In ‘Low impact openings; How NOT to open a presentation‘, I looked at the most common ways presenters begin, all of which are boring, mundane, low-impact and completely forgettable. The objective of your opening is not to bore your audience into a stupor, but to grab ’em by the throat and give them a compelling reason to give you the next 15, 30 or 45 minutes of their lives. So how should you open? Well to start with, energy is contagious, so you need to be warmed up before you take the floor. Try to gauge the audience’s energy level and come out slightly higher. BUT if they’re low key, don’t come out too OTT or they’ll be turned off.
Identify the exact spot on which you intend to stand beforehand and walk (don’t amble) energetically and briskly over to it. Just as nervousness is contagious, so is energy, and your own will vitalize everyone else in the room.
If there have been other speakers on before you, choose a spot none of them have used. Remember you are trying to make yourself stand out from them. And NEVER stand behind a lectern if you can help it. Lecterns are lethal and podiums are poison. Standing still makes you look wooden.
Get straight into it. Forget the greetings, self-introductions, thanks, apologies, etc. – just get straight into it! While you’re making your opening remarks, raise your head, establish eye contact and sweep your eyes across the entire audience (whether it be 5 or 500) whilst SMILING. This will help establish rapport and give everyone a sense of personal recognition from you. It also exudes confidence. Do NOT fix your gaze on one unfortunate individual (as so many speakers do) and direct your entire talk to him. This may feel difficult or awkward at first, but persevere – it’s important.
This is a great way to grab people’s attention. However, I am not talking about ‘A priest, a rabbi and an immam walk into a bar… ” You’re not a comedian, and your intention isn’t to tell jokes or make the audience laugh per se. Therefore any humour should be contextual, i.e. relevant to the subject matter of your presentation. Also remember the maxim: “The longer the story the funnier it had better be.”
Opening with humor is also good if you intend to use it throughout your talk and your audience hasn’t heard you speak before. They won’t know what to expect., and if you don’t signal your intentions early in your presentation, they’ll have no idea whether you’re going to be serious or fun. Then, when you eventually deliver a humorous line, they will think to themselves, “Was that a joke?” or “Was that line I just heard funny?” Even if they are pretty sure it was funny, they may feel uncomfortable about laughing in case they’re the only one who did.
Ever been the only person who clapped at something and felt as if someone was going to throw you a fish? People feel the same way about laughing alone. So GIVE THEM PERMISSION TO LAUGH. By this, I mean introduce something that is obviously humorous early on so that people know your speech is not going to be dull and boring. Once they’ve had permission, they’ll know it’s OK to laugh.
The other benefit of getting everyone to laugh early in the speech is that it provides what psychologists call ‘social proof’ for the audience. People tend to believe behaviour is correct or can be justified when they witness other people doing it. So if they see and hear other people laughing, they feel OK about doing it themselves. In other words, once they know it’s OK to laugh, there is a far greater chance that they will do.
The humor used should be relevant, i.e. relating to the subject matter of your presentation. Let’s say you’re presenting to a customer about your new help desk and what it will do to improve the service they receive. Don’t say, “Today I’m going to talk to you about our new help desk, so I thought I’d start with a funny joke I heard the other day… ” Just go straight into it. Your opening words could be:
“A helicopter pilot is flying a group of executives to Seattle airport when the densest fog you could imagine suddenly descends on them and he can’t see more than 6 feet away. He has no idea where he is, and he suddenly find himself right next to a tall skyscraper, where he can see someone next to the window in an office. He grabs a marker pen and a sheet of card, scrawls “Where am I?” and holds it up. The office worker writes back on a card and holds it up. It says, “You’re in a helicopter!”
The pilot gives him a thumbs up, smiles, and in a few minutes the amazed executives are at the airport. “What happened?” they ask, “How did you know what to do when that stupid guy replied to you like that?”
“Well,” the pilot says, ticking off his fingers, “first, his answer was technically correct, second it was completely useless and third, he told me something I already knew. It was immediately obvious I was speaking to someone from the Microsoft helpdesk, and I know the way to the airport from their offices blindfolded, so I was fine.”
That may sum up most people’s views of big company helpdesks, but I assure you that none of your staff will ever have the occasion to say that about our new help desk… ”
(apologies to any readers from Microsoft; just substitute the competitor company of your choice)
A second way to use humor to begin is to use it in a self-deprectating manner, i.e. to poke gentle fun at yourself. Let’s say you are presenting at an industry conference, but you know you are no more qualified than many in the audience to speak, and you think some of them may resent it. You could disarm the situation by saying:
“When Jack asked me to speak at today’s conference, I was quite flattered at first. I thought, “Hey!.. this makes me like a consultant of some kind, which really made me feel good. Until my wife told me the definition of a consultant is a man who knows 236 ways to make love… but no women. And then I saw this Dilbert cartoon, which really put an end to my pretensions, so I assure you… I am not speaking to you today in a consultative capacity.”
2. A short story.
Too many speakers rely on cold data to support their argument, but various pieces of research have proven that you have a far greater chance of converting an audience if you also engage their emotions, and one of the best ways to do this is to tell anecdotes and stories to illustrate the points you are making. These can be from your own personal experiences, something you have read in magazines or books, or from other people.
Often when I go back to a company someone will say, ‘I saw you speak about twelve months ago… ‘ Then they say something like, ‘I always remember that story you told about the hotel in Australia… ‘ Nobody has EVER said, ‘I always remember that slide you showed with the five bullet points… ‘
Use the mnemonic STORY to get it right:
Make it SIMPLE. Avoid anything over-complicated and trim the story down to essentials.
Make it TRIMMED. Epics lose the audience’s attention unless you are an extremely good storyteller. There should be no dull patches and the story should only last a couple of minutes. In preparing a story, continually ask the question, “How can I say this in less time and in fewer words?” Physically write out your story and then condense it.
Make it OBVIOUS. The audience shouldn’t have to wonder why the story is being told.
Make it RELEVANT. The story should ideally have some relevance to the audience, but most importantly, to the point being made.
Make it YOU. Put yourself into the story. Use body language, facial expressions, eye contact and dramatic pauses to make it interesting and enthralling.
Like humor, stories should complement the content of your speech. Never allow your audience to ask themselves, ‘Why is she telling us this?’
3. A startling (but relevant) statistic or fascinating fact.
I recently heard an art gallery owner (talking to a Board of Directors on why more and more companies are investing in works of art) begin his presentation with the sentence, “When the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, over $155 million worth of corporate art went up in smoke… ” Wow! $155 million? He had our attention right away – who had heard that before?
Alternatively, a speaker at a dinner looking to raise donations for cancer research could open with, “64% of the people in the audience this evening will either contract cancer at some point in their lives, or experience a loved one suffer from it.” (NB: I invented that statistic as I don’t know what the real figure is, but remember the comedian Vic Reeves’ dictum that “83.2% of statistics are made up on the spot!“)
Or you could open with something that is simply unusual, seemingly unrelated to your presentation topic but interesting. For example, if you were trying to persuade an audience of the need to take a long-term view about something, you could say:
“In 1986 the population expert Paul Demeny came up with the radical idea that children should not be left disenfranchised for some 18 years until they were old enough to vote, because as the population of most countries is rapidly aging, there was a very real danger that governments would find themselves passing more and more legislation that pandered to the interests of the old, at the expense of the young.
Under a Demeny voting system, each parent would cast a proxy vote, worth half a vote, for each of their dependent children, thus allowing for a split vote if the parents’ political views differ. Once children reach the minimum voting age, their parents would no longer vote on their behalf.
Despite its rather radical nature, the Germans actually voted on such a proposal in 2003 and 2008, it’s been discussed seriously in Japan and the Hungarian government is currently considering it.
And the reason it is being seriously looked at is that it’s difficult to get governments – or companies – to look at the long term implications of what they’re planning to do today. We all claim to take into account the long term effects of our actions, but very of few of us actually do so.
And we’re no better than anyone else at this in this company. We’ve suffered from short-termism in a lot of the decisions made in the past twelve months. And today I want to discuss the long term implications of a very important decision that faces us right now… “
4. Ask a question
The gallery owner mentioned above could have begun by asking “Does anyone have any idea what the value was of the corporate art lost when the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11?” Straight away the audience would be engaged as he went around the table soliciting guesses.
Another way to use this with a larger audience is to say, “Hands up how many people in the audience have ever… .” However, if you do plan to do this, have a fallback plan available in case you don’t get the answer you expected. You might be expecting 75% of the audience to raise their hands and have a follow-up sentence that reflects that, but what would you say if only 25% responded?
5. Personalize to the event/date/location
You could refer to something that happened on the same date in history and relate it to the theme of the presentation (this information can be found on a number of websites, one of which is http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday ). On March 1st, for example (to take a date at random), 1200 Protestant Huguenots were massacred in an orgy of religious intolerance in France in 1562, the Salem witch trials began in 1692, ‘Gone With The Wind’ won an Oscar in 1940, Joe Louis retired as heavyweight boxing champion in 1949 and ‘Sergeant Pepper’ finally dropped out of the charts after 88 weeks in 1969. Is there any way you could weave any of these facts into your presentation if you were speaking on that day?
Another way is to personalize it to the location, e.g. the city if it is not your own (why do you think rock bands always start off with “Helloooooooo Liverpool/Dallas/London/Chicago etc.!”) or the building in which you are speaking.
6. A quotation
“The German philosopher Friedrich von Nietzsche once said, ‘The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.’ Over recent years we in the salesforce have rejected too many of our customers’ requests on the grounds of ‘that’s not the way we do it’. It is time to take off the blinkers and look at things from a fresh, customer-oriented perspective… “
“Winston Churchill once said, ‘Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.’ And I have to say I feel a bit like that today. We’ve achieved so much in the last 12 months, but we still have a lot to do… “
7. A high impact gimmick
This is only appropriate for conferences, obviously, not a presentation to 6 people around a boardroom table. One way I sometimes begin my ‘Corporate Combat’ keynote speech is by playing a tape of battle sounds (machinegun fire, explosions, etc.) at high volume before entering dressed in military uniform, shouting at them like a deranged Sergeant-Major. The buzz that this creates is amazing.
I’ve seen other speakers arrive onstage astride a Harley-Davidson, or pushed on seemingly asleep in a bed. However… this is only for those who are VERY confident of being able to pull it off, and is a high-risk gambit (Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s histrionic, over-the-top opening at one company conference virtually made him a laughing stock; watch it on YouTube) – the rest of your talk needs to just as impactful, or it will be incongruent.
So with such a variety of options open to you, why would you possibly want to waste that first invaluable (and non-recoverable) 90 seconds with thanks, greetings or introductions? Remember the objective of your introduction is to grab the audience by the throat and give them a compelling reason to listen to you for the rest of your presentation.
As Samuel Johnson wrote in 1751,
“Few have strength of reason to overrule the perceptions of sense, and yet fewer have curiosity or benevolence to struggle long against the first impression: he who therefore fails to please in his salutation and address is at once rejected, and never obtains an opportunity of showing his latest excellences or essential qualities.”
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