Opening for a Presentation or Speech

Whatever you talk about, the way you open a presentation and the way you bring it to a close are the two most important sections of the presentation. Research into primacy and recency has shown that the beginning and end of a speech are the pieces that are most memorable, so it is important that we get these two sections right.

First impressions are also very important. When you stand up to talk, people will often make instant judgments about you dependant on how you look, how you are dressed and your initial opening remarks. Start by making a poor impression and it will take a long time to recover if you ever do.

Start like a Comedian but not with a Joke

Most presentations start by the speaker saying their name and the title of their presentation. While this is not completely wrong, I think it is a wasted opportunity. Your audience either already know your name, it was probably on the agenda, or they just donít care. When have you ever heard a stand-up comedian start their act by telling you their name?  Never! They always say their name at the end. Why? Because at the start nobody cares, they just want to hear a joke. But at the end, if you put on a good show, they will want to know your name so they can buy your DVD or look out for you the next time you are around. I think the same applies to business presentations. So be like a comic, donít start with your name. 

Carrying on with the analogy, the one thing I strongly advise against starting your business presentation with is a joke. Unlike audiences at a comedy club, most business audiences have not come to hear jokes. They are not in a jokey frame of mind. They are here for a serious presentation and starting with a joke will often fall flat, causing your audience to disengage rather than the response you hoped for.

Grab them by the Lapels

Whether your presentation is a stand-alone event or just one in a whole series of different presentations, it is absolutely vital that you start by grabbing the audience's attention.  If you don't metaphorically grab them by their lapels and make them pay attention, they are likely to be still thinking about the last presentation, or a phone call they had just before they arrived at the meeting. They may even be thinking "I hope this doesn't go on too long, I have things to do."  You need to capture people's attention and confirm their hope that you will be an interesting person to listen to.  You need to get them involved right from the outset.

Does it matter if they know you?

What if this is not the first time the audience has met you? Is the opening of your presentation still quite so important? In my view the answer has to be an emphatic "yes". Indeed, the better people know you the more important it is to start with a good opening. When you are already known as a speaker, hopefully the audience is thinking " this should be good; Iíve heard him/her before." The reaction you want from your opening remarks is for your audience to think " I thought this would be good but wow! This is going to be great, I really must listen."

Tell them what you are going to tell them, Tell them, Tell them want you told them

There is an age old saying about how to present: "Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them".

When I first heard this I thought that seems a bit repetitive, surely people will get bored if I say everything three times. But I have since learnt that this single rule adds more to most presentations than any other, as long as you tell it right.

The "Tell them what you are going to tell them" is your opportunity to grab the audience's attention. Put the core subject of your presentation across in a way that challenges the listener and makes the listener think.

Possible Openings

There are many ways of capturing your audience's attention: 

  • Ask a rhetorical question
  • Make a confrontational remark
  • Give a thought provoking quotation from an acknowledged source
  • Create a Vision of Success
  • Do, show or say something unexpected

The key to a good opening is to make people think; to wake them up and make them pay attention. 

How not to open

For example, if you are an accountant and have to give a presentation on new tax laws, you could start by telling them your name and then listing the main areas of taxation you will be covering. But most of your audience will probably be asleep before you have finished the introduction.

A better way

An alternative, more attention grabbing, opening might be to ask "Who has too much money?" quickly followed by "Nobody?!"  

"So, why did most of you give too much money away last year?  I bet you all gave away too much money to the tax man last year?  During my presentation you will discover how hold on to your money, so that you can spend it on what you want and not give it away to the tax man."

A Quotation

My favourite quotation to open a presentation on presenting is from Roscoe Drummond, who used to write the " State of the Nation" column syndicated by 150 newspapers across America. He once said " The human mind is a wonderful thing - it starts working the minute you are born and never stops Ö.. until you get up to speak in public" . This statement puts anyone who is nervous about public speaking at ease, as they are immediately relieved to know that it is not just them who suffers, and leads me into to a discussion on the importance of preparation and practise, prior to a presentation.

A Vision of Success

When you want to influence your audience, it is often good to start by describing a vision of success; A picture of how good things could be if they follow your advice. An example of this, which I saw recently, is the corporate presentation of a company who designs retail outlets. Their presentation began with a slide which showed an image of a upmarket shop interior with the words, " Realising your Vision"

The speaker started his presentation by saying, " You have built up an enormous investment in your brand; a brand which differentiates you from your competition; a brand that signifies your leadership position in a very crowded marketplace; a brand which signals everything you feel is important to your clientele. What my company can do for you is to substantiate that brand in your customersí retail experience by creating a retail outlet which enforces and invigorates your brand, physically creating a shopping experience that your target market will identify with and enjoy. In short, we can realise your vision for your new outlet" .

Invariably that had the audience hooked and they were eager to find out how it would be done.

Make it Relevant

While grabbing their attention is important, it is also important that the opening is in line with the rest of the presentation. I saw a video once, of a headmistress trying to introduce a police officer to the children at an American junior school's assembly.  The children were all noisily chatting away to each other and the headmistress's repeated requests for silence were being ignored. The lady police officer then tried to quieten them down with no success. So, she took out her revolver and fired a shot into the air.  There was instant silence. She had their attention, but when she then asked in her most child friendly voice "How are you all doing today?" There was an equally stony silence.

 You only have one chance to make a first impression so it is worth thinking it through properly and working out the type of reaction it will generate.

Keep them Engaged

Once you have grabbed your audience's attention, keep them listening by telling them what they want to hear, rather than what you want to say. Remember, audiences are all thinking WIIFM (Whatís in it for me?). All the best speakers tell people what they want or need to hear. Finally, round off the presentation with a reference back to your attention grabber as part of the summary.

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