It was a Thursday afternoon and I was catching up with friends during a rare happy hour. One friend, Shelly, is an expert in her field and has just started speaking at conferences in her industry. The visibility has meant excellent growth for her business, but for someone who never considered herself a "public speaker," each presentation is intimidating.
As our plate of bruschetta arrived, Shelly told me that the biggest presentation of her career was just around the corner. "There will be 600 people there and they're not the friendliest crew."
She asked if I had any advice. I told her what I'll tell you here--the simple secret to nailing a presentation in the first 30 seconds.
Start with a story.
As an entrepreneur, this likely isn't the first time you've heard the importance of being able to tell your story, especially in presentations.
Research shows that storytelling is more persuasive than facts. Stories will make your speech more memorable because humans are hard-wired for stories. You've likely heard that stories tap into the emotions of your audience which is critical to changing behavior.
However, there are several advantages to starting with a story you likely haven't considered.
Here's are three reasons kicking off with a story sets any speech up for success in 30 seconds or less:
1. A story makes you a human instead of an expert
There are some audiences who welcome speakers with open arms and others who are more difficult to win over.
Sometimes it's the nature of the event--a pitch or sales presentation puts an automatic divide between speaker and audience. Sometimes it's the nature of the people in the room--they themselves are experts and are skeptical about listening to other so-called-experts.
In any case, the sooner you can transition from "expert in the front of the room," to "person just like you," the smoother the entire experience will be.
A story is the fastest way to make that transition happen.
In Shelly's case, I encouraged her to tell a story that centered on a client (and not Shelly's expertise) whose situation was likely one the audience had experienced themselves. In doing so, she'd highlight commonalities and bridge the gap between audience and expert.
"Or," I said, "tell a story of one of your kids." As long as the major lesson learned is relevant to the overall message of the presentation, telling a story about your children can be a great equalizer. Now you're not an "expert," you're a parent; something just about everyone in the audience can relate to either as parents or from having parents.
2. A story will calm your nerves
If you have butterflies in your stomach every time you get up to present, congratulations. You're normal.
Public speaking triggers the ancient, self-preservation fight-or-flight response. Starting with a story can actually cut the nerves off at the source by answering the only question a speaker's lizard brain cares about:
Do they like me?
Tell them a story, and the answer will be yes. Remember, humans like stories. We respond to them. Starting a presentation with a story gives the audience something they want.
Within 30 seconds of taking the stage, the audience will visibly engage: nodding, laughing, and even closing their laptops. All of these signals soothe your reptilian brain and ease your nerves so you can get on with delivering the best speech they've ever heard.
3. A story is easy
Storytelling is a skill and, like anything worth doing, requires effort to master. However, much like Dorothy realizing everything she desired was already within her, your stories just a heel-click away.
When preparing for your next speech, think back on life experiences that illustrate the message you want to deliver. You've already lived these stories, all you have to do now is tell them.
Four days after our happy hour conversation, I got a text from Shelly who, based on the excessive amount of emojis and all CAPS, was still on a speaker's high: "I started with a story [about my daughter] and it was FANTASTIC!"
After the lecture she was swarmed by people telling her it was the best presentation they'd ever heard. A presentation destined for success from the moment it began.