5 Ways to Improve the Beginning & End of your Presentations

Last week the CFO of a mid-market company here in Manhattan invited me to attend his Quarterly Town Hall meeting. He wanted my feedback on how well his team presented.

I sat in the back of the room as speaker after speaker loaded text heavy PowerPoint slides onto the screen and then began their presentation with these 8 words:

I’m going to talk to you today about…(reveal an agenda slide.)

Every presentation sounded like a lecture. By the end of the meeting almost three-quarters of the audience were checking their email—and about a dozen people had nodded off. When I shared my observations with the CFO he said:

I know, I know. What should I tackle first to help them?

The First Thing: Open Strong

There are many different reasons to give a presentation. You may need to motivate your audience to action, or persuade them that your point of view is the way to go, or even stimulate thinking for further conversation, but the outcome of a presentation should never be to have completely bored them. If people end up on their smart phones—or worse, asleep—you’ve missed the mark.

I told my client the first, and easiest, thing to fix is…the first thing. How a presentation starts sets the tone for the rest of the talk.

Throw away the agenda slides and consider one of these five alternative openings.

1. Tell A Story

I’ve written before about the power of storytelling. Stories grab attention and emotionally connects your audience to the topic.

If you are introducing a new idea to solve a business problem, you can start your presentation by telling the story of a customer who has encountered the problem.

If you are trying to get your team to manage change more effectively, begin by sharing your personal experience with a change. Tell a story about the time you had a hard time coping with change. Remember to include what you learned from that experience. It’s the lesson of the story that resonates most with audiences.

2. Share Something Funny

Many presenters use a funny anecdote, or a joke, to break the ice. Jokes work best when they are relevant to your both your audience AND the topic.

One of the presenters at the Town Hall was the Head Auditor reminding everyone that audit season was just around the corner. Here’s how a joke could have kick started his presentation:

There’s an old joke that some of you may be familiar with.

How many auditors does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: How many did it take last year?

And that brings me to our topic today: Utilizing best practices from last year’s audit as we get ready for this year’s work.

3. Make a Provocative Statement

Another compelling way to start is to make a provocative statement.

I don’t want to alarm anybody, but it’s just come to my attention that the person to your right…is a liar.

This is how Pamela Meyers started her TED Talk, How To Spot A Liar. When I heard that opening line I immediately wondered if someone had lied to me that day!

Her statement certainly grabbed my attention.

4. Share a Startling Statistic

Jamie Oliver, the British celebrity chef and restaurateur, is on a mission to teach families about eating better and living healthier lives. He used the technique of sharing a startling statistic to great effect in his talk, Teach Every Child About Food.

Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead—through the food that they eat.

This technique not only gets people to pay attention, but it also triggers their empathy response. The unspoken question in everyone’s mind becomes: What will Jamie teach today that will help these people?

The other thought he is hoping to prompt is: Yikes! I hope that won’t be me.

5. Quote an Expert

Quoting an expert is another effective technique. By aligning yourself with an authority, you add credibility to your message.

One of the presenters at my client’s Town Hall was the Head of Operations. The main message of her presentation was about process-flow. People had been taking short cuts in their work, and it was creating problems further down the line.

Here is an example of a quote she could have used:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

After sharing the quote make sure to say a few words about why that particular quote is meaningful to you.

End Strong Too

Auspiciously, all of the above techniques make for strong endings too. You can mix and match them. If you open with a startling static, try ending with a story. If you start with a joke, perhaps closing with a famous quote will reinforce your message well.

Whatever techniques you choose, make sure to spend time planning and practicing your presentation before you hit the stage. As the consultant Somers White once said:

90% of how well the talk will go is determined before the speaker steps on the platform.

In mid-December I’m scheduled to attend my client’s next Quarterly Town Hall meeting. I’ll let you know if anyone falls asleep.

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