Opening Argument: The First Minute (Part 2)

September 14, 2011 Opening Argument

Begin strong and add drama to your first paragraph to hook the jury into your words immediately. Here are some examples of oral presentations with dramatic openings. Listen to these lines by award winning public speaker Andrew Dlugan:

Tobacco. [long pause]
Alcohol. [long pause]
Guns. [long pause]
Criminal items seized in a search [slight pause]
of a 6th grade locker in a bad school district.

The pause after each of the first three words is dramatic. The drama keeps building. Then the surprise, not a criminal, but an 11-year-old student.

This is all done in 19 words.

One of my favorite speeches or lectures is Randy Pausch presenting what is popularly known as “The Last Lecture.” The entire speech is noteworthy, but his opening especially so. Usually the last lecture means a final talk by a retiring professor, but Randy was actually dying, so it this was literally his last lecture. Everyone in the room knew he was dying from pancreatic cancer. It was the “elephant in the room.”  Rather than ignoring it and keeping it in the front of everyone’s mind, he immediately addressed it and relaxed everyone. A brilliant opening.

“So, you know, in case there’s anybody who wandered in and doesn’t know the back story, my dad always taught me that when there’s an elephant in the room, introduce them. If you look at my CAT scans [he puts them on the screen], there are approximately 10 tumors in my liver, and the doctors told me 3-6 months of good health left. That was a month ago, so you can do the math. I have some of the best doctors in the world. Microphone’s not working? Then I’ll just have to talk louder. [Adjusts mic] Is that good? All right. So that is what it is. We can’t change it, and we just have to decide how we’re going to respond to that. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you. [laughter] And I assure you I am not in denial. It’s not like I’m not aware of what’s going on. My family, my three kids, my wife, we just decamped. We bought a lovely house in Virginia, and we’re doing that because that’s a better place for the family to be, down the road. And the other thing is I am in phenomenally good health right now. I mean it’s the greatest thing of cognitive dissonance you will ever see is the fact that I am in really good shape. In fact, I am in better shape than most of you. [Randy gets on the ground and starts doing pushups] [Applause] So anybody who wants to cry or pity me can down and do a few of those, and then you may pity me. [laughter] All right, so what we’re not talking about today, we are not talking about cancer, because I spent a lot of time talking about that and I’m really not interested.”

Randy reduced the audience’s stress level and a major distraction and the speech was an enormous success. Watch it here.



A fun beginning is in the Toastmasters winning speech by J.A. Gamache. He gets everyone’s attention immediately by blowing a train whistle and yelling “All aboard!”


I also love the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey:

Of the cunning hero,
The wanderer, blown off course time and again
After he plundered Troy’s sacred heights.

Of all the cities he saw, the minds he grasped,
The suffering deep in his heart at sea
As he struggled to survive and bring his men home
But could not save them, hard as he tried–
The fools–destroyed by their own recklessness
When they ate the oxen of Hyperion the Sun,
And that god snuffed out their day of return.

While we are not going to literally copy any of these dramatic openings they do give us ideas about how to do it. We are only limited by our imagination.