How you begin your presentation tells your audience whether or not they should listen to you. They make this decision in a matter of seconds. It does not matter if it includes a slide deck, impromptu report of your team’s progress or a formal presentation. You, as the speaker, have a responsibility to engage your audience immediately. The main reason people don’t do this well is because they don’t know how or they don’t view it as a priority. So how should you begin a presentation?
First, the Problem
The first few sentences of a presentation are usually the last item most speakers prepare, if at all. We have about seven seconds to capture the attention of those in front of us, physically or virtually, and even that is generous.
When we do not think what the first few words out of our mouth will be, we leave it to chance. When we leave it to chance we fill time and verbal space with unintentional babble. More often than not, it is a question where the speaker really does not expect an answer. While there is nothing wrong with rhetorical questions, posing a question that was not thought out or sincere is unacceptable. One question I hear way too often at the start of a presentation is, “So, how is everyone doing?”
Never, I-mean-ever, open a presentation with this question. The reasons are numerous.
Why We Don’t Ask our Audience How They Are Doing:
- This question is often used because the speaker did not prepare anything better. It it commonly used as a verbal filler. You do not want to begin your presentation to the audience with a verbal filler. Imagine you are in front of an audience (over 4 people). Do you REALLY want to hear how each and everyone in the group setting is feeling? What is the purpose in knowing this? Is waiting for their reply an impactful use of your time as a speaker?(*See below if you ask this question as an attempt at an ice breaker.)
- This question is not engaging. Audience members know enough that when they hear a speaker ask how they are doing, they are not REALLY interested in hearing the answer. Get to the point. The audience is giving you their time and attention. Give them something impactful by getting to the point of your presentation and do this within the first seven seconds. (See three ideas below.)
- There are too many more effective options. In the amount it takes you to ask, “How are you doing?” you can easily form a more engaging question. Using a question is a good idea but ask yourself first, what really is the point of your question? Do you want to know more about your audience? Do you want them to self-identify with a characteristic, experience, or a trait that relates to your content? Take the few moments it takes to develop an engaging question for your audience to gain their attention immediately.
If you put the effort into your introduction, you increase the chances of your audience staying engaged during your presentation, thus becoming more effective (and likely more appreciated).
My Favorite Ways to Begin a Presentation:
- *Ask a GOOD question. A good question is well thought-out and related to your topic. For example, I will ask my audience, “Raise your hand if you have ever walked away from a conversation and thought “I should have said XYZ” or “I should NOT have said XYZ”? When they signify this is something they identify with, I preview the key points of my program that highlights how to quickly organize their thoughts on the fly so they sound competent and confident, even without preparation. Ask yourself if you need to know an answer or you just want them to start thinking about an idea you will be covering. This is the difference that will determine if you ask a direct or rhetorical question. Once you have a good question, rehearse it!
- Tell a Story. This is my go-to technique to open a presentation. Since a speaker will be most familiar with their story, they will know it by heart and won’t be glued to notes. Stories follow a chronology which is much easier to remember. If you open with content you know, and it is easy to remember, you start the presentation in confident and engaging manner. You will be able to maintain great eye contact since you are not reliant on a slide or notes to tell the story, even better! Stories also engage audience members quickly because they can see themselves in the story and often want to stick around for what happens next. Make sure the point of the story relates to your exact topic, of course. Then show your audience the relation between your story and your point.
- Quote a shocking statistic/fact. Depending on what you are talking out, there may be some surprising information. Whether it is data of your own, or research uncovered, sharing a surprising piece of information captures attention of audience. At times, this can be combined with the good question, ie. “What percentage of our waking hours do you think is spent in some form of communication? If you guessed 80%, you are correct!”
Of course there are various ways to start a presentation and truly engage your audience. The one I am begging you to avoid is the “So, how ya’ doing?” and replace it with a good question, a good story or an interesting fact. If you can narrow it down to one of those three, your chances of capturing and maintaining the audience’s attention only increases…as does your chance of success.
Meg Bucaro is a communication strategist and college adjunct faculty who is passionate about empowering clients to perform at their highest level by communicating with more comfort and confidence. She is especially passionate about positioning women for success by teaching them powerful communication behaviors. For more information on how to nail that next presentation with confidence, schedule a chat with Meg. https://megbucaro.com/contact/ or follow Meg Bucaro Communications here https://www.instagram.com/meg_bucaro_communications/