By Liz Peterson - February 15, 2022
First impressions matter – you've likely heard it said that interviewers decide on a candidate within the first 30 seconds; some take even less time. When public speaking, you've got about 60 seconds to capture your audience's attention, establish the topic, and give them a reason to listen.
Waste those precious opening seconds with "ums" and "uhs", and you'll lose your audience's attention faster than you can say "Thanks for coming."
Like the headline of an article, considering how to start a presentation is critical. There's no time for housekeeping and apologies. Nor a need for an endless string of thank-yous.
You need to get to the point – and fast.
In this article, you'll learn how to start a presentation effectively, including insider tips for attention-grabbing openers and exactly what's needed to make your opening memorable.
Think of anything you've seen lately. What scenes or parts stick out most in your mind? The beginning and the end, right? Indeed, authors spend days agonizing over the opening and final lines. In films, a captivating opening scene sets up the tone and plot of a movie from the get-go. You're in the moment. You're gripped.
This phenomenon is due to a psychological trick our brains play. The primacy and recency effects describe how a presentation's start and end are best remembered. They stick in our minds.
To create a successful presentation, therefore, you need to start with a bang. Nothing less will work as well
How do you do it?
Below, we will go through the opening step-by-step, discussing how to craft the ultimate presentation beginning.
Grab their attention from your opening word. In certain formal situations, you'll need to thank people for attending. Try to reduce that to the fewest words possible. Even better if you can add your hook to the welcome.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, honored guests and colleagues, we are delighted you have joined us here today at…."
Begin with an opening like that, and your audience is already drifting off. We've heard it a thousand times before. We know what to expect – rinse and repeat.
Instead, use a hypothetical situation, a surprising stat, or rhetorical question to get them hooked right off the bat. For example, "Ladies and Gentlemen, do you want live longer, healthier lives?" or "Every day 60,000 children die of preventable leukemia. Here's how you can help."
This line should encapsulate the point of your speech in a few words. Then, you can start adding meat to the bones once they are interested.
Statistics are interesting, informative, incontrovertible… they're not emotional, however. It's just too hard to fathom the scale involved. People get lost behind the numbers.
That's where the story comes in.
After your opening remarks, continuing with a story can provide a framework for building your presentation around. You're setting the scene.
Perhaps you tell the story of a young boy who battled and survived leukemia. Perhaps you're explaining how a corporate meltdown led to an innovative management approach. Just make sure the story is captivating and related to your topic. It should be a microcosm for the themes and concepts you want to bring up.
Then, later, when you cite stats or propose solutions, everyone can understand through the prism of the earlier story. It's like a mannequin upon which you can hang your ideas.
It's also a jumping-off point into the broader issue. Ask questions like what challenges were faced? How did you solve any problems? What lessons did you learn? Is this experience rare or common? What would you do differently next time?
Remember the old saying: a picture tells a thousand words. Well, why not show one? Save the graphs and charts for further into the presentation.
If you're telling a story for an NGO, show a picture of your volunteers helping or the people struggling. Perhaps you could show an image of a problem your product fixes. Or even just a good old visual metaphor to hammer the message home.
There's also the potential to write and draw as you present on a whiteboard – virtual or analogue. A certain amount of anticipation builds as you watch someone write or draw. What is it? What does it mean? Don't write everything down. But a single word or a quick diagram can cement your opening points before you move on.
Of course, you could open with a video. They're often a quick way to establish a topic and bring everyone up to speed. They're also more emotional. They capture people, drama, sights and sounds. They can distill many people's thoughts and feelings into a short, concise 30-second to 2-minute clip.
And it creates a break between the opening and the main bulk of your talk. You can even refer to the video throughout your presentation to create a conceptual thread running through the whole pitch.
To joke or not to joke?
Perhaps one of the most common openers to a presentation. It breaks the ice and loosens everyone up, right?
Sort of. It can work extremely well if a joke lands (and is topical). But, if the joke misses, it can overshadow the later presentation or cause you to stumble before you've even begun.
Jokes do serve another purpose, though. They let a nervous speaker ease themselves into the presentation. If you use a joke, try it on multiple people first to ensure it's funny (and appropriate). But don't overuse a joke in every presentation. Like a Marvel movie, it can end up ruining a dramatic or impactful opening by breaking the tension.
If you want further advice on public speaking and how to start a presentation, contact Speech and Voice Enterprises today and learn about our online 2-Day Public Speaking Seminars, accent reduction, voice improvement training, and more online public speaking courses today!