Think of a time when you saw a live musical. As the crowd left the theatre at the end, what was the tune everyone was humming? The big closing number, of course. And that was a reprise of — the big opening number!
This is not an accident. It happens because the people who write and produce musicals understand The Law of Primacy and Recency, a psychological principle which states that we remember best what we see or hear first, and what we see or hear last.
This law works for musical theatre, and it can also work for your presentation. In working with my presentation coaching clients, I encourage them to craft the opening and the close first, and then work on what comes in the middle.
Today I’ll deal with the opening.
First, here’s how NOT to open your presentation: “My name is Joe Blow and I’m very happy to be with you this morning.”
They know who you are, either because they know you or someone else has introduced you. They don’t care if you are happy to be there — they care about what you are going to say.
For similar reasons, don’t thank them for inviting you to speak. Show your gratitude by giving them the presentation they need to hear.
Here are five much more effective ways to begin.
An appropriate quote
The operable word here is appropriate. Because I speak about communication, I sometimes begin thus: “The great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, The main difficulty with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It draws smiles and a few chuckles, and it also subtly points out the problem I’m about to deal with.
There are many websites that give quotes for every situation, so you should be able to find one that kicks off your presentation well.
In my workshops, participants give short presentations for critique. Some years ago I was working with the managers at a large law firm, including the librarian who was rehearsing a presentation he would be giving to the partners in an attempt to get money for more shelf space. He began by saying his name and position, which his audience would obviously know — wasted opportunity.
A few minutes later he casually said, “I hope the lawyers don’t bring all bring the books back at the same time, because the shelves will collapse.” When we worked together on his presentation, that became his opening. It was a startling fact which also painted a picture — bonus points!
We human beings are wired to answer questions. Pose a question that forces your audience to acknowledge the problem you’re about to speak about, and you will have their attention. Here’s an example: “Did you know that the work of our human resources department ground to a halt last week when we had a system failure and nobody had backed up their work?”
Tell a Story
Judging by the number of articles, blog posts and presentations on the topic, it seems the business world has woken up to the power of stories. We love stories, and the signal that a story is about to start gets our attention.
At a business conference, I once had to address a situation that was the proverbial elephant in the room. Instead of introducing it in the normal way, I turned it into a fable, even beginning with “Once upon a time…” People listened because it was a story, and as the fable unfolded they gradually realized I was talking about their situation and they were more willing to listen to my solution.
In delivering financial information, help them imagine the impact of the numbers in human terms by telling a story. They’ll listen.
Capitalize on the news
A number of years ago I was working with someone who had to give a presentation about the power of statistics. That’s a challenging topic, and we had to find a way to capture the audience’s attention at the beginning.
My client was lucky in that a famous baseball player had died just a few days before. If you know baseball at all, you’ll know that it’s a hotbed of statistics. So he decided to explain how the ERA (earned run average) was calculated, and used that to illustrate that statistics could in fact be interesting.
Could you use one of these hooks to craft an intriguing, shocking, funny or otherwise interesting start to your presentation? If you start off well, you’ll be amazed at how much impetus that gives to the rest of your presentation.
Next time, I’ll talk about closing your presentation effectively.
Are you struggling with an important presentation? Check out my Presentation Panic Intervention and then drop me an email. Let’s explore how I can help.