Five good ways to start a presentation

The start is probably the most critical part of your presentation or speech. It’s the point at which your audience will form their judgement of you – do they like you? Are they going to enjoy this? Are they going to learn something from you? And, most importantly, are they going to carry on listening?

It’s important too, for you as the speaker. Getting off to a good start does wonders for your confidence. A faltering, meandering or uninspiring introduction can leave you – as well as your audience – with feelings of dread and anxiety.

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As we say in our presentation writing and delivery courses, getting the introduction right gives you an effective launch and having a good idea of your punchy conclusion gives you something to aim for. The beginning and end of a presentation are also the parts that the audience is most likely to remember.

How should you start a presentation, then? Here are some ideas:

Ask a question.

Audience participation helps to grab people’s attention. We’re more likely to be bored during presentations than conversations because we’re not normally expected to respond during the former, instead, we’re passive recipients of information. Asking a question involves the audience and it tells you something about them. Depending on the room and the number of people you can even ask them to stand up rather than simply raising a hand. This is especially effective if you’ve come in straight after another speaker and you need to pump up the energy in the room.

Quote a fascinating fact or remarkable statistic.

Did you know that when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, one of the suspects was Picasso or that after two weeks of wear, a pair of jeans will have grown on average a 1,000-strong colony of bacteria on the front, 1,500 to 2,500 on the back and 10,000 on the crotch? How about the fact that in 1973 a drunk driver in the Sahara desert hit and killed the world’s most isolated tree? Or that the average age of a Facebook user is…41?

Anyway, you get the picture. As well as grabbing your audience’s attention these facts or statistics are more likely to stay in their minds than vague statements about corporate strategy or embracing change agents. A random, weird fact that can then be related, however tortuously, to the subject of your presentation is even more effective.

Show them a film.

Shooting a sequence on your smartphone, editing it and playing via an AV system is easier than ever. A human story, a shocking situation or an intriguing sequence of images will engage your audience more effectively than the standard opening slides of a PowerPoint or an image of your company logo.

Keep your little movie to about two minutes or less and be ready to comment on it with energy and enthusiasm when it’s over. Don’t be afraid to pause, though, between the ending and your remarks in order to let it have real impact. As we always say, a well placed pause on stage is worth a thousand words.

Quote someone.

Avoid the usual suspects – both quotes and speakers – and instead, find something that is striking, powerful, bizarre, funny or sad that your audience won’t have heard before. Again, if the connection between your quote and what you’re billed to talk about isn’t immediate this will intrigue your audience. Here’s another opportunity to ask them a question: “Who said that?” or “Do you know what she was referring to?

Tell a story.

We’re big fans of the use of stories in presentations. Starting off with an anecdote or example – especially one that is funny, sad, shocking or surprising, and even all four, but most of all human, is a great way to begin a presentation.  The bosses of charities that I work with are naturally great with case studies but I recently wrote a presentation for the marketing director of a major car company.

He began by introducing Claire to his team. He showed images of Claire dropping off her kids at school, going to the supermarket and having lunch with a business contact before following her through the rest of her busy day.

Just when the audience was beginning to wonder where their boss was going with this and why on earth they should care about Claire, he explained (slightly tongue in cheek) that Claire was going to be the most important person in their lives for the next 12 months. That was because their new range was aimed at women such as Claire. He then went on to develop their sales and marketing strategy.

One final thought, it’s often a good idea to come full circle during your presentation and, as you’re concluding, to return your introduction. This adds a neat symmetry and helps to drive home your key message. If you’ve started with a story adding an epilogue or a final thought works particularly well.

Starting in a powerful, engaging and memorable way will ensure that your audience pays attention at the start of your presentation and increases them to stay with you.

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Posted by Simon Brooke on at

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