Start your presentation with a bang (not a whimper)

Opening remarks are probably the most crucial aspect of any presentation. If they are powerful, arresting, thought-provoking and relevant (to the audience), there is a good chance that you will engage the attention of your listeners and continue to hold it.

If your opening remarks are weak, conventional, anodyne and all-purpose, there is every chance that your listeners will tune out – and remain disengaged.

Openings are important for these reasons:

  • Research on the ‘primacy effect’ teaches us that people are more likely to remember information presented first than that revealed later on
  • Audience attention always peaks at the beginning of a presentation, after which it drops away – often steeply –  to rise again towards the end when the take-home messages are articulated and a break is in sight
  • First impressions are vital – and you don’t get a second chance to make one! If you are fascinating at the start, you may be able to get away with being a bit less interesting two minutes in. But it doesn’t work the other way round.

In my view the main purpose of your opening remarks is not to introduce yourself and your topic – although you need to do that at some stage – but to reach out and grab your audience’s attention. There are a number of routes to this end:

  • Telling a story – as long as it is relevant to your theme. Stories engage people emotionally and audiences – however sophisticated – love them. When I was running a maternity charity I used to start my presentations by talking about my traumatic first pregnancy. When that story lost its impact I raided our membership database for even better stories. Now, as a communication skills trainer, I often tell stories – or show videos – that illustrate the many pitfalls and challenges of presentations and media interviews, and how to overcome them;
  • Posing a provocative question – either rhetorical or real. There is nothing like the fear of being pounced on to give an answer for keeping an audience on its toes!
  • Producing a surprising statistic, a dramatic fact or a shocking image – anything to startle your audience into attention;
  • Making an ‘inclusive’ statement that shows you understand and share your audience’s most pressing concerns;
  • Using a physical prop. I once saw a learned professor use a huge glass bowl full of sugar to great effect when explaining the basic metabolic problem in diabetes.

It takes a bit of thought – and a lot of nerve – to start your presentation with anything other than: ‘Hello, my name is …. from the Department of … at the University of … and I am here today to talk to you about ….’

And people clearly find it very difficult to emerge from their conventional comfort zones, as I learned last week when I worked all day with a group of highly-qualified professionals, who all assented in principle to the idea of starting with a bang but were mostly too hidebound and self-conscious to walk their talk.

Why not try it yourself next time you are called on to present? You may feel uncomfortably exposed. But you will be rewarded with increased attention – and isn’t that the whole point?

Can I help you?

Clearsay Communications helps professionals from all sectors to improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentation, media interviews and meetings of all kinds. For more information go to the Home Page