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The opening moments of a presentation are crucial to its overall success.
Some studies show that first impressions are formed within seconds; others find they take a few minutes to solidify. Whichever findings you believe, the research delivers a common conclusion: People form opinions about you quickly, and, once they do, those opinions are difficult to reverse.
A strong beginning gives audiences confidence that you’re going to deliver a worthwhile message and takes advantage of your presentation’s opening minutes, when listener attention is at its peak.
My new book, “101 Ways to Open a Speech,” offers dozens of presentation starters intended to grab your audiences instantly with a beginning that delivers your message memorably. Five of my favorite starters from the book—ranging from the familiar to the more creative—are highlighted below:
1. The PowerPoint opening
Little tells an audience that the talk they’re about to see is going to be boring more than seeing the speaker begin by clicking to a cluttered slide. PowerPoint (and other similar programs) is overused and, when it is used, tends to be used badly.
The recommended PowerPoint open dispenses with the hackneyed and sleep-inducing agenda slide and begins with a powerful visual that creates curiosity instead.
For example, a presentation about inefficient design might begin with a sharp full-screen image of a home coffee machine.
“This is a coffeemaker. Like many of the newer coffeemakers, it has an interesting feature. As soon as it finishes brewing a pot of coffee, it lets out a beeping noise to let the owner know the coffee is ready. This is intended to be helpful.
But think about that for a moment. Many people share small apartments or homes, and it’s not unusual for one person to wake up before roommates, a partner or children do. Moments after that bleary-eyed person puts up their morning pot of coffee, that loud ‘BEEP! BEEP!’ might very well rouse the entire household. And no, these coffeemakers don’t have a mute option.
How did such a poorly designed product make it to market? What type of real-life testing should we manufacturers do to avoid such mistakes? And how can we avoid designing features intended to help (‘Your coffee is ready!’) but that actually make life more difficult?”
Used in such a manner, the image of the coffeemaker becomes a powerful symbol of design ineptitude. The slide supports your point without becoming a distraction for the audience.
Writing in “Presentations That Persuade and Motivate,” Beverly Ballaro recommends using quotes “if they manage to invoke irony or humor” and offers a wonderful example from an 1876 Western Union internal memo:
“This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communications. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
Leading a presentation by quoting someone who was wrong can help you transition to many powerful points, including the risks of false assumptions, the dangers of being slow to change, and the speed of evolution.
This, from a 1995 Newsweek article titled “The Internet? Bah!” could be used as a perfect example to make any of those points:
“Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic. Baloney.”
Writer Andrew Solomon used this device to rather stunning effect at the beginning of his TED Talk, “Love, No Matter What.”
“‘Even in purely nonreligious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty. It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such, it deserves no compassion, it deserves no treatment as minority martyrdom, and it deserves not to be deemed anything but a pernicious sickness.’ That’s from Time magazine in 1966, when I was 3 years old.”
3. The Unexpected Definition opening
In September 1980, just two months before Americans were to choose their next president, former California governor Ronald Reagan and incumbent Jimmy Carter found themselves deadlocked at 39 percent apiece, according to a Time poll. The United States was mired in an economic recession, inflation was in double digits, and unemployment was at near-record levels.
In an effort to paint President Carter as out of touch, Reagan cleverly redefined three terms during a speech in New Jersey:
“[Carter’s] answer to all this misery, he tries to tell us that we are only in a recession, not a depression. As if definitions, words relieve our suffering…If it’s a definition he wants, I’ll give him one. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
Rather than offer a classic dictionary definition of those terms, Reagan redefined them in an unexpected way that delighted his audience and earned enthusiastic cheers.
Redefining terms can have an oversize impact on your audience. If you’re speaking to a group of “stay-at-home” parents, for example, you might redefine the term like this:
“Unlike most people, you know exactly what it means to be a ‘stay-at-home’ parent: driving to the park so your little ones can run around, taking them to the doctor, going grocery shopping, stopping at the art supply store so they have a project on a rainy day. When you think about it, I’m not sure why we’re called ‘stay-at-home’ parents—we’re rarely home! It would be far more accurate to call us what we really are: ‘on-the-run’ parents.”
4. The Oddball Fact opening
Enter the term “strange facts” into Google, and you’ll come up with millions of webpages that feature the unusual, the odd and the downright bizarre.
To write this opening, I did exactly that. To show you how easy it is to work an oddball fact into your opening, here are two I encountered in an article on the first link that came up, via BuzzFeed.
First, I came across a story about the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which has the distinction of being located in two nations. According to its website, “The pride of Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont…was constructed deliberately astride the boundary line separating Canada from the United States…Most of the audience sits in the U.S. to watch a show on a stage in Canada.”
That fascinating fact could serve as the opening for a presentation about international cooperation or stand as a metaphor about the artificial barriers that too often separate us (among many other potential topics).
The second fact that caught my eye was about an Irish mother whose twins were delivered a world-record 87 days apart (the first was three months premature but survived; the second was born closer to full term). That story strikes me as a perfect example of perseverance and the payoff that can occur after enduring a time of nerve-racking uncertainty. It’s easy to see how a speaker discussing those topics could draw a parallel.
This starter can be particularly fun to develop and allows you to deploy your creativity in wonderful ways. The biggest challenge is usually drawing a link from an oddball fact to your topic—but as you’ve seen in the two examples above, that may not be terribly difficult to accomplish.
5. The Newscaster Tease opening
News anchors are experts at keeping viewers tuned to their programs. Before tossing to commercial breaks, newscasters often deliver a compelling “tease” intended to hook people and prevent them from flipping to a different station.
Unless you’ve consumed unusually little mass media, you’ve probably heard thousands of news teases:
“Did the local sports team win tonight’s big match against their rivals? We’ll tell you, next.”
“A well-known politician got into a screaming match with reporters today. The video, after this break.”
“Which movie just earned six Academy Award nominations and leads this year’s pack? Our film critic has the rundown, right after the weather forecast.”
This opening borrows from that technique by adding similar teases to the more traditional “summary opening.” For instance, you might begin a talk about the overall performance of the U.S. economy in the last quarter by saying:
“The market sent mixed signals last quarter. Today, I’ll talk about why the stock market was up, why the housing market was down, and why consumer spending hasn’t budged in almost a year. Along the way, you’ll learn why Ford can’t seem to sell big trucks this year, why France will have more homeless retirees in five years than we have here in the United States, and why one unusual but reliable signal tells us that the same stocks that led the recent rally may soon go bust.”
In that example, the second sentence contains the summary of the material to follow, and the third adds the more engaging newscaster tease.