Years ago, while at a physics conference, I discovered the secret formula for how to start a speech or a presentation!
Talk at-length about all your degrees, everywhere you’ve worked, where you’ve been published, (where you still might get published)… and then add a bit of personality like “in the winter I like skiing.”
I’m sure whatever came next was scintillating, but I have no idea what it was. I checked out after the sixth mention of MIT.
Here’s the thing. Starting strong not only engages the audience, it energizes YOU the speaker to really deliver.
But that leads to a really good question: How do you start a speech or presentation? And not only that, how do you get your audience engaged, excited, and paying attention right at the beginning?
In this guide I will teach you:
- How to get people paying attention
- How to get your audience to buy-in and keep listening
- What to do if you have “speech writer’s block”
- How to introduce yourself without boring people
Let’s dive in!
Where to start…
If you were to ask me for help in creating your presentation, I bet I’d see one of two issues.
Issue 1 – You gloss over the beginning
I get it, you’re excited to get started and hungry to get to the meat and bones. This usually looks like “hello everybody, thank you for being here. Today, I’m going to tell you about our sustainability initiatives. Here’s the first thing you need to know…”
What you have to say is important. Give it the introduction it deserves. You want to send a message like you better not miss this, so buck up and pay attention! (Instead of my presentation is the equivalent of an office memo you’ll probably throw away.)
Issue 2 – You get total writer’s block
At the same time, the pressure to create the perfect beginning, to start on a strong and engaging note can be too high. Then you’re just sitting, procrastinating, and probably getting more and more anxious.
And maybe you start Googling “How to start a speech” and land on the perfect article that will solve all your problems 😉
In any case, I always give these two pieces of advice to get started:
Solution 1 – Create your beginning AT THE END
I know. So revolutionary.
But if you’re stuck trying to create an interesting introduction, just put it aside. Don’t procrastinate any further and just create the main content (which is way easier,) and then you’ll have enough perspective to come back and make things interesting.
Trust me. It’s a real time (and sanity) saver.
Solution 2 – Use my engagement formula
- The hook
- The intro
- Three main chunks
- The conclusion
- The call to action
Use this like a template or a starting point for talks that grab and hold on to attention:
Got it? Now… What the heck do all those words mean?
I once started a presentation with this image.
Guess what happened. People got riled up. People got talking. People got in the mood for discussion and in the mood to find out what’s coming next.
The point I wanted to make was that we all see things differently, and my audience got to experience that firsthand. They were now ready to engage.
(By the way, if you were living under a rock in 2015 definitely check out “the dress” and prepare to get your mind blown.)
You need to help them get the gears turning. Get them thinking instead of just listening. (Or worse… just look like they’re listening.)
We often assume that just because our audience showed up, they must be engaged. To be fair, they want to give you their full and undivided attention, but there are just too many interesting distractions to compete with. Like “What kind of pizza should I get for lunch?” and “how does that little light in the fridge work?”
The truth is, it’s your job to grab the audience’s attention.. It’s your job to get your audience hooked in, engaged, and excited for what’s coming next.
You do this with a hook.
The hook is the moment where you get your audience’s gears turning. Get them thinking. Get them interested and wanting to find out more. Here are a few examples:
- The open-ended question: This one is my favorite. I recently started a talk with “What was the last thing you talked yourself out of?” Doesn’t that get you curious about where this is going?
It’s up to you whether or not you want people to speak up or just ponder the open-ended question – just let people know what you expect beforehand.
- An activity or a discussion: I know, I know, everyone loves a group activity, right? But it can be something simple like a thought exercise or a show of hands like “Who here has ever wanted to take a nap at work?”
- An image or a prop: Just like my hook with the dress, a simple image can get your audience really excited. If you can involve a prop (especially for a demo,) that’s even more powerful. Our brains love to hook on to real objects.
- A story or analogy: “When I was a young warthog…”
There’s nothing more engaging than a good story. When we begin hearing a story, our brains become childlike and curious and much more primed to learn and make connections.
It doesn’t have to be a long story, (or even a true one,) it just has to invoke the senses and invite the question “what happens next?”
Come up with a good hook, and the rest of your presentation will be smooth sailing.
Woohoo! Now that you got through your hook, and the audience is hanging on to your every word it’s time to start dropping knowledge bombs before you lose their attention!
Not so fast.
Before you can start wowing people with information, you need to spell out why they should care. That’s right. Spell it out.
If the hook got their gears turning, the intro is where you shift those gears into caring. This is where you establish buy-in by saying to the brain here’s what’s in it for you.
Let’s say that you’re demoing a new timetracking software to your company. Here are a few examples of how you could establish buy-in and introduce your presentation:
- Bare Minimum: An agenda or overview.
This is like a table of contents where you just tell your audience the topics you’ll be covering. This gives people an idea of what they’ll learn and lets them keep track of where they are. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I dare you to kick it up a notch!
- Minimum+: Explicitly tell them what they’ll walk away with.
“By the end of my presentation, you’ll be ready to use our new software.”
This might sound simplistic but it actually really helps in making sure that the take-home message sticks.
- Medium: The big picture and how you’ll dive in.
This is where you provide some background on your topic, explain why you’re giving this presentation, and give an overview of what you’ll cover.
For example, you could explain that your company needs to understand which tasks require the most time, and for that you plan to introduce a new time-tracking software. You see how this starts to create buy-in by letting people know the larger goal and how they fit into it.
- Maximum effect: What’s in it for them.
Let’s look at this example:
If there’s one thing that makes me proud of our management team, it’s that we’re always seeking your input. During our conversations, one key issue keeps coming up. No one likes unreasonable timelines. We don’t want you to have to work late because the deadline is too close. We don’t want you to be stuck waiting for someone to finish because their deadline is too far. We don’t want you to have to juggle priorities.
So instead of making blind decisions for you, we want to incorporate your input and use real data. We want you to help us understand which tasks need the most time and the most effort. We want to start measuring how we all use our time so that we can start making smarter decisions with more realistic timelines. How does that sound?
If you want to get the most buy-in, start with what’s in it for them. Start with why this is important. Offer context that makes the audience feel included, and even share what can be done next.
Some people save this for the ending as a wrap-up, but don’t you think it’s even more impactful at the beginning? Don’t you think it really sells why you should keep paying attention?
That’s how you introduce your speech.
How to introduce yourself (without boring people)
Now comes the most important question. When you’re speaking to a new audience, how do you introduce yourself without boring people?
I get the dilemma. On the one hand, you may feel the need to establish a sense of credibility – justify that you are, in fact, impressive and belong to speak on that stage.
On the other hand, going on and on about yourself isn’t exactly engaging… at least not to other people.
(By the way, if someone else is introducing you, you might as well let them read off all your accolades and accomplishments. Why not?! Besides, you can swoop in with your super-interesting hook and really steal the show afterwards.)
But for God’s sake. Don’t get on stage and repeat everything the MC just said!
If there’s no MC to introduce you, here’s what I recommend.
Introduce yourself after the hook (or even after the intro) while you have your audience’s undivided attention, and they’ve already bought into listening to you further. Do it when they’re already interested.
And more importantly, give a very brief introduction of who you are, and only your most relevant or interesting accomplishments. (For example, when I speak to business people, I mention that I’ve been featured in various media including Forbes. And that’s pretty much where I stop.)
But there’s so much more to me than just one thing!
I hear you saying. Yes. But if you list it all upfront, you’re diluting the most interesting parts anyway. The audience essentially won’t hear what else you have to say (not to mention what comes afterwards.)
The better solution is to intersperse your other interesting and relevant accomplishments as quick stories or asides throughout your presentation.
“… back when I was on the Alpine rescue team, I learned that …”
See what we did there? We just added an element of surprise, dimension, and even credibility. People will be interested in coming up to you after your talk to connect over your interesting history, instead of just glossing over it. (By the way, that was a true “side story” I once heard from my dad.)
Now go get started!
A strong start to a speech creates the momentum you need to really connect and engage with your audience. Get it right, and you’ll feel ON FIRE and energized for the rest of your talk, which will only make you even more engaging. You now have everything you need, so go get started!
PS – for those of you who need help putting theory into action so that YOU can see what it feels like to finally give an energizing and engaging talk, let’s connect. I’d love to help you out.