Rhiannon Sanders, Founder, author TwoMagpies online courses in public speaking
Here is the short answer in case you don’t have time to read the rather long-winded one below.
First: don’t do what everyone else does, think of something original.
Here are some ideas, I’m sure there’s more:
- Start calm and slow. Give people time to size you up and get used to your voice. A person who is in control and command does not rush.
- Start with your main message (or key message – a short statement of the whole point of your talk and maybe what you want people to do when you’re finished) in some form. Unless you want to keep it a total mystery, see below
- Let people know, one way or another, why they should listen to you. Tell them the end. Tell them what they will gain or learn. Tell them why it’s important.
- Don’t start with your CV, set the scene first, then introduce yourself very briefly
- Create a mystery, then solve it at the end
- Ask a rhetorical question
- Tell a story to illustrate your point, give it details and life, but make its relevance extremely clear
- Start in the action, not with all the background
So here’s the long version. The first thing I would say is – don’t start the same way everyone else starts!
You know, “hello everybody, it’s really great to be here. Thank you to the organizers for inviting me, my name is (followed by your CV) and I’m going to talk to about…”
If we hear, yet again, the standard procedure for starting a presentation, many people will be thinking to themselves “okay, here we go, another ordinary, boring presentation.”
So what do you do?
There are two times in a presentation when you are absolutely guaranteed the attention of the audience; the beginning and the end. At the beginning people are looking at you with curiosity. They’re sizing you up and making judgments. So you have their attention but they’re not necessarily listening to a word you say.
Before you start you should have thought about the purpose of your presentation and it’s main message. This is a one short sentence summarizing the whole point you are making. Like “recycling is a good thing and easy to do when you plan properly” or “designing great slides is very easy when you know five simple rules.” You should also have decided what you want the audience to do or think when you’re finished. These things should be made clear in one form or another at the start and finish of your talk. The form, however, can vary greatly, specially if you’re planning on starting with a mystery! (see below)
Start calmly and slowly. Walk slowly to the front of the room and don’t speak at the same time. Give people time to see you properly and get used to your voice. A person who is in control and command does not rush.
You may have heard the advice to grab people’s attention at the start. This gives the impression that you need to go out with all guns blazing but some energetic wild starts quickly fizzle out into plain and ordinary performances. You don’t so much need to grab people’s attention as to capture it and hold onto it.
By the way, if there is something genuinely distracting about how you look then say something about it. I once listened to a talk given by a guy with his leg in plaster and he didn’t refer to it ever. I spent most of the talk wondering how he’d done it and didn’t hear a word he said. So mention the elephant in the room first and then move on. Otherwise, allow for people to spend some time sizing you up and don’t say the most important thing at the very start.
The key principles of a good start
Clarity and relevance
What exactly will you be talking about? If you are one of many presenters you need very quickly to let people know, metaphorically speaking, what planet you’re on, followed quickly by the country, city right down to the very spot where you are standing (the scope of your presentation), if you see what I mean.
Start by answering the following: Why should people listen to you? Why is the subject interesting? What are you going to deliver? Make them care.
In other words, tell them what they’ll get out of it all. Tell them the end so they understand why they should listen.
You could say for instance, “at the end of this talk you will understand exactly what you need to do to earn €1000”. Or, “at the end of this talk you will knows the three steps that you can do tomorrow to improve your running style”.
Be as specific and clear as possible when telling people why they should listen to you.
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