I've seen so many presentations in recent years and I think most people don't pay enough attention to the way they start their talks.
The beginning of a presentation isn’t like any other moment in your talk—it’s what people will remember most (primacy effect). Starting strong is important because it only takes a few seconds for people to decide whether or not to follow you and losing them at the beginning will make it much harder to regain their attention later on.
Over time I’ve been studying how top speakers start their presentations to search for the best formula. But of course there is no best formula—it all depends on the topic, the objective and the audience.
Among the many possibilities, there are three in particular that intrigue me.
Tell a story
In his 2012 TED Talk, Andrew Stanton—producer and co-writer of Toy Story—talked about storytelling and he started his presentation by telling a story which set the scene for the rest of his talk. Do you remember what Dan and Chip Heath taught us in Made to Stick? Communicating an idea through a story is one of the most powerful ways to make sure that your idea will stick with your audience.
Tali Sharot—Professor of cognitive neuroscience—wrote a fantastic book (The Influential Mind) in which she explained what works and what doesn't work when it comes to influencing others—and stories do.
In her book she explains that recent research has been focusing on fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to examine the brain of a speaker telling a story and the brain of the listener. In fMRI the blood flow shows which areas of the brain are active and researchers are demonstrating that stories are the only form of verbal communication that creates a coupling, which means that the brain of the speaker and the brain of the listener are active in the same areas—they are synchronised.
Ask stimulating questions
Simon Sinek—author of Start with Why—gave an engaging presentation at TEDxPuget Sound which has been viewed online more than 40 million times.
Sinek introduced his principles for becoming great leaders and his main message (now famous) was that it doesn't matter what you do but why you do it. How did he start his presentation? He started by asking stimulating questions. “How do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example, why is Apple so innovative? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement? Why him?” The answers to these questions defined the theme of his presentation.
Do you remember how you can create curiosity in an audience? By highlighting a gap in their knowledge. And asking questions is one of the best ways to make an audience realise they don't know something, which creates an immediate desire to see that knowledge gap being filled—a gap that can be filled with your ideas.
Show a shocking statistic
Chef Jamie Olivier is interested in the way food can save people's lives. In 2010 he showed up at TED with the aim of making Americans think about their poor eating habits and the way their lives would improve if they only ate better. How did it start his presentation? He started with a shocking statistic: “Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead from the food that they eat. My name’s Jamie Oliver. I’m 34 years old…”
Even before introducing himself, he captured people’s attention by violating their expectations.
The next time you create a presentation, don't underestimate the way you start. Remember that people will decide whether or not it’s worth listening to you in the first few seconds of your presentation. By not starting strong the changes of losing your audience will massively increase.
If you'd like to learn more about how to make better presentations, download my report Top 7 Mistakes People Make When Creating Business Presentations.