First impressions are very important.  You need to capture people’s attention and confirm their hope that you will be an interesting person to listen to.  You need to get them involved.

Whether your presentation is a stand-alone event or just one in a whole series of different presentations, it is absolutely vital that you start by grabbing the audience’s attention.  If you don’t metaphorically grab them by their lapels and make them pay attention, they are likely to be still thinking about the last presentation, or a phone call they had just before they arrived at the meeting. They may even be thinking “I hope this doesn’t go on too long, I have things to do.”  You need to capture people’s attention and confirm their hope that you will be an interesting person to listen to.  You need to get them involved right from the outset.

There is an age old saying about how to present: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them“.

When I first heard this I thought that seems a bit repetitive, surely people will get bored if I say everything three times. But I have since learnt that this single rule adds more to most presentations than any other, as long as you tell it right.

The “Tell them what you are going to tell them” is your opportunity to grab the audience’s attention. Put the core subject of your presentation across in a way that challenges the listener and makes the listener think.

There are many standard ways of capturing your audience’s attention. 

  • Asking questions and eliciting a response
  • Rhetorical questions, which make the audience think
  • Confrontational remarks
  • Relevant quotations for an acknowledged source
  • A good personal anecdote

The key to a good opening is to make people think; to wake them up and make them pay attention. 

For example, if you are an accountant and have to give a presentation on new tax laws, you could start by listing the main areas of taxation you will be covering. But most of your audience will probably be asleep before you have finished the introduction. An alternative, a more attention grabbing, opening might be to ask “Who has too much money?”, quickly followed by “So, why did most of you give too much to the tax man last year?  During my presentation you will discover how to reduce the amount of tax you will pay this year.”

While grabbing their attention is important, it is also important that the opening is in line with the rest of the presentation. I saw a video once, of a headmistress trying to introduce a police officer to the children at an American junior school’s assembly.  The children were all noisily chatting away to each other and the headmistress’s repeated requests for silence were being ignored. The lady police officer then tried to quieten them down with no success. So, she took out her revolver and fired a shot into the air.  There was instant silence. She had their attention, but when she then asked in her most child friendly voice “How are you all doing today?” There was an equally stony silence.

You only have one chance to make a first impression so it is worth thinking it through properly to work out the type of reaction it will generate.

Once you have grabbed your audience’s attention, keep them listening by telling them what they want to hear, rather than what you want to say. Finally, round off the presentation with a reference back to your attention grabber as part of the summary, in the “tell them what you told them part”.

When I worked for a company called Magic Software, we had a special 3 card trick made up which was very easy to do.  The gist of the trick was to show the audience 3 cards, two number cards with a court card in the middle.  Then turn the three cards over and ask a member to point to the court card.  When this card was turned back over, the court card had magically disappeared and in its place was a card that had a slogan for the company’s products.

I often used this particular trick at the start of a presentation.  It was great at breaking the ice.  It woke people up who thought they were going to get another vendor pitch and it had the added benefit that I could con one of the audience members in to reading out our slogan.  At the end of the presentation, I summed up using the slogan.  I could then say “and it is not just me who says that, you heard it earlier from one of your own”.  It was even better if I could get a competitor or a known industry figure to choose the card.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone starts every presentation with a magic trick, but it is one example of getting people involved and doing the unexpected.

Presentation Training and Coaching is available from the author of this blog. Please visit my presentation training  website.

Give me a day and I’ll change your presentations, forever


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