Rhiannon Sanders    Rhiannon SandersFounder, 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.

Mystery and story
A powerful way to start is by setting up a mystery.  Promise the answer to a specific question: “Have you ever wondered why the sky is blue? By the end of this talk you will understand exactly why and be able to explain it to your 5-year-old.”

Combine a mystery with storytelling and you’re really onto a winner. I’ve just finished rereading outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. He is an absolute master of this. He starts each chapter by launching directly into the story of one individual. He makes it captivating with details like “one summer the family lived on an Indian reservation in a tepee, subsisting on government surplus peanut butter and cornmeal.” (They were so poor). He adds quotes from the people concerned and then quotes from others also involved in their situation to build substance. And then he creates a wonderfully tantalizing mystery and has you wondering where it will all end and why things are the way they are.

But the story and the mystery are not enough; in fact it could be a dangerous technique. Because, without relevance and a very strong link to the point that you are making, people may remember the story but have no idea what the point was. I can, for example, remember many great advertisement jingles and concepts but quite often I can’t remember the product they were advertising.

Malcolm Gladwell also copes with this with finesse by quickly expanding the relevance of the story from one individual up into a whole population and making the general principle very clear. He then anchors that general principle firmly in our minds with a lot more examples and statistics. You would do well to read through Outliers and try to capture his method and rhythm for setting the scene.

Simpler ways to create interest using a mystery are:
Start with a rhetorical question such as: “have you ever wondered why we drive on the left in Britain.” “Do you remember being stressed out over doing exams in school and wondered why it was so painful?”

Instead of saying: “Now I’d like to tell you something about pension plans.” You could create more interest by saying, “I’m going to tell you a generally little-known secret about pension plans,” “Last year, I learned something fascinating about pension plans,” or “Here’s something you may not know, but you should, about pension plans.”

Start right in the middle of the action
Most people when they tell a story, for example about something that happened to them, start at the beginning with a background. So, like a friend of mine that found herself in the middle of a London bomb scare, they might say: You know, this crazy thing happened. Last summer we went on holiday to London. We were there a whole week and had been looking forward to it. …lots of details… We were walking around a very nice area, not far from Harrods, just looking at the buildings. …more details… then we got hungry and decided to go into a cafe. We’d been sitting there just five minutes when I turn around to look straight at an armed policeman holding a machine gun only inches from my face. And so on…

Don’t do this! If you start writing in the action then people understand why they need to listen to the background and they want to hear it. So start instead with something like “I was sitting in this posh cafe in a nice part of London when I turned and saw a machine gun right next to my face.”

When should you introduce yourself?
After you’ve set the scene! It need only take less than a minute to start up and tell the audience why they should listen to you. Then you can stop and say something like “ My name is XX. I’ve been working in the XXX industry for 30 years and I’ve often wondered about XXXX “.  In other words, no CV. Super short. Just one thing that captures your credentials. Choose something that tells them that, if he/she has done that, then they must be good at all the rest.

Some things you should NOT do
Waste time burbling about before you start. Just get on with it.
Tell a joke, unless you’re an accomplished comedian and are talking to people from your own cultural background.
Start talking while you’re walking to the front or setting up the computer.
Spend a long time telling them you’re an authority. Show them instead.

I hope there’s something here that helps. It’s such a big subject but thanks for the opportunity to write down my thoughts.


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