Starting your talk with a startling statistic – 3 examples [Video]

You’ve likely heard it said that opening your talk with a startling statistic helps you grab people’s attention. But what exactly does that technique look and sound like?

In this post, you’ll see 3 clear examples on video, and I’ll discuss key takeaways from each. So you’ll come away with solid tips you can use in your own talks.

Ultimately, I hope these examples inspire you to use some startling statistics yourself.

Here’s what you’ll find in this post – you can click any of these links to skip ahead:

 

Video 1 – Jamie Oliver on deaths caused by dietScroll to Contents ↑

Let’s start with a TED talk, by TV chef Jamie Oliver. You can click the video to watch the first 15 seconds of his talk:


 
For easy reference, here’s what he said:

“Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat,
four Americans that are alive will be dead –
through the food that they eat.” [25 words]

Key takeaways – video 1Scroll to Contents ↑

Jamie made his opening line personal… in 3 specific ways

I love that Jamie made his opening line personal – by tailoring it to his audience in 3 specific ways:

  • By scaling the death rate to “the next 18 minutes”, he matched his statistic to the audience’s current moment (instead of quoting a less tangible annual figure).
  • Rather than using words like “my talk” (which would in effect ignore his audience), he included people (and set the scene as an informal 2-way conversation) by saying “our chat”.
  • As his talk was in the US, he made his statistic specific to “Americans” (rather than “people” or “Britons”, even though he’s clearly British).

Another thing Jamie did really well was give his audience time to absorb his words, by pausing. (That helps to reduce nerves too, which most speakers feel most strongly at the start of their talk.)

Did you also notice how subdued he was during his opening? So don’t feel you need to start your talk with great passion – that’s hard to do (because of nerves). Let yourself gradually get into your flow, and your passion will come through more as you progress.

By building momentum during your talk, you also let the audience warm up to what you’re saying, and you add interest through more vocal variety. After all, as former World Champion public speaker Craig Valentine says:

“When you’re always dynamic,
you’re no longer dynamic”

So you don’t need to start with great passion – or have the same level throughout your talk. In many ways, using a subdued manner when citing a startling statistic makes it stand out, through contrast.
 

Video 2 – Chris Anderson on the world’s biggest diseaseScroll to Contents ↑

This 2nd example’s by Chris Anderson, who you might know is TED’s curator. In this case, the clip’s 10 seconds long:


 
This is what Chris said:

“I’m going to tell you something that might surprise you:
Since the Stone Age, more than half of the deaths of
humankind have been from 1 disease.” [27 words]

Key takeaways – video 2Scroll to Contents ↑

Chris made his opening line personal to his audience

Again, notice that Chris made his opening line personal to his audience, this time by using the word “you” – twice, within the first 10 words.

In contrast to Jamie Oliver’s talk, Chris was more passionate here, in that he made the words “Stone Age” stand out by using both body language and vocal emphasis. I really loved that about Chris’s clip, and such emotion can be effective in an opening, provided criteria like these 3 apply:

  • Your passion isn’t too far from the current mood of your audience.
  • Opening with passion suits your speaking style.
  • Your talk’s either so short that you don’t have time to build momentum during it, or it is long enough and you plan on quieter moments later (to keep people interested with contrast).

(Further to what I said earlier about being hard to start with passion, note the position of the timeline on Chris’s video. In this case, in fact he was talking about another speaker’s opening line, so he said the line almost 3 minutes into his own talk! I’m sure that made it easier for him to speak with passion, and his audience would’ve been warmed up by then.)
 

Video 3 – Just how short are our attention spans?Scroll to Contents ↑

What if you’re speaking in more of a business setting?

Both those examples are about health, which helps to make the numbers striking. But what if you’re speaking in more of a business setting? You can still use a startling statistic, for sure.

For instance, this 3rd example talks about how quickly people tend to click away from videos online. Note: As this video’s not on YouTube, the whole 2-minute clip plays by default, so feel free to click it again to pause it after the first 10 seconds:

 
Here’s the opening line:

“Statistically, by the time I finish this sentence, 20% of
viewers – twenty percent – will have already
stopped watching this video…” [21 words]

Key takeaways – video 3Scroll to Contents ↑

For me, the most striking thing about the stat in that 3rd video is that the speaker conveyed the message so succinctly – in around 20 words. You’ve likely heard people say you need to grab people’s attention within the first 30 seconds. But all 3 examples in this post share a startling statistic within 30 words!

The other point you might’ve noticed is that the speaker uses repetition and an emphatic tone to drive home the statistic. So don’t be afraid to repeat important points – as long as you do so briefly. In this case, it took just 2 words to restate the percentage so that it sticks in people’s heads.
 

Summary of key takeawaysScroll to Contents ↑

To sum up then, these are the key takeaways from all 3 videos:

  • Relate your statistic to your audience, like by mentioning a trait that’s common to most or all of your listeners (as Jamie Oliver did in video 1) or by using the word “you” (as Chris Anderson did in video 2).
  • Speak slowly during your opening lines, and pause for several seconds afterwards, to give people time to absorb what you said.
  • Consider delivering your statistic in a subdued way, to contrast with what you’re saying, so it stands out.
  • Be succinct when you say the statistic.
  • Repeat the key part of the statistic with more emphasis, to drive it home.

I hope you find those points – and the examples on video – helpful.
 

Over to youScroll to Contents ↑

What points did you take away from the videos? And which aspects do you think make one of the clips more engaging than the rest? Let me know in the comments below.
 

Also check outScroll to Contents ↑

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4 thoughts on “Starting your talk with a startling statistic – 3 examples [Video]

  1. Great post Craig! I like the examples you pulled together for this. Openings are a pretty challenging part of our presentations. We have so many things competing for our first few minutes. The startling statistic or other hook, our need to introduce ourselves (if someone else hasn’t done that for us), saying something about the agenda or what the presentation will encompass, and yet, we have to balance NOT spending too much time on these things such that we don’t get to the content in a reasonable amount of time (which can annoy our audiences)! 🙂

    • Thanks for contributing, Sheila. You’re right – there’s a lot to get through at the start of a talk, all without losing the audience!

      I found it surprisingly hard to find examples for this post, so I’m glad you like them. (It’s super handy that YouTube supports playing any part of a video, as it makes the examples really clear to see.)

      Watching good speakers doing things well helps us all!

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