Presentations and the crucial importance of first impressions

Of all the suggestions I make to people on my presentation skills training courses, the one they find hardest to follow is to seize the audience’s attention from the get-go.

They usually pay lip service to the idea that first impressions are vital, and you don’t get a second chance to make one; but when given a chance to put theory into practice, they still revert to something like the following:

‘Good morning, my name is [title] from [Institute] in [country], and today I am going to talk to you about [topic]. I am really pleased to be here, and it is great to see so many people in the audience.’

…all this usually delivered with eyes fixed on the screen, even though the first slide contains nothing but the title of the talk!

Audiences make up their minds within a few seconds

This is a thoroughly wasted opportunity. There is now a wealth of evidence to suggest that audiences make up their minds within a few seconds whether you are worth listening to or not. If they decide in your favour that bodes well for the rest of your talk. If not, the drop-off in attention will be steep and you won’t find it easy to reclaim it.

If your goal in giving a presentation is to persuade people to listen to you, remember what you say and then act on it – and what other reasons could you have for giving a presentation? – then you cannot afford to ignore what has become known as ‘the seven-second rule’.

Our tendency to make these snapshot judgements is known as ‘thin-slicing’ . It is likely that our brains were hard-wired this way as a kind of primitive survival mechanism to enable us to distinguish between friend or foe, harmless pet or carnivorous threat to life.

The lessons of TED talks

The relevance of thin-slicing to presentations was established by a human behaviour consultancy called Science of People, which asked 760 volunteers to rate hundreds of hours of TED talks, looking for specific patterns related to numbers of views.

Among many fascinating findings – including the importance of smiling, hand gestures, vocal variety and ad-libbing – the researchers found that people had largely formed their opinion about a speaker within seven seconds.

If you only have seven seconds to make an impression, then how you take the stage, how you stand and look, how you acknowledge the audience and the first words you utter are all crucially important.

Here are my tips for getting it right:

  • Sort out logistics and tech in advance. Make sure you arrive at the venue early enough to establish where you will be standing to present, whether the slides are uploaded correctly, how the mic works, and other technical details. You don’t want to waste those first precious seconds fiddling with the laptop, the clicker, the sound or your notes;
  • Walk confidently to your presenting position, adopt a strong stance, with legs apart and hands free, smile broadly at the audience – smiling is linked with higher perceived intelligence, according to the TED research – pause, then utter your first powerful phrase;
  • Do, say or show something surprising, compelling or even a little unsettling as an initial attention-grabber. You could use a dramatic story, a powerful image, a provocative question, a startling fact or statistic or even a physical prop. For more detailed advice on opening see my previous blog, listing 10 great attention-grabbers

Starting your presentation with a bang is not easy. If it were everyone would be doing it and business presentation would be as popular as TED Talks. It runs counter to many people’s perceptions of ‘professional’ behaviour, removes you from your comfort zone and takes real courage.

But in the final analysis it’s not your feelings that matter but your impact on your audience. And I guarantee that this approach will make your presentations more engaging, more memorable and more persuasive.


How Clearsay can help

Clearsay Communications works with business and thought leaders around the world to develop their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews, meetings and negotiations. Contact us today to explore what we could do for you.