Starting a presentation of any form in a strong and engaging way is so important. It doesn’t matter if it is in-person, online or via video. So here’s a deep dive into how to start a presentation.
Make no mistake, your job here is to make the audience feel relaxed and like you have “got this”. Lots of articles and coaches focus on the words that you say when starting a presentation but it’s HOW you say it that will make a bigger impact on your audience. I tell all of my clients “You audience will remember how you made them feel – not what you said”.
If you are to capture an audience’s attention you need to do so from the moment you start speaking.
In the content creation world, we call it a hook – the first 5 seconds of a video. In real life, it’ll be the exact moment that someone finishes introducing you. I’ve seen countless presentations and seen the worst of openings imaginable. Here we will look at the best ways of how to start a presentation but here’s the thing…it’s different for every audience and presentation style.
Why does this matter?
The beginning of a presentation is about one thing and one thing only…
The beginning of your presentation is all about making your audience feel comfortable. Not what you say.
If the audience has confidence in you from the start they will be less likely to be distracted by their phones. They will give you the benefit of the doubt throughout your presentation if you misspeak or if there’s a slight technical error.
The audience wants to feel like you are in control of the situation. Have you ever been to an open mic night at a local comedy club? You know that feeling that you get when there is a new comedian trying to tell jokes and they are falling flat?
It feels really uncomfortable, doesn’t it?
I also know what it is like to be on the comedian’s side of things too! I’ve done stand up six times in my life and the last three of them I bombed HARD! It’s the only time in my life that I wanted the world to open up and swallow me whole!
I recommend doing a stand-up course to anyone who needs to overcome the fear of public speaking. Even if you bomb it makes you realize that a bad performance is not fatal…in fact, it makes you stronger!
Here’s what I have learned when it comes to opening a presentation.
HOW you say your opening line
How you start your presentation will deeply impact what the audience feels. And therefore, can build or destroy confidence in you and what you have to say before you’ve even had a chance to say it!
1: Say your opening statement or comment fluently.
This is the number one thing about opening your presentation. You have been invited to talk or present to a group of people because you are the expert and have valuable information to share.
When I practice my presentations I focus on two areas: the beginning and the end. Both of these are so important and I know them like an actor knows their script!
Practice this opening paragraph as hard as you can before the presentation date. I often get my partner to say “Go!” at random times during the day and I have to say my opening paragraph. A little bit of pressure goes a long way!
2: Practise talking “bigger”
After presenting for a half an hour my voice hurts a little bit. Even if I have a microphone on. This isn’t because I have been shouting, this is because I have been projecting.
Projecting your voice is a combination of volume and breath control. The problem is the more nervous people get the shallower their breaths become.
Take a few deep breaths before talking. Imagine you are filling your lungs from the bottom to the top. Fill your lungs so that your stomach pushes out. Then fill the top of your lungs so your rib cage opens up. Then, exhale for five seconds.
You’ll need to do this a couple of times. Check out this breathing tutorial for inspiration:
The next step is to learn how to talk bigger and not louder!
Louder happens you force air out of your lungs through your vocal cords harder than in normal speaking. The extreme of this is shouting. Because of the stressful situation of public speaking and presentations, the stress makes people talk harder!
Bigger is when you imagine that your throat and airways are as big as the room that you are talking in. Your relaxed vocal muscles can vibrate more and will give you a richer and bigger voice.
This will build confidence in your audience as you will ooze confidence through your voice.
If you need to practice, get a trusted friend to go to the back of a large room. You will need to make your voice as big as possible using your breath and relaxed airways. Get them to tell you if they can hear your voice and rate you on a scale of 1 – 10.
Keep testing your big voice until they can hear you clearly.
3: Practice talking deliberately
Talking deliberately comes with two ingredients.
- Talking slower.
- Talking with variation in your voice.
When we get nervous or excited we tend to talk faster. Nervous people talk faster and this makes it feel like we have something to hide.
I once heard a public speaking coach say that we should imagine that we are talking underwater when presenting to a large group of people. Presentations tend to be timed too – so we naturally feel pressure to get through loads of content or rush.
This is where preparation is key. You should have done at least two full run-through of your presentation if it not something you’ve delivered before.
When it comes to pace, it is going to feel like you are talking too slow. It feels this way especially when you have people’s concentrating faces staring back at you.
Talking with variation
The next part of talking deliberately is to talk with variation in your voice. Vary your tone, pace, and pitch.
But don’t just do it randomly – it’ll look like you are having a stroke.
Instead, look at what you want to say and think about how you want your audience to feel at that point. Have you just said something that you want your audience to think about for a little bit? Pause for a second.
Have you just said something that is exciting? Higher tone and slightly faster pace will make your audience FEEL the excitement.
At first, it is going to feel like you are “acting” and it’ll feel unfamiliar. But practice your delivery regularly and it’ll start to become second nature. It isn’t weird to other people when they watch you.
4: Look at your audience
Another trick that professional speakers use is to actually LOOK at the audience. That’s right, stare them down – HARD.
In polite society, we are often told not to stare at people. But when you are in presentation mode you need to look at your audience.
It can be a common crutch when public speaking to read from slides or notes. I’ve even seen people turn their back to the audience to read from a projection!
Sure you may need to glance to remind yourself of something in the middle of the talk but it shouldn’t be the first thing that you do!
I make a point of looking around the room and looking at people as I talk. You are going to feel weird. But it’s a weird situation – you are facing one way and everyone else is facing another…you need to OWN it!
5: Get out from behind the lectern and stand strong and proud.
One true way of knowing if someone is nervous or not is by looking at where they are standing!
Nervous people tend to hide. They want to stand behind the lectern or hide behind their notes.
Confident people stand out, tall and proud and would do so even if they feel like they have something in their teeth or their fly is undone!
Confidently planting both feet and being in full view shows the audience that you are not afraid of them – even if you are peeing yourself on the inside!
Now that we have covered all of the traits that make your audience feel confident in you, we can focus on a few strong ways to start your presentation!
WHAT to say
Here are my top three ways that I LOVE to start a presentation! There are many other ways and there are plenty of other options online. These, however, when combined with the techniques above are really powerful!
1. Tell a story
This is my go-to option for most of my presentations. Why?
Well, people connect with stories. Share a personal story that highlights the main point of your reason for presenting. The moment you start sharing something personal from your life you’ll see the audience light up. It’s human nature to want to hear about other people – I guess that is why gossip columns do so well!
Share the juicy details as long as you are comfortable with doing so.
2. What if…
Another one of my favorite ways is to capture the audience’s attention with “What if”.
You need to make sure that your “What if” question gives a peek into the solution or conclusion of your talk. Without giving it away completely. That way the audience knows roughly where you are going and will have more patience throughout the presentation.
Do this right and your audience will also have time to imagine their own answer to the “What if” question. I think it’s kind of fun to lead an audience through a journey where they are also invested in the outcome – in this case, it’ll to see if they have come to the same conclusion.
3. Make a bold statement
My other favorite, but less used way is to make an outlandish statement – as long as you have the data to back it up! Make sure it’s peer-reviewed science data if you are going to go down this route!
Saying something like – “I actually HATE social media and I think you should too!” Will get the audience’s attention. Particularly if you are at a social media marketing convention.
Use this one with caution as it can seem too lame if you make your opening sound like a clickbait article headline! Remember – it’s not clickbait if you deliver on the promise of the headline. There is a very fine line between a great clickable headline and internet rubbish!
Bonus – What NOT to do!
Okay, here are something that I see surprisingly often when it comes to presentations. Particularly at conferences where there are a number of presentations in quick succession.
Here’s the simple thing you can avoid that quickly undermine the audience’s confidence in you!
Ask if the mic is on or if people can hear you!
It happens all the time! If there is a microphone – use it – but don’t turn the audience into your sound crew. Get to the event/room ahead of time and test to make sure that everything is working to your satisfaction.
Start with a video
You should be the center of attention as soon as your introduction finishes and it is your time to present. So many times, especially in government agency presentations, they have a fancy new video and cannot wait to show people. Quite often this has cost thousands of dollars and they need to get their money’s worth.
Sure show a video – plan to use it somewhere in the middle of your presentation – but please don’t start with it. The audience is confused by a video open – should they clap? Should they not? The uncertainty will them feel uncertain and that feeling will spill over into the rest of your presentation.
Open with something that makes you uncomfortable
Humans are amazing creatures! We can sense if a person is uncomfortable from a mile away!
Although I have loads of tips and tricks in this blog post, remember that no matter how you start a presentation you need to make sure that it aligns with what you are comfortable with.
The skills that I mentioned first need to be practiced until they feel comfortable, and that takes time. Also, the skills come easier to some people but everyone needs to practice – even the pros!
With time you will work out what works for you and you’ll get better at feeling comfortable, which in turn will make your audience comfortable.
With all of the tips and tricks in the article, you should be well equipped to leave a positive lasting impression on your audience.
REMEMBER it comes down to “People will remember how you make feel not what you say.”