Six Do’s to Open Your Presentations

Take advantage of your opening.

You have the highest interest at the beginning and end of your presentation. George Morrisey, in his book Loud And Clear, first put forth the Retention Curve principle, and it’s a good one you can use to your advantage.

So open strong by using these six sure-fire methods:

1.  Start with a bang.   You want to grab people’s attention – and you are only limited by your creativity. Be unusual. Use silence, then a quote. Bring out a prop. Use a talent. Dr. Dean Ornish is a noted heart/health author and speaker whom I coached before he was going to give a major speech
before 7,000 people at the Million Dollar Round Table. They expected him to talk   heart and health from his recent best seller, which he did – later. What they didn’t expect was how he grabbed their hearts in his opening by strolling out center stage with his guitar and starting in song – a funny and relevant one.

2.  Tell a story.  The easiest, best and most useful speaking tool is story telling, and we don’t use it enough. It is the S of our SHARP principles to keep people involved and interested as you speak, and it is the MOST USEFUL at the opening. Tell a story of yourself, or an appropriate anecdotal story that your audience can identify with. Stories are easy to tell, will help ease the pressure you feel from the opening, and will connect to your audience. Remember that as kids we always heard stories read or told to us – they are easy to hear. And they make a point.

3. Pause – Look – Move.   Come out to center stage, or your laptop table with your notes on it. Pause for a few seconds (2 or 3). Look at one person, then move with your eye communication towards another – and THAT’S when you begin speaking. Dramatic – a little. It will feel a lot more dramatic to you than it will to the audience. (There is a phenomenon called disparity that makes us feel much more uncomfortable than we look with new habits.) To the audience, it will just be effective. You’ll have their attention, since you began with a certainty and a confidence that is often not shown at the start. Too often we start with LBOW’s (see #5.)

4. Be short and sweet. Most presenters spend too much time in their openings, and run short at the
close. This is another common phenomenon of thinking we might not be able to fill our time so we start slow. Then we run out at the end, when we should be rising to our climatic crescendo! Our studies have shown that rehearsal time is about 75% of the actual presentation time. Don’t waste time at the opening – or you’ll take away from your close.

5.  Be focused – be net.   Too often we open with LBOW’s that are too long, boring and don’t take us anywhere but do use up time. (LBOW is an acronym we use at Decker Communications for Lovely Bunch Of Words – sounds like they should mean something but they are really bland
nothings, going nowhere.) Be brief in your openings. Get right into it. Remember your retention curve is highest at the beginning, so you want to use it well. Move your listeners right into a main point – or a surprising benefit.

6. Think intrigue and interest.   Then use it. There are hundreds, actually thousands, of creative ways to open your talks, speeches and presentations. Usually I will start my presentation by doing the absolutely wrong thing – reading a speech. I walk out on stage with what looks like a written text, plop it on the lectern, grab on to the sides, look down and begin reading in a monotone. And here is a supposed speech expert who is immediately boring with monotone voice and no eye contact – bad! For only about 30 seconds though, as the energy plummets so quickly I then raise my
voice, step out behind the lectern, look at people with good eye contact and rip up the speech. Usually I get a round of applause, as people are so relieved to get a speaker, not a reader. Now I’ve used this opening many times as I know it makes several points that are relevant to my speech, and it works. But I’ll never forget the first time I tried it when I was scared to death – at a speech years ago for Equitec in the Berkeley Marina Hotel. But if I hadn’t thought intrigue and interest – it wouldn’t have happened. As Emerson said, “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.”

6 comments on “Six Do’s to Open Your Presentations

  1. I began a talk on using Power Points to train small group leaders one time with something like this. I saidit in a low monotone. “It is with a real pleasure that I have the opportunity to speak with you today and explain the importance of including multisyllabic inferences so there is a chronic and constant miasma of academic esotericism.
    I paused a long time and then said, “I don’t know who wrote that one but let’s throw it away and start over.”
    The group got a big laugh out of it.

  2. I like all your suggestions for winning people’s attention from the get-go. (Like Petr, I almost always begin with a story.)
    Something about your post and the attention/retention curve made me look up the word “attention” in the dictionary. And I found that it has two meanings, both of which apply here: 1. a courteous act indicating affection, and 2 the faculty or power of mental concentration.

  3. Thanks for tips. I do use story telling. Story usually gets better after it’s being told few times ;o) … when I know the audience reactions.
    I also think story telling is good for not experienced speakers – telling your own story is much easier than starting with any other topic.

  4. I loved your interest curve. That really burned in your message for me about when you have the most and least interest of your audience. Thanks for a great post.
    Shallie Bey
    Smarter Small Business Blog

  5. Great tips, Bert. I’ve always wanted to try the “bad speaker” intro, but was afraid it would stick in the audience’s minds even after I revealed the “real” presentation. Maybe I should give it a go! I love the drama of it.