Beginning Your Speech: 35 Seconds to Survive a Gator

How long does it take you to size somebody up the first time you meet them? Do you get a flavor for the type of person they are in the first few sentences of their conversation? If you do, you are completely normal. Some might say that these snap judgments make you opinionated, perhaps mean spirited. Not true! On the contrary, it is hard wired biology! Our first impressions are a defense mechanism designed to prolong your life.

Say what?

The human brain is a complex organ that operates on multi-levels. High brain function occurs in the neo-cortex; normal brain function and common thinking occurs in the mammalian brain; and automated functions occur in the part of the brain that is always aware – the reptilian brain. Our tendency to make initial assessments of risk and danger occur in the Reptilian Brain (RB). Knowing this is important because this brain part (without our knowing or thinking about it), monitors our environment constantly, looking for risk. Risk to our health. Risk to our well- being. Risk to our welfare.

Don’t believe it? Then check this out. Do you recall a time in your life when someone looked you in the face and lied to you? Do you recall being aware that the person was lying? You probably didn’t think about why you thought they were lying, you just sensed somewhere in your mind that what they were saying was not true. Or perhaps there was a time when you were walking along and completely out of nowhere you sensed danger. Your hairs stood up. Your skin crawled with uneasiness. In both situations, your RB was making you aware of risk.

Now you may be thinking, “well … of course people have had those experiences but what does that have to do with first impressions?”

Whenever you meet somebody, either in person or through technology, the first thing that happens is a scan by your RB. It scopes all the information about the person and registers a risk warning to the rest of your body. If the threat assessment is low, then things move along normally. However, if there are threat indicators perceived by the RB, well … things start to happen. The RB releases adrenaline into your system to put you on a quick response footing. More blood is needed, so your heart begins to beat more rapidly to prepare for action. All of this happens while the other two-thirds of your brain may be ignorant, until the Mammalian Brain (MB) starts getting messages from RB that something is amiss. When that happens the Neo-Cortex (NC) may start more extensive information analysis.

The RB is hard-wired. You can splice into it however, and gain a personal advantage. One of the reasons that law enforcement, firemen, and military train is so that all of their skills get programmed into the RB. It is a phenomenon of human existence that when the brain is stressed it shuts down higher brain functions, causing the body to rely on the automated RB functions. In extreme situations, you have the “fight or flight” response. Firefighters need to overcome that “fight or flight” instinct with action – and their training does that. That programmed training located in the RB takes over and these emergency responders run on automatic response that is preprogrammed.

So now you’re probably thinking, “Just what does all of this have to do with Thirty-five Seconds to Survive a Gator?”

It has everything to do with thirty-five seconds! When you stand in front of an audience most people follow the basic speech structure which includes an introduction, body, and conclusion. Think of your audience as an assortment of reptiles, because in the first thirty-five seconds, you are being scanned. Each reptilian brain in the audience is conducting a risk assessment. How your voice and body behave in that first thirty-five seconds determines if they are going to focus attention on you or consider you ho hum. Audiences are sometimes won or lost in that first thirty-five seconds: approximately seventy-five words.

They are lost when the RB tells the MB it doesn’t have to pay close attention and the Neo-cortex that close analysis is not necessary – because you’re boring, hum drum, and nothing out of the ordinary. Now at some point later in your speech you may do or say something that gets a rise out of RB and subsequently MB and NC, but in a short speech, it is often too late to impact the audience.

So how do you engage RB and take advantage of the first thirty-five seconds so you capture audience attention and interest from the beginning?


Title is the most overlooked element of any speech. I include it in this discussion of introductions because the title of your speech is always mentioned before your speech begins. Your title is the part of your speech that someone else delivers and that is not charged against your speaking time. It is also your first opportunity at humor, interest, or anticipation.

Far too little effort is spent on writing the title. Most often the title is slapped haphazardly on the speech at the last minute. Or even when a title is thought out, the speaker doesn’t have enough presence of mind to rehearse with the introducer how the title will be given.

Practicing the title pronunciation and voice inflection with the introducer is an important component of your introduction. A mispronounced title is hard to overcome. If your introducer mispronounces the title of your speech, the audience may become confused. In a short speech, let alone a thirty-five second introduction, you cannot afford to misdirect the audience with a weak or mispronounced title. Try these titles out: “Ka-ching,” “Lessons from Fat Dad,” or “Ouch.” These titles from three World Champion of Public Speaking championship speeches were all pre-cursers to dynamic, enthralling speeches. Don’t overlook an interesting and captivating title.


Great speakers begin in silence for approximately 10-15 seconds, all the time looking at their audience. This is especially true when they are small in stature or have a week voice. Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth and Abraham Lincoln are prime examples from Western Culture. The first two are examples of small stature. The third, Lincoln, had a squeaky high-pitched voice.

Standing in silence and surveying the audience gets the Reptilian Brain’s attention. It does not know what you are going to do or say. It gets wary. The longer you stand looking at the audience, the quieter they get, anticipating what is going to happen. Some wonder if you forgot your speech. Some expect something unexpected. Regardless, they start paying attention. Pausing before you start also allows you to get your composure. What you gain is the rapt attention of your audience and anticipation that your first words are important. The audience also recognizes that you are a confident speaker.

Speak Like Each Word You Use Cost a Million Dollars

In thirty-five seconds, if you speak at the normal one-hundred-twenty-five words per minute, you will speak just under seventy-five words, or seventy-five million dollars. Do you think you should spend the money wisely and make every single word count? My youngest child would respond to this with the quintessential: “Duh!”

Do not waste the first seventy-five precious saying how good it is to be here tonight–it’s not, and nobody believes you anyway. Instead, whisper or thunder, sing or shout, speak in measured tempo or rapid fire, but whatever you do, reach out to the reptilian brain and invite the rest of their brain to come along!

The human brain can process 7,200 images per-minute, and 600 words a minute. Since you are only going to speak 75 words in thirty-five seconds, what are you going to do to occupy the 525 word deficit between your speaking and my listening? Are you going to tap into the 4,200 images I could process in thirty-five seconds? If your introduction fails to address my full brain capacity in an audience of a hundred or so, you have just wasted half a million images. By the way do not forget that each of those images (pictures) is worth a thousand words: approximately five-hundred million words. What a waste! Are you getting the picture?

Introduction Number One:

Listen , understand and value our children. Those are three important lessons my professors taught me in teacher’s college. They said that we should love our students like they are our very own. I had been teaching for 16 years and thought I knew everything there was to know about teaching until a very special student showed me the true power of those words. (64 words)

Introduction Number Two:

Some people are absolutely un-loveable!

They are as prickly as a porcupine and tender as a tarantula.

We teachers are trained tamers of the troubled and truculent. (28 words)

Both of these examples are introductions to the same speech. Take a close look at them and tell me which one generates more visual images in your head? Which peaks your interest and drives you to hear more of the speech? Which introduction makes the best economical use of those million dollar words?

Introduction number one recites information for the audience to consider and tells you that the speaker is going to talk about his teaching experiences involving a student that taught him a lesson. It is a professorial approach to an introduction. Too often, this “professional” approach used by executives in the business world where words do count as dollars. Wake up! It’s not professional – it’s boring.

The second introduction takes a different tact. “Do you know anyone who is un-loveable?” Is it possible when the speaker said, “some people are un-loveable,” that you thought of a particular person? An image is formed, and a connection is made.

The second sentence is comprised of two similes, written in contrast to each other and both contain alliteration: “prickly as a porcupine” and “tender as a tarantula.” Did you see the images of those two creatures? Perhaps you refer back to the person you considered un-loveable and agree it was a perfect description of the person? Maybe you did or maybe you didn’t – your brain has the capability to accomplish it.

Alliteration is another way to make an impact. The last sentence combines a speech construct of alliteration and a metaphor. The alliteration is comprised of the words in the sentence beginning with “t”: teachers, trained, tamers, troubled, and truculent. The metaphor is found in the attribution of teachers as animal “tamers” and the attribution to students of being troubled and truculent. The second introduction taps into the imaging capability of the brain and the brain’s capacity to process more word concepts than a person can speak in thirty-five seconds.

Great introductions get to the point. They do not tell us the purpose, they allow the audience to experience the theme. Do not bore the audience. Instead, entice them to experience the theme. Tease us a bit with mental images and wordplay. Capture the attention of our complex brain and focus our attention on your next word or sentence. By doing so, you will use speech constructs that have powerful sensual abilities to launch our multi-level brain into action. Like a scream, they get the brain’s attention.

The SCREAM constructs are: simile, contrast, rhyme, echo, alliteration and metaphor. Using these language constructs will interest the multi-level brain enough to get your speech off to a good start. Use them as you write your next introduction.

First impressions . . . . The introduction is more than the banalities of “I am so glad to be here today.” The elements to an effective and powerful introduction are: Title, Silence, a Seventy-Five Million Dollar Investment, and SCREAM.

When you give a short speech every word must count! Choose words that put the RB on guard and draw the close attention of your audience. Use SCREAM strategies to wake up the multilevel brain. Do not overlook the power of your title and make sure your introducer pronounces it correctly.

Use these strategies in your very next speech and you will get the reptiles to sit up and take notice like dinner is served!

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