Low-impact openings: How NOT to open a speech or presentation.

Research has shown that the first and last 90 seconds of any speech have the most impact and are the most memorable, so you should always give the opening and closing of your talk extra thought, time and effort.

Often your audience will have already listened to a number of other presentations and may be brain-dead, suffering from ‘Death by PowerPoint’ or simply thinking about something else they deem to be more important.

Just stop and consider the 1001 things that might be going on in your audience’s brains as you get on your feet to present. They could be thinking about the big game on TV that evening, the argument they had with their partner before going to work, a big date on Friday, the clunking noise their car engine was making on the way to work, the fact their child isn’t doing well in school or their pet is sick, financial worries or even what they’re going to cook for dinner that evening.

And that’s just personal stuff. That’s before we throw in all the things that are happening at work. And with everybody’s new-found ability to multi-task and the fact that attention spans are getting shorter, there is always the temptation to open some of the 500 emails in their inbox while you’re speaking (while looking like they’re being attentive and taking notes)

And because you think your presentation is important, you expect them to put everyone of those things to one side, forget about them and give you their full attention instead. Let’s be objective for a moment. What are the chances of that happening without you giving them a very good reason for doing so? Pretty slim, I’d say.

So your job is to grab them by the throat, shake off their torpor and give them a compelling reason to listen. Because if you don’t, why should they bother?

However . . . . . . most people lose this tremendous opportunity, simply ambling into their introduction without any real forethought. They put all their preparation into the body of their talk or presentation, and give none to the opening at all!

Let’s look at the ways most presenters begin.

1. Greetings. Do not open with “Hi/Hello/Good morning/afternoon/evening, it’s a pleasure to be here today …..” Every single presenter before you has probably already said it, it’s bland and obvious and it wastes too much of your precious 90 seconds.

2. Self-introductions, i.e. “My name is Earl . . .” I’ve even heard people open with this when presenting to their co-workers and every single person in the room knew them! It was simply their default way of opening. But even if you’re presenting to people who don’t know you, this is a low-impact, unimpressive opener. There are 3 things you can do instead:

a) Introduce yourself to everyone individually before the presentation, during coffee, if this is practical.

b) Get someone else to introduce you before you get on your feet. If you’re going to do this, give that person a piece of paper with the exact details of what you want them to say. I was once speaking at a conference in Galway, Ireland, and the conference moderator introduced me by saying, “Our next speaker is a consultant from the UK, Nick Skellon. He’s just finished his first book …. and he’s going to start coloring in another one on Monday!” The audience all laughed and I thought it was a brilliant introduction.

A couple of months later I was speaking at an evening event and the organizer asked me how he should introduce me. I told him about the coloring book introduction, and he opened by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming along. Our speaker this evening is Nick Skellon, who’s going to talk about XYZ. He’s just finished his first book, but I’m told the next one will have pictures in it.

In other words, he completely screwed it up! So prevent this from happening by giving them that little slip of paper.

c) Have your name on your opening slide.

If you still feel a self-introduction is necessary, do it after you’ve grabbed their attention, not as the first thing that comes out of your mouth.

3. ‘Fluff’ such as “OK, here goes …”, “1-2, 1-2 … is this mike working?” or “Can everyone hear me at the back?” (especially when tapping the microphone). Or starting with a conversational inanity, such as “How you all doing this morning?”, “Hey, what do you think of those Cowboys/Giants/Patriots/Bears?“, or comments about the weather and how difficult it was to get to the venue in the snow.

4. Thanks, e.g. “Thank you for inviting me to speak here today,” or “When John asked me to speak here today I was delighted to accept …” Again – mundane, everyday, ‘safe’, predictable, boring ……

Yes, I know President Obama usually opens his speeches by thanking the event organizers, but that’s deliberate ego-stroking; it’s important to them that the audience knows the President knows them by name, and Obama realizes this. You’re not the President.

5. Apologies, such as “I’m really not used to doing this sort of thing”, “I’m glad there’s a lectern here so you can’t see my knees knocking”, “When I accepted my invitation to come tonight, I didn’t know I’d have to say anything. If I’d known that I’d probably have made an excuse,” or “I’m sure there are a lot of you in the audience more qualified to speak on this subject than myself”.

Nervous speakers say something like this for two reasons: to lower the audience’s expectations so they don’t seem so bad and gain sympathy and appear likeable, but to me it’s the kiss of death. As soon as I hear words like this I wilt inside, for two reasons.

Firstly, nervousness is contagious. If a speaker owns up to it, it makes me nervous. If she is obviously uncomfortable, I start to squirm and look at the floor, avoiding eye contact. Is this the reaction you want from your audience? Audiences are like wild dogs; they can smell fear.

Secondly, if there are people in the audience more knowledgeable than you, why isn’t one of them presenting instead? You’re hardly giving me a compelling reason to listen to you by admitting your lack of expertise! So I can’t stress this enough – No matter how nervous you feel, DO NOT comment on it in a pathetic, wimpish attempt to gain the audience’s sympathy.

6. Praise such as “It’s a great honor to be here today speaking to such a distinguished audience,” or “Thank you for the opportunity to come along and present to you today, I know how busy you all are.” Churchill once said that praise at the beginning of a speech sounds like you’re sucking up. Praise given halfway in sounds genuine. So if you must praise the audience, do it after the opening, not as part of it.

Comments about how busy the audience is are usually accompanied by something like, “This won’t take long,” or “I’m just going to rush/dash/sprint through a few slides …” Saying you’re going to ‘rush through a few slides really quickly‘ makes it sound as if your presentation is unimportant. If even you don’t think it’s important, how can you expect the audience to think it is? Such comments hardly fill the audience with a burning desire to forget the 1001 things we mentioned earlier, stop everything and listen!

Often people will combine some (or all) of the above and say something like, “Good morning everyone, my name is Nick Skellon and I’d like to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to present to you today, I know you’re very busy. The weather was so bad today I didn’t think I’d ever get here; what did you think of that snow? A 25 minute journey took me 90 minutes today. Amazing! I don’t do many of these things so I’m a bit nervous, I hope you’ll make allowances. Can everyone hear me OK at the back?

By which point 75% of the audience is thinking about the clunking noise the car was making on the way to work, or checking their emails. 25 seconds and you haven’t said a single thing of interest! You DESERVE to lose their attention.

Now it’s not that these methods of opening are bad. Nobody ever got the sack for opening with a self-introduction. People won’t talk about you around the coffee machine for starting with a greeting. They’re just not memorable, that’s all.

They’re boring, mundane, so-so, average, bland, colorless, middle of the road, everyday, predictable, humdrum, conservative, safe, obvious, grey, low-impact, unimpressive and instantly forgettable. Do you really want any of these adjectives or phrases to apply to you? No, I thought not.

You’re objective when opening is to reach out and grab the audience by the throat and give them a compelling reason to give you the next 15, 30 or 45 minutes of their lives. And none of the above do that.

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