You take your position at the front of the room. You feel your heart rate start to increase. Looking back at you, there are dozens – maybe even hundreds – of eyeballs suddenly fixated on you, watching your every move. You clear your throat, open your mouth to speak, and…. You are suddenly filled with confidence as you seamlessly deliver the opening lines of your presentation while your audience’s eyes fill with wonder.
Ahh, if only all presentations always opened this smoothly. Presentation nerves tend to be their strongest right at the start of your presentation, just when it’s most crucial to make a good impression on your audience. This can leave us feeling and looking unsure of ourselves. In addition, if you haven’t scripted out a great opening, you’re more likely to become less confident as you start to notice your audience losing their focus.
But the good news is, with a bit of simple planning and preparation, every single presentation you give from now on has the potential to be a huge success and leave not just your audience positively buzzing with excitement and emotion, but you as well.
A Great Opening To A Presentation Can Change The Audience’s Perception Of What Follows
You can tell when it’s happened. You literally feel the energy in the room shift as your audience sits up just that little bit straighter in their seats, or more obviously – they explode into fits of riotous laughter at your hilarious and witty opening anecdote or story.
It’s been said time and time again – first impressions count, but often it’s difficult to make a great impression on so many people at the same time. Just like any good piece of written content, a good presentation has to hook the audience in right from the start.
Some studies have suggested that you have roughly 30 seconds to grab an audience’s’ attention before they immediately start to drift or lose interest, so that doesn’t leave you a whole lot of time to catch and keep their attention. But don’t panic – there are plenty of things you can do in advance of your presentation to ensure that your audience is with you from the very beginning.
By getting them onside from the word ‘go’, you’ll also increase the chances that they’ll be with you right to the end of your presentation as well.
Good Planning And Plenty Of Preparation Will Go A Long Way
There are a number of different challenges that you’ll be faced with when planning a presentation, but a great place to start is with your audience – after all, they’ll be the ones listening to you speak. Part of good preparation is to understand thoroughly who you’ll be speaking to on the day, and why. Think about your audience carefully, and try to answer the following questions:
- Where are they now? How much do they know already? What are their challenges? How do they feel about the subject?
- What are their feelings about the subject/you/your organisation? What information will they want/need from this presentation?
- Why might they not follow you? Are there any big picture, detailed, rational, or emotional arguments that need to be made?
- How is your presentation going to help them right now?
Ideally, you want to try and address each of these areas right at the beginning of your presentation.
As advertising legend David Ogilvy says, “When you advertise fire-extinguishers, open with the fire.” Or in other words, start by letting everyone know how the problem or issue they have (their fire) is going to be solved by your presentation (your extinguisher).
The best presenters make their presentations all about their audience rather than themselves. The audience will always want to know what’s in it for them, and they’ll want to know quickly so that they can make an assessment on whether your presentation is going to be worth listening to, or whether they can safely take a nap with their eyes open.
So, think about what reaction you want from your audience, and the motivation they need to listen up.
Combine all of this into a single opening sentence you can deliver with conviction, and you have the makings of a great presentation opener.
As an example, in a training session, would you be more likely to listen to a presenter who opens with: ‘Today I’m going to teach you how to use our new LMS”. Or, would you rather listen to a talk that starts with: ‘Today I’m going to share with you how to master our new LMS, and how easy it is to book workshops that will increase your sales.’
Notice how in the second example, it’s clear that there’s something in it for the audience – the chance to increase their knowledge and sales potential.
A Favourite Of Ours – Don’t “Show Up And Throw Up”
And no, we’re not talking about throwing up from nerves here (although avoiding that is usually preferable as well). If you stand up and start to “spew” lots of data, facts and detail all over your audience, just to try and show how much research you’ve put into your work, the only thing you’ll end up doing is ensuring that your audience walks out of your presentation feeling overwhelmed and under-informed.
Try to stick to using just one or two key stats at the start to hook people in. Disclaimer: They have to be genuinely interesting or shocking. No “did-you-know-we-only-use-10%-of-our-brains” please.
It also helps if you explain a statistic in real-world or visual terms. For example: “Jumbo jets use about 15,000 litres of fuel to take off – That’s about the same amount of liquid that’s in an average backyard swimming pool.”
Nailing The Delivery – Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
Your opening is one of the most important parts of your presentation to get right. If you deliver your opening lines confidently, you’re more likely to continue on to deliver the rest of your presentation seamlessly.
So, if you’re really pushed for time, and can only rehearse one part of your presentation multiple times, make sure you make the time to completely perfect your introduction. By practicing what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, you’ll immediately put your best foot forward, and help to alleviate any pre-presentation nerves.
More Creative Ideas For Opening Your Presentation
“Hello and thanks for coming” will have your audience searching for the exit quicker than you can say… well… “hello and thanks for coming”. Try one of these creative ideas instead to make a great first impression:
- Tell a story – It could be a little-known story about the company that you and your audience members work for, or a funny anecdote about yourself. But do ensure that you keep it relevant – While the story of how you saved a kitten from a mid-city water fountain might be entertaining, it’s likely not relevant to the rest of your presentation, so keep that one for the pub afterwards.
- Rhetorical questions – “What if I told you…” Memes aside, relevant rhetorical questions are a great way to get the audience thinking right from the start. It stops them from immediately switching off, and instead, piques their curiosity and gets their imaginations going.
- Gimmick or stunt – Delivering a presentation about how dancing can help you be more healthy and productive at work and in life? Start with your own little jig to get the audience giggling – If appropriate, and if you’re game of course!
- Slideshare: 8 Ways to Hook Your Audience
- Inc.com: The Most Powerful Ways to Open Your Presentation
- OPEN Forum: 12 Ways to hook an Audience in 30 Seconds
Written By Belinda Huckle
Co-Founder & Managing DirectorRead Bio
Belinda is the founder and managing director of secondnature. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.
She believes in a training approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.
Belinda is currently helping to transform the presentation skills of people in organisations such as BBC Worldwide, DHL, ESRI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Pfizer, Roche, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.