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7 Foolproof Ways to Start a Presentation

We’ve all been there as a speaker. You walk out onto a stage or into the front of the room, and the audience is staring at you with skepticism written all over their faces. This stoic crown has no patience for speakers who waste their time, and their demeanor is showing that fact right now. You need a foolproof way to start your presentation so that you win over this audience. I’ve been there myself. Below are a few of my favorite ways to start a speech that will help you capture positive attention from your audience and get even the most stoic crowd to want more from you.

How to Start a Presentation and Help Your Audience Remember Your Content

Give Your Summary First

This is the technique that we introduce first in our Fearless Presentations ® classes. As a speaker, you have a lot going against you. The biggest challenge is that most of the people who are in your audience would really rather be doing something other than sitting through your presentation. So starting with the conclusion gives them a reason to tune in and pay attention to the content.

TV shows and movies do this a lot. I remember watching Titanic for the first time and seeing Rose at the age of 90 coming onto the salvage ship and asking the Captain to see her painting. “Wasn’t I a dish?” We all know the story of Titanic, but by starting 80 years into the future, we already know that somehow, Rose was going to survive the tragedy. We pay attention because we want to see how she did it. Years ago, the TV show Alias did this a lot. Jennifer Garner’s character would begin the show in some type of danger, and then the screen would blackout to a scene starting with “24 hours earlier…”

You can create the same effect in your presentations by making your title a conclusion that you want the audience to come to, and laying out a few bullet points that will help them get to that conclusion. For instance, “My topic today is Five ways to Get Your Executives to Increase Your Department Budget, and the items we will cover are…” Of course, this technique works best when you topic or title is a result that your audience really wants to achieve. (More details about this in Podcast 4: Start with a Great Title and the Presentation Practically Writes Itself.)

By the way, this technique is also helpful because you can just use it again at the end of your presentation as a summary as well.

Start with a Compelling Story

I often start my presentation classes with a personal incident where I had trouble speaking in front of a group. A good personal story about the topic at hand captures attention, and it also can sometimes insert humor right at the beginning of the presentation. I taught a private presentation class for Mitsubishi last week, and I could tell when I walked into the room that this was going to be a tough crowd. The culture of the predominately Japanese is fairly top and conservative. Most often when I introduce myself to class members, people are warm and friendly, and most often when I’m a guess in their office, they try to make me feel at home. The organizer did this here as well, but as the participants came into the room, I could tell that they were all busy people who seemed to really not want to be in a training program. I was making small talk, but very few of them were laughing or smiling at me. (Tough crowd.)

So, when I started the class, I decided to go into a fairly detailed version of the incident that I experienced during my college internship where I totally bombed a speech. I added a lot of self-deprecating humor to the story, and the mood in the room lightened quite a bit. It was an easy way to get the audience to feel more at easy and get them involved in the presentation.

Stories are easy additions to any speech. For instance, if you are giving a project report, you can start with a memorable event that occurred within the project since you last met with the team. Or, if you are giving a financial report, and the conclusion of the report is that profit is up, give just a quick example of something that happened recently that cause a profit increase. If you are leading a problem solving meeting, start with an example of something that has happened recently that shows that the problem exists.

Start with a Startling Statistic

According to a recent Forbes article, 10% of people love speaking in front of groups, 10% have a phobia about speaking to groups, and the remaining 80% of of fall somewhere in between.

By doing a little research, you can often find a good (and or startling) statistic that can capture attention quickly. For instance, if you are giving a financial presentation where revenue for your company was up 3.5% last quarter, you might go and look up the statistics for your entire industry in the same quarter and start your speech with that data. “The electronics industry as a whole was up 2.4% last quarter, but our company outperformed the industry and had a 3.5% increase in revenue.”

The easiest way to find statistics about you topic is to just do a Google search [Your Topic} followed by the word “statistic”. I’ll give some examples. I just did a Google search for “Best Ted Talks” and came up with an article about the Top 25 Most Shared Ted Talk videos. I just pasted the names of the talks into Google with the word “statistic” added and this is what I came up with.

  • Does School Kill Creativity? According to the Adobe® State of Create global benchmark study, 8 in 10 people feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth and more than half of those surveyed feel that creativity is being stifled by their education systems.
  • Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are – We receive 82% of information from what we see, 11% from what we hear, and only 7% by all the other senses combined. (The Body Language Info-graphic.)
  • How Great Leaders Inspire Action – 84% of organizations anticipate a shortfall in leaders within the next five years. (13 Shocking Leadership Development Statistics.)

So, it is really easy to create compelling statistics to get your audience to think about your topic right as you begin to speak.

Bonus Tip: Combine More than One of these Intros for Even More Impact.

It is really easy to start your presentation with a quick story about how you came across a statistic. “I remember watching Jerry Seinfeld to a stand-up bit where he was talking about how the fear of public speaking was the number one fear in America, and then he looked down the list and saw that the fear of death was number five. So, you are five times more likely to rather be in the casket than up giving the eulogy at a funeral.”

The key to each of these first tips is that they increase retention of information for your audience. For instance, by giving your audience your introduction with your key points, then giving your speech with details about each of the points, and finally giving a summary of the points one more time, the audience is more likely to remember your content. A good story will also increase retention because stories have a way of creating visual images in the mind of the audience that are more memorable than just facts alone. a startling statistic gets the audience to think, “Is that really true?” so they pay attention to your content better.

Quick Presentation Starters to Capture Attention

A Funny or Motivational Quote or One-Liner

Sometimes, a quick quote that you can easily memorize and deliver can capture attention in a positive way. For instance, I often use this quote when I start a presentation skills breakout session or keynote speech.

“A presentation should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject but short enough to create interest.” — Winston Churchill

Just like with the statistics, you can Google your topic with the word “quotes” to get ideas.

  • “Creativity is the greatest expression of liberty.” — Bryant H. McGill
  • “Language is a more recent technology. Your body language, your eyes, your energy will come through to your audience before you even start speaking.” — Peter Guber
  • “A leader is the one, who knows the way, goes the way and show the way” — John Maxwell

Bonus Tip: Reference a quote, and then add your own take to the quote.

Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” but have you ever thought to realize that every single invention every created by man was once just an idea born from someone’s need?

Start with an Opinion Asking Question

I use this a lot when I am starting a sales presentation, because I want to make sure that the content that I have prepared is in line with what the audience (prospective customer) is looking for. I often start this question with a phrase like, “In a perfect world…”

“In a perfect world, if your team was able to present their ideas to your customers more effectively, what would they be doing that they are not doing now?”

This technique is more challenging for a presenter, because you really have to be able to take whatever your audience gives you and design your presentation on the fly based on what the audience wants. However, if you have done good research before the meeting, you shouldn’t be surprised by the answers that you receive from the participants.

A Powerful or Shocking Statement

I sometimes start my classes with a statement like, “Just about everything that you’ve ever learned about public speaking is wrong.” I will then follow this statement with information about a number of different tips that people try that don’t work really well. (Things like picturing your audience naked.)

When we lead groups through team building activities, we often give a shocking statement that foreshadows a future activity in the event. For instance, one of the activities that we often use to divide groups into teams involves getting them to believe that they are competing against each other. So, we sometimes start with a statement like, “In less than 15 minutes from this point, some of you chivalrous men who opened a door for a young lady when she came into the room will actually be chicken-winging that woman to take something from her.” Of course, when something like that actually happens, everyone erupts in laughter.

Arouse Curiosity with a Hook

Talk radio, television news, and reality TV shows do this brilliantly. I remember years ago watching season #1 of Survivor. The season winner was an eccentric guy named Richard Hatch who was a good fisherman, so he fed the group. However, he also did things to keep the other contestants a little off their game. At the start of one of the episodes, Richard was walking along the beach buck-naked with his bottom blurred out by the producers. It caused the viewers to think, “How in the heck did that happen?” Talk radio guys do this by saying, “At the bottom of the hour we’re going to finally tell you how…”

I actually do this on my podcast as well. I might start the episode by saying something like, “In the last ten minutes of this episode, I’m going to share with you my best, overall, foolproof presentation opener.”

Add Showmanship

Sometimes you just have to get creative and think outside the box. When I first started The Leader’s Institute ®, I got invited to speak at a number of local association meeting and business card exchanges in my hometown. Keep in mind that no one in these meeting came to the meetings to look fr a place to learn how to do presentations better. As a result, I had to do things that were a little different in order to capture attention.

For instance, one time, just after the Fourth of July, my kids had some sparkler fireworks left over. I also had some decorative mailing tubes left over from a failed marketing attempt. So, I decided to dramatize my presentation at a local minority business breakfast. I got to the hotel meeting room an hour before the start, and I filled a trash can with water and left it under the presentation table at the front of the room. I stuck one of the sparklers into the top of the mailing tube, and waited until my time to speak. The emcee called my name, and I waited at the back of the room. She called my name one more time, and I waited just a bit longer. When she called my name the third time, I lit the sparkler and went rushing to the front of the room.

Of course the visual aid looked like I was holding a cartoon dynamite. I pulled the trash can from under the table and threw the prop into the can where it sizzled and smoked. The whole audience was looking around like, “What the heck?” I looked at them and said, “Do you want to put some sizzle into your presentations?”

Okay, it was cheesy. It was over the top. But it got the whole audience laughing, and everyone in the room remembered who I was and what I did for a living at the end of the meeting.

A few less over-the-top ways of adding showmanship into your presentation might be…

    • Use Boards Instead of Slides. Everyone expects a slideshow, but if you have a compelling board or poster that is in the front of the room when you start, you can create some curiosity about your topic.
    • Get the Audience to Participate in a Demonstration. I had a saleperson from the Riddell helmet company tell us about a football helmet face-mask that could detach with a simple pencil-like tool. He had a couple of men try to pull the face-mask off the helmet and when they failed, he used the tool to remove the mask with one hand. It was a vivid demonstration.
    • Add a Funny Video. When I teach leadership classes, I often play segments from old Saturday Night Live skits that have the characters doing the exact opposite of what I’m teaching. For instance, I might start a session about avoiding criticism in the workplace with an episode of “Debbie Downer”.

Whatever method that you choose to start your presentation, make sure to spend time on developing your content. You don’t want to spend a ton of time creating the perfect opener and then lose the audience with a lack-luster presentation afterward.

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