The more I work and think about the art of making presentations, and, the more I run workshops and consult to people about to make presentations; the more I am taken with the incredible importance and role of an opening.
Most people would acknowledge that the opening is very important. They would probably say that you use an opening to grab the attention of the audience, which is certainly true. Since most research on this issue indicates that the typical person in an audience is keenly focused on a new speaker for 30 to 45 seconds before they drift off to their happy place, it is important to use the opening to get their attention so that you can squeeze out a few more seconds from their limited attention-span bank. Unfortunately, the desire for a highly visible opening drives people to create openings that have no relationship to the rest of the speech. They are there to just get attention. Great openings get attention and underscore the takeaway of the presentation.
The opening a presentation has other attributes as well. I have found that the opening sets the pace for how the rest of the presentation is delivered. I’ve seen examples where a presenter starts talking too quickly in the opening and can’t then slow up for the rest of the presentation. Or, where a speaker has an opening that backfires (usually because they told a joke) and then they are spending the rest of their time back-pedaling trying to get back into the audience’s good graces. I’ve found that when I have a great opening I am so much more relaxed about the rest of the presentation. I don’t suffer from stage fright as much, I look and feel more confident, which the audience senses and responds to. When I know I have a great opening I can’t wait to get to the podium.
More recently I have come to realize that the opening is the part of the presentation that allows the speaker to get into character. For example, if your job is to get the audience revved up about some topic, but start your presentation with the standard opening that many people use (thank everyone for the opportunity to speak, review the agenda, introduce people from your company, talk about how the Red Sox did last night) it’s hard to then shift gears and get serious about the real topic at hand. When business people try to give an impassioned pitch but start with introductions and the agenda, how can they ever hope to get into character to accomplish the real task?
The best way to start a presentation is to start immediately discussing the topic. That gets the speaker into character the fastest and will keep them there the longest. When the presenter needs to do all of the fussy housekeeping nonsense that many people think is necessary, it’s a distraction from the real job at hand.
The subject of how to open a presentation is extremely important for all of the reasons noted above. Because it is that important, much more time needs to be spent developing the opening, rehearsing the opening and refining the opening. When I’m working with people I’ll often have a separate rehearsal just for openings. My own rule of thumb is to spend 50% of the entire time I work on the presentation devoted to just the opening.
Whenever possible I prefer to open with a story. I like telling stories and I sense the audience likes to listen to them. The story must conform to the takeaway that I’m hoping to achieve with my presentation. It’s not just an arbitrary story. The opening also informs the ending. Opens and closes should always echo each other. Sometimes when people are really stuck on how to open their presentation I’ll ask them how they want to end their presentation. What action do they want the audience to take as a result of hearing this presentation. If they could identify that, a solid opening is never that far away.