Presentation openers: 10 ways to turn off your audience

How long does it take for an audience to decide whether you are a great speaker who has interesting and relevant things to say or a hopeless time-wasting purveyor of Death by PowerPoint?

Estimates vary from as little as seven seconds to as much as 60. If if you manage to grab your audience’s attention in that crucial window, there is a good chance that they will listen to what you have to say, absorb your take-home messages, remember them afterwards and – most importantly – change their attitudes and behaviour accordingly.

But if you fail to engage your audience, there is little you can do to re-capture their attention once the window has closed. Those who haven’t left the room will all be texting, thinking about work, sex and other distractions, or catching up on lost sleep.

The time you have invested in preparing your presentation, practising it and stressing over it will all have been a giant waste of time.

In my years as a communication skills trainer I have probably sat through more dreadful presentation openers than episodes of The Archers – and I’ve been a big fan for more than 30 years!

Here are my top 10 turn-offs:

 1. Last-minute checks

Tapping the mic to check whether it is on, asking whether people can hear you at the back, shuffling your papers and reordering your slides all contribute to an impression of unpreparedness, which is unlikely to impress your audience. You should have made sure that everything was in working order well before you were called upon to speak.

2. Hiding behind the podium…

…or use of other defensive postures, such as arms crossed, hands clasped in front or behind your back, stuffed in pockets or welded to laser pointers. These kind of physical barriers place corresponding mental barriers between you and your audience, making it hard for them to trust and believe in what you say.

3. Repeating what it says in the programme

We don’t need you to tell us your name, your job title and what you’re here to talk about. We have already seen those details flagged in the programme, and the meeting Chair has just repeated them while introducing you. You have just missed an opportunity to tell us something we don’t know.

4. Apologising…

…for your lateness, inexperience as a speaker, nervousness, the state of your slides, whatever. This all detracts from your credibility and authority as a speaker and creates a powerful impression that you are unworthy of our attention.

 5. Thanking people

Don’t waste precious time by thanking the Chair for his/her kind introduction, the meeting sponsors and organisers for giving you the opportunity to speak, your staff and colleagues for their invaluable support and the audience for being gracious enough to attend. It’s a presentation not the Oscars! Get on with giving us a reason for listening.

6. Telling a joke…

…unless it is highly relevant to your theme and you are very good at telling jokes, which you probably aren’t.

7. Warning us you intend to show a large number of slides in an unfeasibly short period of time

My heart sinks to the floor when a speaker tell us he is going to talk through something like 50 slides in 20 minutes. This amounts to a mind-boggling procession of slides – and there won’t be enough time to understand or absorb their content because the speaker will have to talk very fast indeed to cram them all in. The best rule with slides in presentations is to cut them to an irreducible minimum. If they are that important, either offer them as a handout at the end or, better still, send them out by email in advance and cancel the meeting!

8. Going straight to your first slide without looking at the audience

If you want us to engage with you, you must first engage with us which, at the very least, means looking at us and smiling as if you are glad to be in our company. Remember that your slides are a visual aid for us not a prop or a script for you. And that you don’t need any slides at all to create a powerful first impression.

9. Getting lost in a long, meandering, confusing story

Stories, anecdotes and (for medical presentations), case histories are great presentation openers – but only if they make a very clear and relevant point and are narrated with skill and economy. Anything over a minute is too long.

10. Asking a provocative question – without waiting for the answer?

Many speakers assume, quite correctly, that asking a question at the start of a presentation is a great way to engage the audience. But there is a difference between asking a real question – such as ‘How many people have used this method/gadget/drug?’ – and a rhetorical one – such as ‘Wouldn’t life be great if we could only cure cancer?’ The former only works if you have the courage to wait for the answer, whether in the form of comments or a show of hands, and then link that answer back to your main theme.

How Clearsay can help

Clearsay Communications works with professionals from all sectors to improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews and meetings of all kinds. To find out what we could do for you, return to the Home Page.