As a journalist and filmmaker by education, I have always been keenly interested in what makes a great story. At the most basic level, you need interesting characters doing interesting things. But once you have those, you still must decide how best to tell the story. Where to begin? Often, the worst thing you can do is start at the beginning.
As you may know, there’s a long and rich tradition of authors starting stories other than at the beginning. Your high school English teacher likely told you about “in medias res,” Latin for “in the middle.” Homer was a master at this, as was Dante.
Much more recently, film and television writers have adopted this “middle ground” approach. Films like “Forrest Gump” and TV shows such as “Breaking Bad” have used this technique to good effect. In truth, it’s now much more common to start a mystery with a body on the floor – a murder already committed – than by first introducing a parade of eventual suspects. The suspects will be needed, of course, but first we must see a pool of blood.
The concept of starting in the middle is not just for epic poems and films; the same approach can be used to great effect in speeches. If you have a story to tell, think about how best to involve your audience in it. Often that means finding the most dramatic moment – or the moment of greatest impact – and starting there.
An example may prove beneficial. Imagine you are speaking on “the importance of learning CPR.” Why are you presenting on this topic? You are a longtime volunteer with the American Heart Association. Your father passed away of a heart attack when you were still a youth. You were not around to help him, but you vowed to be able to help others if needed by learning CPR. And you not only learned CPR, but you have helped train others for years.
Now, there are lots of ways to approach this (or any) topic. For example, you could share statistics showing how CPR can increase the chances of survival following a cardiac arrest. You might talk about how long it takes to be trained, and where training is available. Or perhaps you talk about the number of people you’ve trained and what that means to you. But if you really want to engage and energize your audience, you could begin “in medias res,” at the moment your father collapsed while on a business trip to Boise. Imagine a speech that starts like this:
“The diners in the roadside restaurant froze in panic. The well-dressed man in the suit and tie had collapsed to the floor in a heap. No warning, just a thud, and he was down. The men with whom he had been dining jumped to their feet. One rushed to his side and loosened his tie, but seemed unsure what to do next. Precious seconds slipped away, and with them the fallen man’s chance of survival. My friends, that was the night my father died…”
Even the most apathetic audience member would have a hard time not being hooked by an opening like that. Obviously, this is an extreme example, and not every topic will lend itself to a scene of life and death. But the point is, with careful thought, you can often grab (and keep) your audience’s attention by beginning in the middle.