The First Minute: Night

July 7, 2016 Opening Argument

I can not exaggerate the power of the opening, the first minute, even the first sentence, of a speech. The speaker must capture the attention of the audience. If not, they drift off into their own world and tune you out. How do you grab them by the throat and make them listen? Professional writers and speakers know how to do it. I collect examples of attention-getting sound bites. Elie Wiesel just died and his obituaries all mention the searing, autobiographical “Night.” Near the beginning of his story he describes the cattle car packed with Jews that took his family to Auschwitz:

“On the third night, while we slept, some of us sitting one against the other and some standing, a piercing cry split the silence: ‘Fire! I can see a fire!’ … There was a moment’s panic. Who was it who had cried out? It was Madame Schachter….

“She continued to scream, breathless, her voice broken by sobs. ‘Jews, listen to me! I can see a fire! There are huge flames! It’s a furnace!’…

“Our terror was about to burst the sides of the train. … It was as though madness were taking possession of us all. … Some of the young men forced her to sit down, tied her up, and put a gag in her mouth.”

This frightening passage not only galvanizes us, but foreshadows what we know is about to occur once the train reaches Auschwitz. It is hard for us to imagine the terror in that boxcar.

A speaker has to demand attention with his voice, and convey the story in a way that keeps them listening. Like Wiesel showing emotion works. You have permission to get excited, or angry, or frustrated. Expose your passion to the audience. People respond to honesty and emotion. You will sound strong and convincing. And more importantly impossible to forget.

You don’t need a story as shocking as Wiesel’s to get people to listen. Just make sure it is intriguing enough so they want to hear more.