I swam competitively growing up and spent a good chunk of every week in the pool practicing. Freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke, distance training, sprint training, stroke technique – we practiced it all. And at a real young age, maybe nine, I learned that a race can be won or lost by a turn or a start. So we practiced those a lot too.
It makes sense now, looking back. The faster you can get off the blocks or off the wall, the faster you can reach your full speed and (hopefully) finish first. One can never underestimate the benefit of a strong start.
Strong starts are similarly important to presentations (and probably to a lot of other topics I haven’t yet thought about).
You’ve heard the expression, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Presentation experts say the audience forms its impression of the presenter in the first 90 seconds of a presentation; that it takes an audience a mere 90 seconds to decide if they want to invest their attention in a presentation.
Now 90 seconds can seem like a lot of time or a little time depending on what you are doing with those seconds. I think a lot about 90 seconds because I heat water for my tea in the microwave for 90 seconds. When I’m standing in front of the microwave waiting for the water to heat up the time drags on and on and on. But I am not a patient waiter (as those of you who know me can attest) and I am a crazy multi-tasker, so I like to play a little game called, “How Much Can I Do While the Water’s Heating Up?” So far, in 90 seconds I can:
- Run upstairs and go to the bathroom
- Run down to the basement and change laundry from the washer to the dryer
- Run down to the basement and grab something out of the freezer
- Put on face cream
I cannot change a diaper, write a blog paragraph, fold a load of laundry, or pack my lunch in 90 seconds although I will continue to try.
The point is, when you are an audience member those first 90 seconds can go one of two ways. You can be waiting, waiting, waiting for the presenter to get on with it – the whole time losing confidence in the presenter’s ability to provide benefit to you. Or you can be riveted from the first word and eagerly anticipating every word after.
I’m assuming you’d rather have the second experience, and I’m also assuming that you’d rather give your audience the second experience, so we’re gonna look at a couple of ways to make that happen.
The key to a strong presentation start is the hook. You want to grab the audience’s attention right away and never let go.
I attended a conference a few months ago with a slate of 15 or so speakers over two days. Each speaker onboarded the same way: someone introduced them by reading a bio (I presumed) the speaker provided, the speaker took the stage, reiterated what the introducer said about where they were from and what they did (this info was also in the printed materials), credited some colleagues for helping them prepare the presentation, and then – sometimes as many as five minutes later – got into the meat of the presentation.
It was the equivalent of waiting in front of the microwave for the water to heat up. Boy, did I long for a hook.
I know it’s tempting to kind of slide into a presentation, to test the water from the pool steps instead of jumping right in, but if you don’t come prepared with a hook you risk losing your audience. You can interject your credentials or thanks elsewhere in your presentation – they just don’t belong on the starting blocks with you. After thanking the person who introduced you, the next word out of your mouth needs to be part of your hook.
Here are a handful of hooks you can use to start presentations.
The bold statement – this is one of my go-to hooks. There is always some kind of super interesting factoid about the material you are presenting and now’s the time to share it. Use it here in the beginning to grab the attention of your audience and get them primed for the material that is coming next. The best striking statements are those that are unusual and surprising. “There are about 3 billion fortune cookies produced each year and the vast majority are consumed by Americans.”
The question. Pose a question to your audience. It can be a rhetorical question you don’t expect the audience to answer, or it can be a question (or series of questions) you do want them to answer. One option is to have the audience stand or sit based on their answer. “Stand up if you think the fortune cookie is a Chinese invention.” You can also ask them to raise their hands.
The story. Start off with a story that personalizes your material. Newspapers and the evening news do a good job of using personal stories to hook the reader and illustrate the theme in question, so check those out for some inspiration. Make sure to keep your story brief (like the newspaper does). Remember you’ve only got 90 seconds.
The analogy. Analogies build bridges to concepts we are unfamiliar with by using a concept we are familiar with for comparison. Remember the starting block analogy I used to kick this blog post off? It drew a comparison between starting a race and starting a presentation. If you have a complex or complicated concept, an analogy is a great way to help your audience get a running start at understanding that new concept.
The quote or a familiar saying. You want to stay away from cliche, but there may be a familiar saying or a quote from a thought leader or change maker in your company, industry, or organization you can use to set the tone for the rest of your presentation.
I’ve got a hook. Now what?
Once you’ve captured their attention with your hook your next step is…? You guessed it. Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell them. (We talked about this in the What’s In It For Me post a few weeks ago). This is where you play presentation tour guide and link your hook to your goal or your Point B so your audience knows what they can expect to experience for the balance of your presentation. A couple of lines will do. “My name is Jamie. I work for the American Society on International Cuisine. We study the emergence of international cuisine in the United States and for the next 30 minutes I’m going to share the little known history of the fortune cookie with you so they’re not on your menu of things to eat when you travel to China.”
There you have it. The key to a strong start that will put you out in the lead for the balance of your presentation.
And because I don’t want to keep you in suspense…some say the fortune cookie is actually a Japanese invention, given a “sweet” makeover and popularized in California by the Chinese in the early 1900’s. It’s a fascinating story; read more about it here.