I get frustrated at presentation advice which says you have to do something clever or dramatic at the beginning of a presentation to grab your audience’s attention. That’s for three reasons:

1. You don’t have to grab the audience’s attention at the start. You have their attention at the start. The challenge is to keep it. (I’ve written about this a lot – see these posts on this blog The Attention-Getting Myth and Attention-Getting The Evidence and also a discussion between myself and Rowan Manahan on his blog).

2. It’s hard to pull off a dramatic opening when you’re nervous. And most people are most nervous at the beginning of a presentation.

3. Being dramatic can lead you into a performance mode. It’s difficult to perform and make a connection with your audience at the same time.

So don’t get hung up on having a dramatic opening. My advice is to match your presentation opening  to your level of presentation competence and confidence. Here are my suggestions:

Level 1 – The Organized Opening

If you’re a beginner or very nervous, demonstrate that you’re prepared and organized. This will reassure your audience that your presentation is not going to be a waste of time. Here’s a formula you can use – answer the three questions your audience will have in their minds:

1. What’s the topic of your presentation?

Give a one-sentence overview of what you’re talking about.

2. Why should your audience be interested?

What’s in it for them? Give them a reason to listen.

3. Why are you talking about it?

What are your qualifications or experience which give you the credibility to be talking about it.

People in your audience will sense that you’ve carefully planned your talk (which will give them a sense of relief that it’s not going to be a disorganised ramble), and they’ll be receptive to what you’re going to cover.

This type of opening is also appropriate for most business presentations you give internally.

Level 2 – The Story Opening

Once you’ve got the Organized Opening mastered, step up to the Story Opening.

Telling a story is, for most people, the easiest of the more advanced opening techniques. Opening with a story helps you to be conversational and establish rapport with your audience. Stories allow you to:

  • subtly establish your credibility without bragging
  • add humour with some funny lines – but if nobody laughs its not a disaster because it’s just part of the story
  • gently raise controversial issues.

In fact, stories are such effective openings that there is no need to ever move onto anything else. You can keep using stories as your opening throughout your presenting career.

Don’t start planning your presentation by trying to think of a great story to start your presentation. That’s hard. Instead plan the rest of your presentation – which will (of course) include stories to back up your points. Then have a look at what you’ve prepared and see if there’s a story that could be used for your opening.

Level 3 – The Dramatic Opening

So you’re ready to experiment a little. There are a number of dramatic openings which are commonly recommended. Here’s my take on them:

1. Use a quote

A quote is just using someone’s else words rather than your own. They happen to have made the point you want to make in a particularly pity or evocative way. Although I think quotes can be useful at times in a presentation, I don’t think they make the best openings for three reasons:

  1. They’re often long and so you need to read it
  2. They use written language so can be difficult to grasp quickly
  3. They set you up to perform rather than connect.

2. Ask a question

This seems like a good idea. Steve Roesler says:

Opening with a question creates curiosity and jump-starts the thought process. Thinking causes  engagement with your topic–exactly what you and the audience are hoping for.

I think using your very first words to ask a question is risky. Your audience is not always ready to think. They want to check you out first. I believe in building rapport with the audience before you ask them to think (you maybe able to do this within 1-2 minutes). Click here for more on asking questions in your presentation. So use with care.

3. Refer to a shocking statistic

The best way I’ve seen this done was by a speaker from New Zealand’s Child Support Agency. She had a number of figures written up on the whiteboard and then told us what they represented. I can still remember the Number 11. It was the age of the youngest boy to be paying child support! This works.

4. Ask the audience to imagine themselves in a situation

For example, you might start a talk on “Building relationships at work” by asking “Remember back to your first day at this company. When no-one’s face was familiar…when you constantly had to ask where something was or who to talk to before you could get anything done…”

Bert Decker recently recounted on his blog how he doesn’t just get the audience to imagine a situation – he actually recreates it for them:

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.

So choose your dramatic opening with care. Ensure it enables you to connect with your audience as well as provide drama.

What’s your experience with using different types of openings for your presentation?

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