How do I begin? That’s a troubling question for many rhetors. With the truck loads of content being produced on a second-to-second basis, there’s a certain anxiety to creating your own. It’s more than “blank page syndrome.” It’s wondering, “Why would someone want to listen to me? What could I say that would make them want to listen?”
Luckily for modern rhetors, classical rhetorical scholars can give us some important insights about attention grabbing and introductions. They even had a special name for this part of your discourse: exordium. Basically, it means “the beginning.” The great thinker and rhetor Cicero explained:
An exordium is an address bringing the mind of the hearer into a suitable state to receive the rest of the speech; and that will be effected if it has rendered him well disposed towards the speaker, attentive, and willing to receive information.
Cicero lays out three goals for the exordium: Make the audience attentive, open (“teachable”), and/or favorable. While these aren’t the exhaustive ends of a good introduction, they’re a good place to start.
Let’s have a look at each goal…
Grab Their Attention
The average attention span nowadays rivals a gnat with ADD. With more people speaking/writing and total attention being divided up into smaller and smaller increments, it’s more important than ever that you get the attention of your audience.
Usually, this happens at the very beginning of an argument. I’m not suggesting you shoot a gun in the air or drop your trousers—though depending on the context… But you have to give the audience a reason to focus on you. It’s best, of course, if it’s not a superficial reason.
Many rhetors rely on humor for attention grabbing, and being funny can certainly make people pay attention. A well-timed, contextual joke can bring all eyes on you. But humor isn’t appropriate for all topics. Not many jokes being told at poverty conferences, for instance.
That’s why some rhetors begin with shocking statistics or impassioned stories. Providing a factoid that your audience didn’t know is a good way to start, especially if the info is new, profound, or shocking. Listen for dropping jaws.
The best way to get attention, though, is to clearly and thoroughly explain what your argument means for them. Give them a self-interested reason to care. Tell them what they’ll take away from your rhetoric. Once the audience knows they have something to gain, you’ll have their attention.
Open Them Up to Persuasion
Remember that one of the important elements of a real audience is their willingness to be convinced. That is, you’re not really speaking to an audience if they aren’t open to persuasion. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Some folks are impervious to your rhetoric. But in most cases, you can make the audience more (or less) receptive to your argument.
Start by defining your terms and the burden of proof. (Note: You’ll have to do this in an interesting way. Sleeping audiences are impossible to convince.) When people know exactly what you’re talking about and what it would mean for you to prove your point, they’re more likely to take your rhetoric seriously.
Another way to open up your audience is to tell the truth. OK, you should be telling the truth throughout your entire discourse, but what I mean is that you should admit something that makes you “vulnerable” to the audience. It might be an embarrassing fact, a story that shows how you changed your mind on this topic, a personal revelation that few people know about you, etc. The principle is that you need to demonstrate your humanity to the audience.
Finally, try showing your audience that you agree on something. It’s rare for a hostile audience to be open to persuasion, so you have to prove you’re not (entirely) against them. Common ground allows you to nudge the rhetorical boundary instead of appearing as an outright invader.
Prove Your Benevolence
Ethos, ethos, ethos. It comes up over and over again in rhetorical study. With the exordium, it’s no different. Audiences are persuaded by people they trust. Is it any wonder, then, that one of the most important goals of an introduction is gain the audience’s trust?
This is by far the most difficult goal of an introduction, but it’s not impossible. First, you must make sure you look/sound the part. In a speech this means dressing appropriately, speaking with a friendly tone, and generally understanding the conventions of the audience you’re addressing—i.e., no “I <3 Solar” t-shirts at the oil and gas convention. In writing, it means considering things like your headshot but also typeface and design (to the extent that you have control over these things).
But portraying benevolence is more than appearance. It helps if you’re actually benevolent! That is, you passionately believe that the argument you’re presenting is in the best interest of the audience. You don’t think of them as “stupid” or “ignorant” for not immediately accepting your point. And you understand that persuasion is complex and nuanced.
I’ve seen many rhetors believe so strongly in the “rightness” of their argument that they openly show disdain for an audience that doesn’t “get it” immediately. Ease your audience into the argument. Maybe even explain how you came to believe the argument yourself. In fact, personal stories are a great way to demonstrate your benevolence. Politicians tell their life story over and over again for a reason: it works.
When at all possible, work the room—digitally or otherwise. Meet your audience and give them a chance to talk to you before and after the discourse. Connect with them about something completely independent of the topic at hand. When writing this might mean exploring the comment section and answering questions or thanking people for taking time to read your post. Get creative but be genuine and personal.
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Beginning is hard. But that shouldn’t stop you from starting. The only way to make introductions less scary is by making more of them. And with Cicero’s guidelines for a good exordium, you’re well on your way to being a better rhetor.