How to Start a Presentation So You Immediately Capture the Room (With Video)

December 13, 2017

In her LinkedIn Learning course, Professional Speaker Laura Bergells explains how to best open a presentation.

When I went to journalism school, probably 50 percent of our time was dedicated to ledes (that’s journalism-speak for the first line in an article). We looked at the great ledes in history, learned all the different types of ledes and had assignment after assignment where we’d write lede after lede for fictitious news stories.

Why so much focus on the first sentence on a piece? Because study after study showed the same thing – if you can capture someone’s interest right off the bat, there’s a good chance they’ll read the rest of the article. If you don’t, the majority of readers drop off.

In other words, openers really, really matter.

The exact same logic applies to presentations. And yet, think about it – most of us open our presentations poorly. We clear our throats, thank people and make an awkward joke or two that has little to do with the presentation.

That’s not good. Even if you have the most important, most inspiring message in the world, people will check out if you open poorly.

So, you need to be mindful of your first words out of your mouth when starting a presentation. In her LinkedIn Learning course Public Speaking Foundations, Instructor Laura Bergells detailed five types of openers you can use when giving a presentation that’ll grab your audience’s attention.

And, studies show, that means you have a far greater chance of keeping their attention throughout the presentation. Five solid openers are:

    1. Ask an open-ended question.

A caveat you’ll see in all these examples – they can go sideways if you don’t execute them well. For this case, you want to ask an open-ended question – not a closed-ended one with a yes-no answer – that really gets people to think.

A good example would be, “How has Facebook changed the way you live your life?”. A worse example, because it’s a closed-ended question, is “Has Facebook changed the way you live your life?”.

“Use an open-ended question to create a knowledge gap that you'll later close in your presentation,” Bergells said.

    2. Tell a story that’s relevant to the point you are trying to make.

How’s this for meta – I used this technique for the opening of this article. It’s one of my personal favorites, although piece of advice: keep the story short. If it drags you’ll lose people.

“Starting with a story serves two purposes,” Bergells said. “Number one, people really perk up and pay attention whenever somebody begins to tell a story. Further, a well-told story often creates a sense of mystery; your audience will wonder how the content of your presentation will relate to your opening story.”

    3. Make a bold statement.

A huge mistake is to start a presentation with a generic statement, like “the world is changing” or “meetings matter.” This is boring and doesn’t engage anybody, but people have a tendency to do it often.

Instead, make a bold statement. Not something crazy or just to get attention; your presentation needs to back up your point. But bold; something you believe to be true.

“It signals confidence, and it also primes the audience to expect to hear how I'll be backing up such a strong assertion,” Bergells said.

    4. Tell your audience to imagine something.

Here’s a way to get people to go on a journey with you. For example, say you are working for a non-profit that brings water to people who have no water. A good opener – “Imagine being thirsty all the time, but never having anything to drink.”

“Almost instantly, the imagination open makes your audience a part of your presentation,” Bergells said. “They are actively empathizing and engaging with the content of your speech because they are actually putting themselves in it. And let's face it, the moment somebody tells you to imagine something, it's almost impossible not to.”

    5. Lead with a quote or a jarring fact.

This one is the hardest to pull off. In both cases, you need to pick something people haven’t heard before.

So, don’t pick an obvious quote to open with, like “fortune favors the bold.” Maybe something unique, like the Bill Gates quote, “Hire a lazy person to do a difficult job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

Same goes for a fact. You don’t want something your people will know. Instead, you want a fact that’ll both be new to the audience and blow their minds.

An exercise to try

“When you work on developing your next speech or presentation, try this eye-opening exercise,” Bergells said in her course.

“Sit down and write a cold open for the same speech that uses each of these five approaches,” she continued. “Of course, you can only use one cold open technique in your final presentation. But going through this simple exercise may help you discover a stronger opening than you previously thought possible.”

Good advice. Remember – first impressions matter. Make yours count.

Want to learn more? Watch Laura Bergells full course, Public Speaking Foundations.

Other LinkedIn Learning courses you might be interested in are: