Imagine, an auditorium filled to the brim — a standing room only crowd, all there to see you. These people know your name. They know you will inspire them. Challenge them. Teach them. And they got out of their homes, put down their phones, paid good money, and they’re there to see you.
You’ve been introduced by an expert. Some how the already excited crowd became even more ecstatic. As the applause wains, you step on stage. The tension in the room is palpable. All eyes are on you.
What do you say when you open your mouth?
the tale of two presentations
Too often, the speaker in the situation above — which I’m sure would never be you — starts with something like, “Hi, guys! I’m so excited to be here. We’re going to have so much fun talking about blah blah blah blah…“
And before they can finish their third sentence, a quarter of the crowd is checking their timelines.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Your presentation doesn’t have to be an uphill battle to attract and keep your audience’s attention. When you learn to properly capture your audience, you can keep that rapt attention throughout your presentation.
After reading this post, you’ll never have to start another speech with the boring, ineffective “Salutation Intro” again. Here are my four fool-proof ways to start your presentation without losing your audience to Instagram.
ONE: The Two-Act Play
My favorite introduction places the audience inside a movie from the first words out of your mouth. It’s like you passed out virtual reality headsets and immerse them in a world of your creating.
You do this with a story. Your narrative should involve their senses, focusing on vibrant verbs that drives the action forward. Don’t tell them that something happened to you, illustrate how.
The OG self-help author and motivational speaker, Dale Carnegie said, “Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt.“
The power of the two-act play intro, versus simply starting with a story, lies in not resolving the tension created in the first “act” of the story. Lead your audience to the climax or crisis point, and then pivot to a question that brings the issue home to them.
Near your conclusion, reveal how the story resolves, AND direct your audience to that same resolution. You’ll get a powerful introduction, motivation to take action, and a sense of closure that will make your audience feel like they remembered your presentation start to finish.
Okay, I’ll be honest. I’m being a little hard on the speaker who starts by addressing the audience (“Hey guys!…”). The instinct here, to connect, is a good one. But, powerful presentation intros seek purposeful connection.
Not all personalities should attempt the Call-and-Response intro. And not all presentation settings make it appropriate. However, there is a time when you want to employ this opener.
The Call-and-Response Intro reminds the audience that they are alive and part of the action.
By soliciting a response to a carefully-crafted question, your audience remembers they’re alive. The physiological response (the hand raise, the shout) releases hormones in the brain that readies your audience for quick decisions.
The audience also practices saying yes to you — and if you’re trying to sell a product or start a movement, this is a helpful frame of mind for your audience to be in.
THREE: The Ice Breaker
This might be the most daring of intros — but it could also be the most memorable. A good ice breaker “warms up” your audience — and warms them to your topic. This can be done in two ways:
In small meetings, the ice breaker can be a brief discussion or activity that allows everyone in the room feel as though they are able to contribute. A good discussion let’s everyone speak to the prompt from their experience. A good prompt connects to your topic in some (possibly unexpected) way.
In large presentations, the ice breaker might be facilitated through a demonstration with a pre-selected member of the audience. It’s more interactive activity than discussion. The people in their seats live vicariously through their syndicate on stage — laughing, cringing, cheering them on.
This approach to an intro is risky because you relinquish control. Its effectiveness depends on how participative your audience is.
Have a plan for when your participants get stage fright, and know when you need to cut off the talkers to get on with your presentation.
FOUR: Shock or Awe
Does your audience need a wake up call? Do you need to shift perspectives about your topic and overcome misperceptions? If so, the shock-or-awe opener might be a worthwhile approach.
Powerful introductions capture your audience’s attention. And, if you have a jarring statistic, breath-catching image, or “Wow!”-inducing video, you will have your audience leaning forward for the rest of your time on the platform.
For “shock” or “awe” intros to be effective, you can’t let your audience miss the moment. Consider leaning on your slide deck to reenforce what you say. When there’s cohesion between what we hear and what we read, the power behind the message is even more memorable.
But a few words of warning:
- If you’re going to leverage a statistic, be sure you let the numbers tell a story. Numbers without context rarely create impact.
- And, if you’re going to use any technology—slides, images, but especially videos—get there early and make sure everything is working as it should. All the anticipation in the room will evaporate when that video loads without the sound on.
LAST THOUGHT: The Formal Address
Maybe you’re saying, is there ever a time to begin by addressing the audience? To which, I’ll confess, there is.
In formal occasions, it is standard practice—and even expected—that you begin your presentation by acknowledging the host, master of ceremonies, and/or other distinguished guests in the room.
When I say formal, though, I’m talking the next time you’re in front of congress. Or, maybe at a funeral. And possibly if you’re the commencement speaker for an ivy league university graduation. Most business events (pitches, workshops, seminar keynotes) don’t require this level of formality.
But even in most formal settings where this canned acknowledgement is expected, you can still leverage one of the four openers above before nodding to the president. If you do this, you’ll want to make your hook brief — maybe one or two sentences, or just the set up for a story.
Five Key Elements of an Effective Introduction
First impressions matter. Your introduction sets the trajectory of your whole presentation. It’s where your audience decides if they should engage, or Instagram. Every introduction, no matter what method, should have these five elements:
- The Hook captures attention with the first words out of your mouth. Choose one of the four Intro techniques listed above.
- The Why answers the question: Why should your audience care about your topic? Think through the audience’s experience and connect your message to some pain point on their mind.
- The Street Cred lets your audience know who you are and why you can speak to this topic. If your event has someone introducing you, you might not need to go into this much. If you have to emphatically state that you’re an expert, you might not be. Let this be understated, but establish in your audience’s mind that you “get it.”
- The Map: No one likes to get jerked around. Be the tour guide to your own presentation and tell your audience where they’re going to go. (Bonus points if you review “where you’ve been” in the conclusion to bring resolve and a sense of accomplishment.)
- The One Big Idea: If you can’t boil your message down to one sentence, you’re probably not ready to give it yet. What’s the one thing you want your audience to remember? Tell them to listen for it.
In any situation, it’s never a bad thing to address your audience or give your name in the introduction. The key is to avoid wasting your first words on predictable pleasantries.
How about you?
How do you begin your presentations and workshops? Did I leave a favorite method out? Leave me a comment and tell me how you start your speech.
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