The first 30 seconds of your presentation can determine whether an audience will continue listening or walk away--figuratively or literally.

In the age of the smartphone, you have to find a way to keep John and Jane from checking email, updating task lists, or texting their significant other about how boring the last presentation was. Fact is, they're probably already doing this when you start. So you've got 30 seconds to get them back.

How do you do it? Here are six ways, with examples:

1. Ask a question

The whole goal here is to get people thinking. If it's a small group, give them the chance to answer out loud. For larger groups, pause about four seconds, so they can respond mentally. (That four seconds sounds like an eternity to you, but it's just enough time for them to think.)

Example:

For a "presentation about presentations," you might begin with:

'I'd like to begin today by asking you a question. What do you think makes a great presentation?'

[Invite the group to shout out whatever comes to mind. If that won't work, pause and let them think about it.]

2. News item or statistic

When you mention a popular news story, you tap into one of the following two feelings:

Oh yeah, I heard about that. The audience member now identifies your presentation with a topic which previously caught his/her interest.

Wow. I didn't know that. They're now motivated to keep listening to see what else they can learn.

Example:

In her TED talk 'The small and surprisingly dangerous detail the police track about you', Attorney and privacy advocate Catherine Crump begins like this:

The shocking police crackdown on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri...underscored the extent to which advanced military weapons and equipment... are making their way to small-town police departments across the United States.

Although much tougher to observe, this same thing is happening with surveillance equipment.

Interested? You can watch her talk in entirety here.

3. Interesting statement

Writers are taught to come up with "click-worthy headlines" to attract readers. (If our story doesn't deliver, we become guilty of "click-bait.")

Try to think of your opening statement as a 'headline' to reel people in:

Example:

This is a great piece by Lyz Lenz about teaching her daughter the value of learning from mistakes. Her headline is brilliant, and converted perfectly to an opening for a speech I give on the same topic:

"A friend of mine once said of her little girl: 'I sincerely want my daughter to fail. (Pause for dramatic effect.) And you know what? My mother wanted the same thing for me.' "

You can just see the look in the audience's eyes: What? That's horrible! What kind of mother is she? How could anyone feel that way?

Mission accomplished. I go on to explain why Lenz feels the way she does, and the major lesson it involves: Better for her child to fail now and learn to handle it, then fail as an adult and fall apart.

4. Quote

Look for a great quote that relates to your topic. (This is a variation on the 'interesting statement' technique if you're looking for inspiration.)

Example:

A presentation on the value of listening could begin like this:

American businessman and philanthropist Bernard Baruch once said: "Most of the successful people I've known are the ones who do more listening than talking." Over the years, I've witnessed the truth of that statement firsthand. For example...

(If you're looking for a great quote, Goodreads is one of my go-to sources.)

5. Short story

If you're a good storyteller, this could be a great approach. Just be careful that it's truly a short story, and that it has a direct correlation to your topic.

Personal stories are best. Think of a specific experience that taught you a major lesson, then condense it to a short narrative.

Example:

One presentation I give focuses on the value of setting goals, and the benefits of having a mentor. It begins with a short story about my efforts to play a song on guitar in order to propose to my wife, despite the fact that I had zero previous guitar playing experience. The personal touch gets great response, and the story ties in well to some key lessons. (You can read the full story here if you're interested.)

6. Humor

Depending on the circumstances, humor can be a great way to break the ice. It doesn't even have to relate to your topic...as long as it's followed by one of the other methods.

Example:

Acclaimed film and television director JJ Abrams (Lost, Star Trek) used humor effectively to begin his TED talk: 'The Mystery Box'. Check it out.

There you go: Six surefire ways to get the audience hanging on your every word.

And how can you keep them captivated? Check out my previous post: How to Maximize the Impact of Your Presentation.

Published on: Apr 6, 2015
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