How to Create a Killer Opening for Your Presentations

“I’ve got it!  I’ll dress up as a wizard!  You know, like a compliance psychic or mentalist.  What do you think?”  As I was planning my newest keynote several months ago, I was trying to come up with a catchy opening.  I’d just done the survey of the compliance profession to see what each person’s biggest strategy and planning question was (you can see the survey results HERE).  I wasn’t surprised at all to find that nearly 60% of people had one of three main questions.  “I’ll plant people in the audience and bet them money that I can guess their answer.  Won’t that be fun?!?”  My husband looked incredulous. 

Most compliance presentations I’ve been to have dreadful openings.  Whether it is a board meeting, training session or a conference presentation, nearly all of them start out with something along the lines of, “Thank you for being here,” or “My name is Kesha Smith and I’m here to tell you about the FCPA…”  I have some bad news.  It’s already too late.  You’ve lost the audience.

Some social scientists believe that humans have devolved to have attention spans shorter than that of a goldfish. Most estimate we have between 30 and 60 seconds to engage an audience.  Within that opening time the audience will decide if they are interested in listening to us.  So how do you engage an audience?  While a wizard costume may be helpful, you don’t have to play dress up.  Instead you can try…

1.      Start with a Question

By beginning with a question, you immediately bring the audience into the presentation.  You’re asking them to be involved, and to give their opinion or bring their thought to the topic.  Even if you ask a rhetorical question that you don’t expect them to answer out loud, by asking a question, you immediately invite participation, which will make them more likely to listen. 

2.      Put up an Illustration or Picture without Text

People love puzzles.  By starting with an unexplained picture, people will begin to try to figure out why you put up the picture. Illustrations or funny quotes can bring people into the presentation quickly.  If a picture is worth 1000 words, start with one so your presentation can be shorter.

3.      Begin with a Story

People love stories.  To make this tactic especially effective – tell the story in the first person or begin in the middle of the story.  Have you ever noticed how many novels begin with something like, “It wasn’t supposed to come to this.  Jan was in jail, and he knew why…”  Tell a story and begin in the heat of the action.  People will want to know how the story begins and ends.   

4.      Do Something Unexpected

Carmine Gallo, the author of the book “Talk like TED,” tells a story about how Bill Gates engaged his audience during his TED talk.  Mr. Gates was talking about how malaria was preventable with mosquito nets, and how vulnerable a population was without them.  He opened a bell jar saying that there were mosquitos in it, then explained to the room that they shouldn’t worry, only some of the mosquitos had malaria.  You can imagine how visceral the response was from the audience.  Your action doesn’t have to be that dramatic, but by adding unexpected actions for dramatic effect, you can truly engage your audience in your story.

Does Everyone Need a Costume?

Did everyone love the wizard opening?  Nope.  I’m sure some people expecting a traditional keynote turned off the Facebook Live stream or got out their phones to answer emails rather than listen to me.  But the majority of those watching thought, “what the heck is going on?!,” followed by, “I wonder what she’s going to do next?”  And that my friends, is the value of a great open.  You’re much more likely to have a great close when the opening grabs the audience’s attention from the beginning.