Openings Matter More in Zoom

The challenge we all have in using Zoom is that the audience is highly distracted. Everything we do must be aimed at focusing their eyes and their minds.  The Opening plays a crucial role in that. 

Research indicates that an audience listens more intently in the beginning of a presentation. So, a good opening must grab the audience, communicate the key points, indicate why those points are benefits before you move on to the next section.

Use a Soft Opening

Retailers will often open a new store with what they call a soft opening.  It’s a more casual, less official opening to make sure everything is working.  If you are presenting a PowerPoint in your next presentation, use a Soft Opening.  

Instead of starting with the PowerPoint loaded up on the screen, start with just the video square of yourself and of all the other participants.  This gives you time to connect and chat that you wouldn’t have if the PowerPoint was running.  It also allows you to give a short preface to the audience for what they are about to see. Their attention will probably be pretty good because it is you talking with them, not presenting to them. Then announce that you are going to switch to the PowerPoint and begin your presentation. 

Bring your benefit to life

In an opening, tell the audience what the benefit to them is of whatever you are proposing.

Recently in one of my workshops a participant made the benefit even more personal.  She was proposing a plan to colleagues which would shorten their work day (because of sharing equipment).  Instead of just saying this plan will “save you time” she said “this plan will give you the summer to enjoy because you’ll get out of the office much earlier each day.”

Her audience immediately ran out and bought sunscreen.

Benefits Go Into the Opening

While there are many strategies to consider in opening your pitch, let’s agree that those first 5 minutes can make or break you.  Regardless of the strategy, the direction of what you want to say should be heavily influenced by the benefits you are proposing.

Develop the benefit by asking yourself what challenges lay in the road for your client.  How will those challenges hurt the client’s success. When you find a legitimate challenge that you can help the client overcome, you have the basis for your opening. When you articulate that challenge to the client, they will be all ears.

There are lots of reasons you might not win a pitch — price, chemistry, expertise. But, you should never lose because you presented poorly.

The most important part of a new business pitch

You have their attention, but not for long. Make the most of it. There are four or five different strategies for an opening and one easy rule: the opening is never about you or the company you represent.   The opening is always about the prospect. Everything you say in the opening should be aimed at making the prospect’s life easier, richer and more successful.

One strategy for an opening is problem-solution.  Start by discussing an issue you know is important to the prospect (you know because you’ve asked enough questions previously) and talk about how your solution solves that problem.  If you can convey that information by way of an interesting story, even better.

You’re never going to win every pitch, but you should never lose a prospect because of a weak pitch.

Winning Opens and Closes

Richie Havens was a folk rocker and the first performer at the original Woodstock concert.  He was asked how he puts his concerts together. He said he only rehearses the first song he’ll open with and the last song he’ll close with.  Everything in the middle just “rolls out”.

That’s excellent advice if you’re preparing a presentation.  Focus on the first thing you’ll say because it gets most of the attention and sets the table for the rest of the pitch. Then, know how you’re going to close the pitch.  The middle is typically the stuff that you already know lots about and you’ll probably need less time preparing.

Make sure to rehearse your opening number and your closer before you take the show on the road.

The Secret to a Great Opening.

Say this 50 times. It’s not about me. It’s about them.  It’s not about me. It’s about them.

If you want to get someone’s attention, talk about them. Talk about their issues, their challenges.  Their brilliance.  I guarantee you they will be spellbound.  And, the more you talk about them, the more interesting they’ll find you.

Too many presentations start with the speaker talking about themselves, their company, the agenda and introductions.  Forget it.

It’s not about you. It’s about them.

3 Things to Make Your Presentation Better.

1) Tell a story. Most people are much calmer in telling a story than “delivering” a speech.  So, if you start your presentation with an appropriate story, you’ll be less nervous and more confident. Stories happen to be a great technique in a Zoom presentation.  Audiences like to hear stories and give the presenter more attention when they are being told a story, than they would with any other kind of narrative.

2) Smile. There is nothing that you can do to the rest of your face that communicates more powerfully than a smile. It’s a way of connecting with the audience. You smile. They smile back.

3) Be stoked.  If you don’t look like you are interested to be in the pitch, don’t expect the audience to be interested. Big voice. Gestures.  Strong posture all communicate how excited you are to be speaking.

Put Your Best Stuff Into the Opening!

In a trial, the jury sometimes decides innocent or guilty in the first five minutes after hearing each lawyer’s opening remarks. The deciding factor for the jury is siding with the lawyer who seems most confident. Two important lessons come from this: juries or prospects or clients make their decisions very early in the process, so put your best stuff into the open.  Secondly, learn the techniques that confident speakers use.

These techniques are relatively easy to master: strong eye contact, powerful voice, good posture, animated face, arms and body, the use of storytelling, command of material, speaking with passion.  Practice 2 or 3 of these techniques  in each rehearsal and you will be a much better presenter.

Audience Participation

Some speakers like to start their presentation by asking the audience a question or in some other way involving them in a two-way conversation.  “Hi Everybody, how are you all feeling today?”

Have you ever noticed how awkward that technique can be?  The audience isn’t ready to participate. They want to gauge you and get their bearings on the topic.

It’s OK to get involved with the audience, just not at the very beginning. That’s the time when you need to demonstrate you are the most confident speaker in the universe.

On Zoom, you need to ask for more involvement than you might normally do.  Promote using the Chat button or just have them raise their hand with a question.  You need to keep getting the audience to focus on you.

Write a winning presentation.

1) Identify the one thing you want the audience to remember in terms that are a benefit to them.  Build that into the very opening of the presentation.

2) Demonstrate that benefit in the middle of the presentation

3) The close is an echo of the open.

Don’t Rush the Opening of a Pitch

You’re making a competitive pitch and the prospect asks you to hurry along. He or she has a lot of people yet to interview and wants you and your crew to present quickly.  When this happens, be afraid. Be very afraid.

You rush through the opening and leave out important information.  The way you opened sets the fast pace for the rest of the pitch so now everyone on your team rushes.  The big idea that you worked so hard on never gets a fair airing because it was presented at high speed.

There is nothing more important than the opening. Even if your time has been cut in half, do the opening the way you rehearsed.  If you constructed the opening properly it will contain the most relevant information the prospect needs to hear.

There are lots of reasons you might not win a pitch — price, chemistry, expertise. But, you should never lose because you presented poorly.

Ask for action in the beginning of a pitch

The purpose of most presentations is to motivate the audience to take action.  Sometimes that action is obvious, as when a prospect is interviewing competing companies and will choose one.

Sometimes, though, it’s valuable to inform the audience in the opening of the action you want them to take. ”Today I’m going to make a case why we should go in direction A , why that direction is most beneficial to your long term interests and how you can make this happen.”

Even people responsible for making decisions need to be reminded when they have a decision to make. When not asked, most people will not take action.

Delivering Bad News

Sometimes in a presentation you need to deliver bad news. Perhaps the budget isn’t going to work, or some facet of the plan can’t happen, or a valued partner changed his mind.  When is the best time in the presentation to deliver bad news?

In the beginning.

Getting bad news out in some portion of your opening serves a number of purposes: It positions you as an honest person with nothing to hide. It allows the client to evaluate whatever you are presenting in light of this bad news.  It gives you a chance to use the news to build your case in the pitch.

Getting the bad news out early is the good news this week.

Front Load the Opening

Some presenters like to tease out the information over the course of the presentation, and then make a big reveal at the end.  It’s much better to front load your presentation with the key information people need. Give your audience as much information as soon as possible. Don’t hold them in suspense.  If on Zoom, assume you will lose their attention pretty quickly.

The more they know, and the faster they know it, the more they’ll pay attention.

Status Report Presentations

If your presentation is reporting on the status of things rather than a pitch or formal presentation, use the 6 O’clock News opening technique.

Give all the headlines first then dive into the specifics, usually starting with  either the biggest story or the most controversial.

Don’t Waste the Opening

The speaker had a seemingly terrific opening – self deprecating and charming – although it had little to do with the rest of his presentation. A day later I could repeat the opening verbatim but had no recall of what the presentation was about.  What was this firm bring to me. What problems did they solve. What challenges did they overcome? 

If You’re Excited, Show It.

We’ve all seen speakers who start by blandly saying “how excited I am to be here today”.

To paraphrase a bit I saw on The Daily Show,

Are you really excited?

Really? Excited?

Would you mind telling your voice, face and personality that you are really excited?

How to Get the Audience’s Attention

“It is becoming increasingly clear that attention is the new currency.” And this was before Zoom.  You can only imagine how bad it is now.

Your audience will listen better when what you say is immediately seen as a benefit to them.  We used to think the challenge in a presentation is to be interesting, but in today’s world your audience is multi-tasking even as they sit staring at you.

Tell them how what you are espousing is a benefit to them.

Great Opens and Closes

None other than The Great Communicator himself, Ronald Reagan, said “You begin with a hell of an opening, you coast for a while, and you end with a hell of a closing.”

Two Things Guaranteed to Put Your Audience to Sleep as an Opening

-Introductions of your team/company


Instead, start with the challenge you are solving for the client said dramatically then circle back to all of these housekeeping items.

Open in Character

A great opening cures a multitude of sins. One is that it gets the speaker in character faster. Much easier to be personable when, for example, you open with a story and not an agenda.

Never start with an apology

When you open with “This might be a bad idea, but…,” or “I’m not an expert, however, ….” or ”I’m sorry this took so long…” it gives the audience permission to dislike your presentation.

Storytelling Abuse

One of the big trends in opening presentations these days is storytelling. Stories are the easiest way for most people to communicate. We are more relaxed when telling stories.  Audiences seem to like stories. Nervous speakers are less nervous when telling a story.  And all speakers who start with a story have a higher degree of confidence.

So.  What’s the problem? More…

How to Own the Audience

The other day in my workshop, a participant had a sensational opening:

“So, I’m sitting in the emergency room when the doctor says to me, ‘You know, that’s the cleanest cut I’ve ever seen from a chain saw.’”

Now you own the audience.

Presentation Myth: Funny Openings

While it is true that you need to get attention, being funny doesn’t always do that.  Grab the audiences’ hearts and minds by telling them something that will make their job easier, or make them more money, or make them look better in their boss’s eyes.

Then they will be mesmerized.

I’ve been asked to speak about…

You’ve all heard presentations that start with “Today I was asked to speak about…”

 That kind of opening has at least two major problems: 

  • The audience must wonder just how passionate and committed you are to the subject.  You were asked to speak. What did you really wish to speak about?
  • The opening softens your body language too much.  You’re not strong and passionate, you are motionless and unsmiling.  

Try it yourself. Start a presentation first with “I was asked to speak..” then try it again with a more passionate opening “I want to talk about something that will change your life…”  It’s a night and day difference.

Pause Before You Open a Pitch

Lots of speakers start talking as soon as they get to the front of the room, and leave immediately when they finish.

The power of the speaker would be much stronger by pausing 4 seconds before you start speaking to settle and make eye contact. Then, after delivering your closing line, take another 4 seconds to look at the audience again before you turn and leave.

If you are making a presentation on Zoom, don’t follow this advice.  No pauses.  Get into the subject quickly.

Open Like Sondheim

A great opening is motivating for the speaker and the audience; it’s like the overture of a Broadway show. It puts everyone into a positive frame of mind and establishes a theme that runs the rest of the way.