First impressions count. Adopt these techniques to keep your audience rapt from the get-go.
Some say it’s 15 seconds; others 30. A few generous souls will even allot up to 60 seconds. Whatever the case, this much is indisputable: you’ve got one minute max in which to capture your audience’s attention. After that, they’re gone.
Physically they’re still occupying the same space, give or take a fidget, but mentally they’re reliving last night’s Netflix marathon, or pondering whether centaurs really have two rib cages. Miss that window of opportunity – those precious seconds in which all eyes are on you – and you’ve lost your audience.
Better start strong then. We’re talking Mr Olympia strong. We’re talking so strong that they’ll be re-experiencing your talk for days, or at least rueing their failure to Snapchat your opening salvo.
So no pressure then.
Don’t freak out. You’re not obliged to become a rockstar of public speaking or a PowerPoint superhero. You just have to be yourself…but a really scintillating version of yourself. You on a good day, with a sprinkling of awesome on top. How will you achieve that? Well, you could try one of the following approaches…
Share a secret
‘Hi. My name is Mark and at weekends I like to wear my girlfriend’s lingerie.’
No, not that sort of secret.
‘Hi. My name is Mark and I’d like to share a secret with you. When I started this job, my greatest fear was public speaking.’
Better. Now you’ve revealed a vulnerability and your audience can empathise with you. If they possess even a sliver of humanity, right now they should be willing you on.
‘Then I learned to conquer my fear of public speaking. Now, the only things that scare me are the Tarantula Wolf Spider and 4% battery.’
We’ve left confessional territory behind now and delved into humour, but in truth, you can steer your presentation any which way you like from this point. You’ve already piqued your audience’s curiosity. Now you have their attention.
Use a killer quote
We live in a world of aphorisms, maxims and Pinterest-shared platitudes. If you’re planning to open with a quote, better make it a banger. It doesn’t have to be famous – it just has to be memorable. Your audience has probably received its lifetime supply of canned MLK quotes and can recite Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address off by heart. If you’re planning to start with a cliche-free quote, you’re going to need to, um, think outside the box. Ahem.
‘A good speech is like a pencil; it has to have a point.’
That’s good. Thanks Pinterest. To get your audience interacting with you from the outset, put a quote on your first slide and ask them who it’s from. Or reveal the first half of the quote and get them to guess how it ends. Instantly, they’re involved and have gone from being a passive to an active audience.
Go against the flow
If you want to stand out, be the black sheep in the flock. There’s currency in being a contrarian, and it’s about more than just shock value. Do you remember the film Dead Poet’s Society, where Robin Williams urges his students to rip out the opening page of their textbooks? That’s what you’ve got to do.
‘As you all know, muscle growth is about progressive overload, clean eating and smart supplementation.’
‘Well I’m here to tell you that’s a big fat lie. Forget everything you’ve heard about strength training. If you wanna get swole, here’s what you should do…’
Your audience might not agree with you, but one thing they certainly can’t do is ignore you. Don’t be a contrarian for the sake of it of course, but if you genuinely have an unconventional approach, don’t be afraid to put it out there from the start.
Let a picture do the talking
Humans are hardwired to remember faces over names. Memory isn’t a spreadsheet – it’s a rich visual tapestry. Start with a strong image and it’ll do the hard work for you. A powerful image will evoke equally powerful emotions: awe; surprise; disgust. Okay, so you probably want to avoid grossing out your audience, but don’t be afraid to make them feel. Whether it’s a cute puppy dog or an iconic war photograph, a powerful picture will sear itself into their consciousness better than a dozen text-heavy slides ever could.
Slip into their shoes
Ask yourself this: why are your audience sat in front of you? Is it because there’s nowhere else they’d rather be right now, or is it because they were obliged to attend? If it’s the latter, there’s nothing to stop you converting them into the former – into an audience who are caught up in the moment and hanging on your every word. One of the best ways to achieve that is by slipping into their shoes, so to speak, and imagining what would appeal.
Forget about your interests and life experience for a moment – it’s all about them. How can you tailor your opening gambit to appeal to your audience? Think about their industry and interests. A room of coders will respond better to a joke about Linux than a room of event planners. A group of art students will find a Picasso anecdote more relatable than one about Socrates.
Start strong, finish strong
Once you’ve settled upon your opener, it’s a good idea to return to it when closing your presentation. This completes the storytelling loop and leaves your take-home message fixed firmly in mind. Conclude that confession. Finish that quote. Captivate that crowd.
However you start your presentation, make it memorable. Make it explosive. Make it count. After that, the hard work’s done: you’ve got your audience’s attention and they’re keen to hear what else you’ve got to say.