Beginnings matter. If you want to start a presentation in a way that will snag your audience’s attention and keep it, read on.
Sit down to watch a modern TV show and usually the first thing you’ll see is something called the ‘cold open’ or ‘teaser’.
This is the first part of the story that is designed either to set up the rest of the episode (“Oh no, he’s been murdered!”) or set the tone to keep you interested (those pre-title joke scenes in the likes of Friends, etc).
Script writers and producers put a lot of effort into these devices because, ultimately, they want people to keep watching the whole episode.
Start a show with a slow-burn scene that neither sets up anything exciting, nor sets the tone for the following story and the audience will lose interest and change the channel.
The same applies to your presentation.
How you start a presentation is hugely significant. This ‘cold open’ for your audience will not only keep them engaged and listening to you, but also shape what they think about you once you’re finished. First impressions really do count.
The way in which you start your presentation should be thought about in terms of an eye-catching headline on the internet, or an intriguing marketing slogan on a billboard. It needs to turn a group of disengaged and unfocused individuals into an audience. Your audience. And that starts before you even open your mouth.
There’s a reason why boxers make a big deal of getting into the ring. The music, the cheering, those shiny capes… they’re all intended to attract attention and display confidence.
Fortunately, we’re not advocating you strip off, pop on some boxing gloves and swagger into the conference room to the sounds of ‘We will rock you’. If you want to do that, fine. But for a far better and more appropriate entrance, consider your use of body language as the very first part of your presentation.
Even while the audience are taking their seats and getting settled they’ll be weighing you up. If you’re a stranger to them they’ll be subconsciously analysing how you stand, how you move, what your hands are doing. Humans do this automatically to get the measure of a person, and it will influence that first impression we all care so much about.
You want to convey your own confidence from the very start of the presentation, show them that you are relaxed and comfortable. A calm and collected person appears confident in their own skin. Your audience will interpret this as confidence in what you’re about to say, helping them accept it, and you, as legitimate.
Stand tall and pull your shoulders back slightly. Keep you hands visible and still. Resist the urge to fiddle with your pockets, your laptop, or your notes. Doing so will communicate nervous energy.
You need to find a balance between confidence and arrogance. Demonstrate your pleasure to be there, without acting like the audience are damned privileged to be witnessing your greatness.
Now we get to the talking part. Before you lay down your first killer line, you need to show your gratitude. Thanking your audience for being there goes a long way to getting them on side. After all, time is a hugely valuable and limited resource these days, even more so if you’re presenting to business people in a work environment.
You don’t need to pour over a complicated thank you; one that details just how amazing they all are for having taken time out of their busy and important lives. Drop a simple and thoughtful ‘thanks so much for coming today’, or ‘I really appreciate you coming’.
This will demonstrate that not only are you a confident person, but you’re humble, too. Signifying your gratefulness at the start will also place emphasis on the fact that the presentation is for the audience, and not just a chance for you to show off. They’ll appreciate that.
Now let’s nail the start of this presentation with a proper opener than will draw them in, hook, line and sinker. But before you start planning what to say or what slide will appear on screen, consider this:
What does the audience already know about you and your presentation?
Chances are they’ll sit down knowing only the title, your name and your profession. A lot of this will depend on the situation in which you’re presenting. If it’s a TEDx talk the crowd are there to learn something interesting, but if you’re a salesperson the audience are there to consider purchasing from you, and so on.
Use that preexisting knowledge and expectation to your advantage by surprising them. If the first thing you say is “Hi, I’m John Smith and I’m here today to talk about…” you won’t grab their focus. They already know all that so you’re not telling them anything new and interesting. As a start to a presentation, that’s weak.
So give them something new. Start with a joke, a bold statement, or a story… something they weren’t expecting. Make it something that will snag their attention immediately and draw them in. Instead of mentioning why you’re here today, tell them why it’s you that is here, and not someone else.
Tell it like it is
A story can be a great start to a presentation, and just like the ‘cold open’ of a TV show, it can excite interest and make an audience want to stick around. People are fascinated by other people, so detailing a personal incident that led you to being there and presenting before them will go down a storm.
Personalise everything you say during the start of your presentation and you’ll bring them on side. And that will definitely help as you move on to teach/sell/convince them of something.
Follow this advice and your presentation will have the best possible start.
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