One of the things that can trip up some subject matter experts who are tasked to make a presentation is their opening. Often it is the first 30 seconds to a minute that sets the tone for the remainder of your presentation — grabbing audience attention and holding it.
Your opening, whether it's a single sentence or a few lines, is where a presentation can be made or broken. It's your chance to hook them, tickling their curiosity so that you can slowly reel them in throughout the rest of your presentation. So how do you captivate an audience with your opening? Follow these tips for creating a great opening.
'Open With the Fire'
"When you advertise fire-extinguishers, open with the fire," says advertising executive David Ogilvy. This cuts to the core of a successful opening line and why this first moment is so important. You may have a relatively small window before an audience tunes you out, so be concise. In your opening, don't waste time establishing your credentials or detailing research background — there will be time for that later. Instead, start with something that cannot be ignored, a dramatic hook that gets people thinking, wondering, and stops them in their tracks.
Simplicity, Not Basic
How many presentations have you seen that started with "Today, we will be discussing..." or "I just want to go over...?" These kinds of introductions are very basic, announcing to the audience what they can expect from the following presentation. They are very often quite boring, akin to a summary at the beginning of a thesis statement. But — from a stylistic perspective — what works for an academic journal doesn't usually work when spoken aloud.
Instead of this basic approach, jump-start the presentation with a simple and compelling insight. "The color green is not what it appears to be." What could this possibly mean? Well, if you are a scientist explaining how our brains perceive color, it means that the way one person sees the color green may differ from the way another person sees it. By opening with this line, you can essentially define your thesis statement (our perception of color is subjective) without being overly dry, boring, or getting too into the weeds with data.
Although, it is important to note if you are presenting to decision makers, we teach in our Speaking Up course to present your first line as your bottom line. To say exactly why you are there and what you want is appropriate and not basic for this audience. This is a universal principle derived from our extensive executive interviews.
Ask Questions, Foster Engagement
Even better than starting with insight is to begin your presentation with a question — rhetorical or otherwise. Taking the example above, instead of saying "The color green is not what it appears to be," try framing it as "Do you know what green really is?"
This begins your presentation with an automatic level of audience engagement: By posing them a direct question (one you can answer in good time), your audience begins thinking about the words you are saying and questioning their own assumptions. You aren't telling them something, you're making them think. This can have a powerful effect, preparing an audience to fully receive and consider what you are about to say.
Give It Personality
Subject matter expert presentations often end up heavy on data, light on personality. Even if you are presenting to a room full of your peers, you'll have an easier time grabbing their attention with a touch of humor or by starting with a personal anecdote than leading with research. The goal is to connect these insights to something personal to your audience by using your personality; your audience can see themselves in you.
Be Evocative - But Leave Them Wanting More
In her 2012 TED Talk, video game designer Jane McGonigal started with this dramatic line: "You will live 7.5 minutes longer than you would have otherwise, just because you watched this talk."
This is the definition of an evocative opening, the kind that makes people sit up straighter in their chairs and lean towards you. She has effectively made her talk a literal matter of life and death, ensuring that her audience stays glued to her every word — her words, after all, could ensure a longer life. Crucially, she stops just short of telling the audience why it will give you a longer life because she doesn't need to. The audience is already in rapt attention, meaning she can take her time and eventually double back to explain her opening.
Having a great opening can make or break your presentation. Once you hook your audience, you will have the time and trust to build your case. Start strong and engagement will follow!