How to get your presentation off to a flying start

By Gordon Adams, Toastmasters International.

 

For any entrepreneur giving a pitch or presentation the opening seconds are vital. You need to sound credible and grab your audience’s attention right away.  Here are my thoughts on the best ways to do this.

 

  1. Ask your audience an interesting question

 

Many of the best presentations begin with a simple question. Why? Because a good question is immediately engaging. It also shows your confidence. A question also provides your presentation with a simple structure. You have asked a question and can then go on to answer it yourself as your presentation unfolds.

 

Sometimes an entire speech structure is simply: ask the audience a really big question, answer it by referencing or debating three key points and then sum up. I began a recent speech by asking my audience: “Which is the world’s happiest country?” Other openings I’ve used over the years are: “What do you believe is Mankind’s greatest achievement?” and “Did you choose your career or did your career choose you?” All of these openings are designed to arouse the interest of the audience. You will know which questions will work to start your own presentations.

 

Take an example of a speech on public health. You might begin your speech with:“What living creature do you suppose has killed more humans worldwide than any other?” (The answer is not man himself; it is the mosquito, because it spreads diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.)

 

Best of all, you can ask the audience a question about themselves particularly if it relates to the product or service your business is providing. What has been the most frightening moment of yourlife? If you could go back and change one decision in yourlife, what would it be? Even investors will be immediately interested in questions about themselves.

 

Posing a question to your audience sets the theme for your speech. You can then easily share some personal anecdotes that relate to your subject and which help build rapport between you and members of your audience.

 

  1. Make a startling statement of fact

 

A startling fact can have the same effect on your audience as an interesting question. It makes them sit up!

 

Think about the public health speech I mentioned earlier. You might begin it with: “Tobacco has killed more people worldwide than the First and Second World Wars combined.” You can then go on to comment on ways public health can be improved and the important role of preventative medicine.

 

Whatever the subject you are speaking about, try using a startling fact on this subject and opening your presentation with it.

 

  1. Begin with a quotation

 

If you want your speech to carry extra authority, it can be helpful to open it with a quotation from a respected figure. For instance, you might open with: “Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.’ I’ve always believed that’s true: each of us has within us a vast well of untapped potential.”

 

Or have some fun by playing around with a learned quote. Offer your audience a fresh ‘take’ on a familiar quote. How about the following, as an example of this?

 

“Einstein once remarked that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ He explained that knowledge tells us everything we already know about the universe, whereas imagination points us towards everything that has yet to be discovered. Speaking personally, when I heard that imagination is more important than knowledge, I immediately felt a whole lot better about my own schooldays. All those happy hours I spent in History lessons, gazing out of the window and dreaming I was a professional footballer…”

 

  1. Tell a story

 

People love to hear a story. It is particularly helpful if you can start your story with a dramatic incident that can be related to your business.

 

If you have a dry and serious subject to talk about, your need for a personal story to enliven it is all the greater. Suppose you’ve been asked to speak about the economy and that your audience includes many economists. You might open your speech by remarking that coming to speak about the economy to a room full of economists feels a little like venturing into the lion’s den. You can follow this up by saying you’ve never had a close encounter with a lion, but you did once have a scary moment with a shark. Then you can tell the story about your close encounter with the shark as an entrée to your speech and refer back to that story several times during the speech.

 

  1. Startle your audience

 

Begin with the unexpected. For instance, I once began a speech with: “I have a confession for you tonight.” As you can imagine people were leaning forward to hear what I was going to say next.

 

  1. Reference the occasion

 

The date on which you are delivering your presentation will certainly be significant in some way. Look it up online as it may be the anniversary of a historical event such as the first Moon landing, a famous battle or the birthday of a famous figure. Or it may be a National Day of some kind, as most days are. Here, for instance, are just a few National Days in the UK: National Men Make Dinners Day, National Parents as Teachers Day, National Philanthropy Day and National Day of Listening.

 

Find a way to reference the occasion at the start of your speech and you can then weave that reference into the narrative of your speech.

 

  1. Use a visual aid dramatically

 

Using a visual aid dramatically can get your audience to sit up in their seats. You may well have something new and surprising that relates to a product you are selling.

 

One wonderful example of how to use a visual aid at the beginning of a speech was a speech by Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, the Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking in 2014.  He took a flower from his pocket and explained that everyone is like a flower: each of us has something about us that makes us special. He then tore off the petals one by one, cracked the flower stem in half and threw it in a bin, as he spoke about how life can break us. At the end of the speech, after speaking about how caring support from others can put us back together again, he retrieved an intact flower from that bin. The right kind of visual aid can be gripping and act as an excellent metaphor. Using a great visual aid is likely to make your words more memorable.

 

We’ve look at how to begin your presentation in an impactful way and hook audience attention from the start. In my experience, the most common of these approaches is to begin with a question. But we all know one question which is a great example of how notto start a speech; please, whatever you do, don’t open your speech with the question we have all heard too many times: “Er, does anyone know how to get this laptop and projector to work?” Good luck giving your next presentation a flying start!

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Gordon Adams is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club,visit www.toastmasters.org