch our attention and reel us into the rest of what you have to say. 

With that out of the way, here’s a few possibilities to consider when you finally sit down and try to figure out how to kick off your talk: 


Personal Stories

Take, for example, the way Brene Brown started her influential talk on vulnerability. Brown shared a story of her research journey, how she faced a breakdown, and her personal encounters with vulnerability. This approach humanized her, making her both relatable and credible. By sharing her experience, she highlights the central issue of vulnerability and the fear of disconnection.

Main Takeaway: connect on a human level, highlight the core issue, establish your personal stake and expertise on the topic.


Provocative Questions

Another compelling method is opening with a provocative question. For instance, in a talk about the future of AI, a speaker might start with, "What if I told you that in the next decade, it is certain that machines will understand and replicate human emotions?" 

Whatever your response—freaking out, sweating nervously, or saying, “can’t they do that already”? to the person you’re sitting next to—you’re staying for the rest of the talk. 

Main Takeaway: A concise and timely question can pull your audience in. You also need to answer it. Questions can also build common ground if asked in a way that is inclusive.


Using Startling Statistics

Hans Rosling often begins his talks with a striking statistic or graph. For instance, one of his famous talks starts with this sentence: "I still remember the day in school when our teacher told us that the world population had become three billion people, and that was in 1960.” 

You hear that and you think a) that’s a lot of people, b) that was a long time ago, and c) wow, I wonder what it is now.  A statistic, in other words, can establish the magnitude of a problem or challenge common misconceptions—and cause you to watch the rest of the talk. 

Main Takeaway: Providing a concrete number is worth a thousand words. 


Evocative Imagery and Anecdotes

Imagine a talk about climate change that’s trying to get across not just the urgency of the issue but the catastrophic consequences of inaction. It might begin this way "Imagine a world where Venice's canals have run dry, arctic seals are creatures of myth and legend, and the only place you can see coral is at the Atlanta aquarium." 

Main Takeaway: Utilizing imagery or short anecdotes connect with an audience, waking them up to the issue at hand. 


Famous Quotes

Starting with a quote from a well-known figure can establish both the gravity and relevance of the topic. For instance, in a talk on innovation, you might begin with Steve Jobs' famous words, "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower." This method quickly signals the topic's direction and lends the weight of an expert's opinion. You could also say: “According to Aristotle, a story should be as long as a fish.” That would make people sit up! However, be cautious with quotes because they can often be overused and come across as cliché, so choose wisely. 

Main Takeaway: An apt quote immediately sets the tone, providing both context and credibility. 


Every TEDx talk is unique, but each beginning serves a common purpose: to engage, connect, and set the stage for the big idea that is worth sharing. Establishing the problem is crucial, as it provides the audience with a clear understanding of the talk's direction. It’s also a way, right away, to start building a connection, finding common ground, and showcasing expertise. That’s the secret sauce to making sure the audience is not just listening, but engaged and invested in the solution to the problem presented. The start of your talk promises a journey worth taking, a problem worth understanding, and a solution worth waiting for.


If you're ready to land and deliver your TEDx talk, write and develop your signature keynote speech, or just need coaching on your upcoming presentation, schedule a call with us here.


- Dr. Steven Hayward is our head writer, an English professor at Colorado College, national bestselling author, award-winning filmmaker, TEDx Speaker, and has a great head of hair.


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