Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, in addition to its poignant message, also serves as an effective recipe for what constitutes a great speech. If he would have begun his speech with something like, “Today I would like to outline for you a five-point plan to end racism in the United States,” as if he was presenting a Powerpoint with learning outcomes, I doubt this speech would have gone down in history as a defining moment in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Like all good orators, Dr. King began this speech with a statement that absolutely grabbed his listeners’ attention. He began,

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

He hooked the audience, then continued,

“Five score years ago a great American in whose sym­bolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree is a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later the Negro still is not free.”

If you haven’t read the entire transcript, please click the link above and do so this week.

Like a diamond on a dessert plate, all good speeches, and in our case, good lectures, should begin with a comment or question that makes the audience lean in. When we start our class with housekeeping, we may inadvertently lose our students’ attention before we even had it.

One of this week’s Teaching Professor articles offers three suggestions for how to start your class session off right.

  1. Ask a question that piques your students’ interest in the topic. In a physics class, this could be a question about a concept that you will explore in your lecture on gas dynamics such as, “What would happen if someone held a balloon full of helium by a string inside a car with the windows closed and the car accelerated forward. Would it stand still, go backward, or move forward?” Students will draw upon what they have already learned and will be riveted to the edge of their seats to find out if their conjecture is correct.
  2. Give students puzzlers. Instead of telling, present students with an example involving an embedded mistake and ask them to find it. For a writing class, the error could be grammatical or structural. Students love to solve problems.
  3. Discuss a current or historical event related to the lecture. You could play a short video or podcast related to the event. In a medical ethics module on the rights of patients to refuse treatment, you might play a short video about Dax Cowart, a man who was seriously burned in an accident and whose request to be allowed to die was refused. Having students share new discoveries or events related to the class is another approach that might grab their attention and stimulate some great discussion at the beginning of class.

Do you have an example of a great “class starter” that opens students’ eyes and captures their attention? Please click Leave a Reply and share!

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One thought on “It’s All About How You Start

  1. I’ve started experimenting with the opening, “let me tell you a story,” and telling a story about the upcoming subject material within the context of a real, if not exaggerated, story. Especially to motivate the “why.” In particular, stories illustrating mistakes or assumptions made by the “past me” or current professionals, the consequences, and how educating ourselves about a topic (“had I known that…”) has value.

    Conor Neill has some fantastic videos on speaking:


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