Open your next presentation with flair

No one in the audience spoke Japanese. But that didn’t stop the speaker. His non-English opening lasted several minutes—and stole the show.

The audience (senior leaders at a global company) looked spellbound. “I experienced,” the person next to me said later, “what it feels like at a global company if you work outside U.S. headquarters.”

True, the speaker also had slides, in English, like subtitles in a foreign film. But many people avoid foreign films precisely because of the subtitles.

So what made this opening work? Well, it was different.

When you stand up and speak, your audience experiences you like a movie. Their first thought: is this movie interesting?

One Saturday night, my wife and I were at home, desperate to watch a movie. After scrolling through 1,000 bad choices, we rented “African Queen,” an old, Humphrey Bogart film. Bogart won an Academy Award for his performance.

But that was 1951. Watch it today, the pace is deadly. Nothing happens for a very, very, long time.

Are you a 1950s movie? You might be if you open your presentation by:

1) Putting up a slide with your talk’s title, then reading it.
Don’t. Start with a dark screen, then flash the title a minute or two into your presentation.

2) Thanking everyone. Giving credit is good, but modern movies don’t open that way. The credits come later.

3) Telling the audience that you’ll be brief. Audiences appreciate brief, but is that really the best thing about your talk? Sounds less like a good movie, more like a bad commercial.


What to do instead? Try opening with:

1) A compelling quote. Example: “IT’S BUSINESS, NOT PERSONAL.” I repeat this line, from “The Godfather,” several times in the first minute of one of my programs (Conflict & Collaboration).

And that’s before saying hello, good morning, or anything else.

2) A story, e.g.: “Midnight, and I’d just settled into my hotel room when the phone rang. I knew it wasn’t going to be good” (from my workshop, Challenging Conversations).

3) A question
, e.g.: “How many thoughts a day do you think you have?” (keynote, Resilience @ Work).

The answer to that last question, by the way, is about 60,000. Which is why your audience is so distracted—and why you need to hook them right away.

Tip: Avoid predictable. Be slightly different.

© Copyright 2015 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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