Presentations: never save the best for last

Working with a client recently on an important presentation he was preparing for internal stakeholders, I was astonished when a ‘big reveal’ about a notable past achievement came in the final minute of a fairly unremarkable pitch.

Once I pointed out the much greater impact he could achieve by reversing the order and using the reveal in his opening, he was happy to comply, and his presentation packed a much bigger punch as a result.

Presenters neglect openings at their peril

I am regularly surprised by the extent to which presenters neglect their openings which are, without question, the most important part of any presentations.

An arresting start can focus and maintain attention on a mediocre presentation, while an unremarkable opening can consign the most brilliant subsequent content to oblivion.

That’s because of the overriding importance of first impressions, which are formed within seconds and are notoriously difficult to change.

If you start, as many of the people I work with are inclined to do, with a tedious recitation of name, job, place of work, title of presentation and disclosures, all delivered in a monotone while staring at a screen, you will lose the attention of a significant proportion of your audience from that point on.

No second chance to make a first impression

And, because there are no second chances when it comes to first impressions, you will find it near-impossible to recapture their attention later, even with the most compelling data.

If, however, you start with an attention-grabbing bang, there is a good chance that your audience will stay with you for the duration. And the longer they stay with you the more likely they are to remember what you said afterwards and act on your recommendations, which should be your key goals as a presenter.

This is not the first time I have blogged about the vital importance of powerful openings. See some of my earlier articles here:

But it is a topic I keep revisiting because my experience suggests that this is one of the lessons presenters find hardest to put into practice.

So, here are my top five recommended ways to start a presentation.

Tell a story

Stories – as long as they are well told and relevant to the topic at hand – make great openers because our brains are hard-wired to absorb and retain them in a way that they struggle to do with data and bullet points. Personal stories are best because they build an emotional connection between presenter and audience that compels attention. Sustainable economic development expert Ernesto Sirolli starts his famous TED talk with a highly entertaining personal story that brilliantly encapsulates his overall message that advisers need to ask questions and listen before wading in with solutions. If you are going to tell a story, though, you need to be brave enough to blank your slides for the duration. When something is on the screen – even just an opening slide – people will tend to be looking at it rather than focusing on you.


A startling fact or statistic

Something that makes people sit up and think: ‘Wow, I didn’t know that!’ This morning I read in my daily newspaper that more than 8,000 women died after heart attacks over an 11-year period in England and Wales because they did not receive the same standard of care as men.  What a gift that would be for a cardiologist presenting on gender differences in heart disease outcomes!

A striking image

It may be a cliché, but it is no less true that a powerful picture paints a thousand words. If you can open with a photograph or other image that captures your key theme, you’ll be off to a great start. I sometimes use juxtaposed images of famine victims in developing countries and the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre on 9/11 in media training presentations when I am trying to explain the difference between ‘worthy’ and ‘newsworthy’ stories. (In case you are wondering, the starvation story is worthy but almost unremarkable because it is not new, we have grown inured to such suffering and it seems far removed from our daily lives. 9/11 on the other hand was unprecedented, visually shocking and uncomfortably close to home for most westerners).

A provocative question

The best questions are those inviting an audience response because they compel engagement. In my media training presentations, I often start by asking people to share what they have learned from their encounters with media. The typical answers – usually variations on the need to invest time in preparation – echo the advice I will go on to give.

A physical ‘prop’

A colleague of mine was captivated by the opening of a presentation on pain management that had initially threatened to be extremely boring. Everyone in the audience was asked to place on one of their fingers a bulldog clip that was set out on the table in front of them. After a little while they were asked to rate their discomfort on a scale from 1 to 10. And that, said the presenter, is the main problem with pain management: how do you begin to measure such a subjective experience? After that she had them well and truly hooked!

How Clearsay can help

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