I’M SURE YOU’VE SEEN IT BEFORE-the most common approach to beginning a presentation is to start out with a quote or a joke. Unfortunately, unless you know exactly what kind of audience you’re dealing with, this kind of beginning may come off as extremely contrived-and it may also completely miss the mark.
I can’t emphasize this enough: your opening should be appropriate to your audience, to your purpose, and to your product or outcome, and it should definitely get attention. The truth is, even after your audience comes in through the door, in a lot of cases they still aren’t quite “there” yet. They’re still on the highway, yelling at the driver who just cut them off; they’re still at the office, trying to meet a deadline; or they’re planning their next meal. Essentially, their bodies are there but their minds haven’t quite arrived yet. So, how do you make an audience that isn’t quite there listen with rapt attention to what you have to say?
I like to get people to look at things in a different way, so I often start out a presentation by saying something that will startle my audience-something having to do with a current event, perhaps, or maybe a surprising statistic. Projecting visuals that provoke an emotional response can also be extremely effective. So can opening your presentation with “You’re not going to believe what happened to me on the way over here!”
This kind of teaser has the potential to get people sitting on the edge of their seats, wanting to find out what unbelievable story you’re about to tell. You can also ask a rhetorical question that will compel the audience to really think about your remark. I call these did-you-know questions: “What in the world are they thinking of in Washington, DC?” “What are these boys on?” They’re questions designed not to get you answers, but to elicit strong reactions. Many times I favor opening with audience compliments because they can help establish a relationship right off the bat.
If you can do this in a sincere way-if it’s not forced-it generates a kind of love-fest, a mutual admiration society. It tells the audience, Hey, we’re all friends here-there’s nothing to be worried about. This is going to be great for you. Certainly, a story is a good way to open as well. “Before I begin, I’m going to tell you a story about something that happened to me about ten years ago regarding a dramatic conclusion to a very hot business issue.” Right away, you’re sitting your audience in your lap and promising to take them on a journey. You’re waking up their senses-their hearing, their sight, their smell, their touch, their taste-and, most important, their imagination.
You can bring up a book that you just read if it’s relevant, refer to an author who had something important or weighty to say about the subject you’re speaking about. It can be okay to open with a quote or a joke, but only if it is appropriate to the situation. I happen to also like challenging my audience. It’s a very effective means of getting attention. For example, you could say, “By the end of this presentation today, I challenge you to take action on something that has not been given its due yet, and it’s this. . . . ” When you do this, you’re moving your audience in the direction of doing something. (And at the end of your presentation, you could bookend your speech by saying, “If you recall, at the beginning of this presentation I challenged you-how close are we, ladies and gentlemen”) This technique works very well at fundraising events and other events where you’re trying to get people on board to do something.
AN OPENING WITH IMPACT
Here’s another example I have from one of my clients, who was trying to find the perfect visual to set up the opening of her speech This woman was about to give a presentation on weight loss and had opened up her own weight-loss company after having lost 115 pounds in the past year She decided to begin her presentation by bringing in a pair of shorts that she had worn a year before; they were about three or four feet wide-way too big for her new, slimmer frame She held up those shorts and said, “These shorts were tight on me a year ago ” Then she said, “My life has changed since ” Now, that’s a great way to open up a presentation
Excerpted from Chapter 4 of the best-selling book, No Fear Speaking: Attention-Getting Openings
To Your Speaking Success!
International Speaker & Coach
Author, Best-Seller, No Fear Speaking