Improving Speech Openings

Author Erik Palmer is fond of saying “Most teachers don’t teach speaking, they assign speaking!” As a History teacher, I have been guilty of that in the past, but thanks to Chapter 5 (pp.35-44) in Well Spoken, now I have some tools that help me TEACH speaking techniques that help students become better orators.


For this assignment my 11th grade US History students will research an Imperialist-Progressive event/person and create an Ignite Talk that explains how that person is an example of a Progressive leader/movement or Imperialist leader-event-action. Presenters get 11 slides (no more than 5 words on each slide), which automatically advance every 15 seconds. The last slide must be a Works Cited card.

As part of my direct instruction, I include this presentation which contains numerous resources that help my students practice writing and sharing grabber openings, identify signpost language, and execute strong closings. Students have one class period to discuss the techniques, choose one, and write their opening. They post these on a discussion board so that I can read and react to them individually before the next day in class. Because they are short (50-100 words), it is easy for me to read them and offer some advice for revising. 

Palmer offers eight different grabber openings in the excerpt I give to my students: 1) the challenge, 2) the provocative question, 3) the powerful quote, 4) the surprising statistic, 5) the unusual fact, 6) the poignant story, 7) the unexpected, and 8) the teaser. If a student doesn’t apply one of these techniques in their speech opening, I know they haven’t done the assigned reading. Another benefit of having all of these openings in an open forum like a discussion board is so I can spot trends and see what they are struggling with. The majority of my students used #2 the “Provocative Question” technique. Many struggled applying the technique to their topic and I needed to provide additional clarification the next day in class.

First, I googled the definition: A provocative question. Provocative questions are those that encourage a stakeholder to think creatively and laterally. They help to uncover any perceived constraints, and can help to evaluate whether those perceived constraints are real or imaginary. Next, I found another blog that provided 10 more examples of provocative questions. Then, I refined the definition to make it more specific to this assignment — informing an audience about a Progressive or Imperialist person, event, or action in US History.  A Provocative Question challenges the beliefs your audience holds about progressivism or imperialism and helps them think differently about the topic in order to improve their understanding.

Below are three examples of my students’ work. I am interested in knowing which sample you would rate as above the standard, which you would rate as meeting the standard, and which you would rate as below the standard.

Sample A

How would most of you feel, if your country fought for its freedom from one country only for another to take its place? Would you fight for your country’s freedom or let them rule over you? Well, Emilio Aguinaldo born in the Philippines on March 23, 1869, fought against the Spaniards and the Americans for Philippines independence. In 1896 and 1897, he attempted to resurrect the Philippine during the Spanish rule however, he ultimately failed.

Sample B

Let’s say one of your peers was nothing out of the ordinary, doing exactly what you do in school. However, they are favored by an administrator as they have wealthy parents, and follow and enforce everything said administrator has said and asked them to do. But the thing is, this administrator is not employed at your school, they actually work at a far superior, private school. Other schools and the one you attend wish to be like this school and take what they say seriously. So when the administrator advocates for your peer and says that they should become the Student Body President, that they should “rule the school” there is no other choice. Adolfo Diaz was a Nicaraguan president that served for two separate terms. He was only placed in his position of power because he fell under what the U.S. government’s standards were for a good ally. Because he followed what the U.S. told him to do and became their puppet, the U.S. effectively ruled a country that they should have had no power over. 

Sample C

Have you ever experienced an instance where someone you trusted turned their back on you and took your enemy’s side instead? How would you feel if you were put in that situation? Would your perspective on that person change? Well, General Victoriano Huerta, did just that. He betrayed his successor, Francisco Madero, forcing him to resign his presidency, in order for Huerta to take charge and initiate a military dictatorship. Huerta’s tyrannical way of ruling caused opposition to his rule and ultimately led to his downfall.

Please leave your opinion and some justification for that opinion in the comment section below. Thanks again to Erik Palmer for pushing my thinking about how to teach speaking in Social Studies. I love using your work in my classroom.

7 thoughts on “Improving Speech Openings”

  1. C – above standard – poses a provocative question and then used the real life example to bring it to life.
    A – at standard – poses a provocative question and follows up with supporting information but doesn’t connect the question directly to the info.
    B – below standard – no question is posed. A hypothetical situation that reflects real life is put forth but I’m not asked to reflect on a provocative question.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I concur with Joe on all three. Sample B is too-long winded. The scenario the writer paints is difficult to follow, and it took too long to get to the thesis statement. Introductions should grab the reader’s attention, and make the reader thirst for more. That didn’t happen here. Details and support for the thesis statement belongs in the body of the speech. It may appear that this student had demonstrated a better understanding of this topic, but it would be difficult to judge without reading the rest of the other speeches. Perhaps the other writers would have demonstrated what they knew when given the chance to provide their analysis later in the speech.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. I liked the B response best b/c that student specifically tailored the answer to a HS audience, but I also thought the example of Nicaragua demonstrated more knowledge of US Imperialism than the others. Of course I am probably biased toward the long-winded answers because it takes me 500 words to say Hi.


  3. I like C the best. B is way too long. C asks if this happened to you, and if not, how would you feel if it did? This includes every reader and draws them in. I have a similar exercise I do with my English students to help them create compelling titles and conclusions for their essays. But this could easily be adapted for strong openings.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love what you and your students are doing! Remember that the provocative question should be short and sweet. The listeners should instantly think, “I get it. I can see myself in this scenario.” Sample C excels here. Sample A just needs clearer language: freedom from one country only to fall under the rule of a different country, or something. Sample B is way too complex. I had to work hard to try and understand the analogy. I like the concept but it’s too complicated. Listeners like simple.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s trite to agree with the rockstars above … but I do agree with the rockstars above. B could be easily reworked into a more provocative (and pointed) question. C is the most robust of the bunch, while A has promise but not enough substance.

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  6. I would say “C” is at standard. I don’t see it as going above standard. You define a provocative question as one that ‘challenges the beliefs your audience holds about progressivism or imperialism and helps them think differently about the topic in order to improve their understanding.

    I don’t see a challenge of beliefs. I see a student asking: “Has X ever happened to you?” followed by “How did you feel?” followed by “Would your perspective change?”

    There’s a loose connection to imperialism and progressivism and the topic of Huerta’s rise to power.

    Opening A would be approaching standard in my opinion. The speaker asks “How would you feel if X?” followed by “How would you act if X?” It gets a bit awkward in the wording of the thesis, but that’s a matter of just cleaning up the prose. The connection to imperialism and progressivism is looser than example C.

    Opening B is below standard. First, it’s too wordy and unclear. It seems the line that really needs to be developed more is this: “Because he followed what the U.S. told him to do and became their puppet, the U.S. effectively ruled a country that they should have had no power over.”

    My bias is not to open with a question. I find a question too common, so I would shy away from that altogether. I hope this is helpful.


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