4 Ways to Open a Big Stage Presentation with Impact

Subscribe to my coaching email:
3 Public speaking tips a month to help you become a better leader

Subscribe here

A few years back, I was invited to do a Pecha Kucha. Now, for those of you who haven’t come across the format before, the concept is simple; 20 slides, displayed for exactly 20 seconds each thanks to an automatic timer. The idea behind the format is that it ensures the speaker is concise, keeps the presentation moving and gets through all of their content. They’re great fun. If you’re not delivering one!

5 years ago to the very day, I was invited to New York along with a group of other TEDx organisers from across the world to watch TED's conference.

Picture this... Day 3 of the conference, the after-lunch session.

I was hungover, socially talked out and barely paying any attention to what was happening on the stage because I was checking my emails. The first speaker comes on stage, not a clue who it was. The second speaker comes on, the same result. Then some guy walks on stage and says this...

'I want to start with a simple question...
Why do the poor make so many poor decisions?'

I stopped what I was doing immediately. Put my phone down, sat up in my seat and tuned in. Half of me was hoping for some tomato and heckle throwing from the crowd for asking such a disrespectful question. The other half of me was thinking 'How on earth are you going to dig yourself out of that hole?!'

How you open a big stage presentation matters. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that the first 30 seconds will make or break your whole talk's success - especially if your talk is going to end up online and have to compete against a minefield of distractions.

Rutger Bregman nailed it.

He brought me in with precision and delivered a presentation that I still rave about and it was all down to his opener.

A storytelling expert called Susan Payton once told me that every James Bond movie starts right in the middle of an action scene. As a result, you're completely immersed right from the beginning.

The same goes for a great opener.

Most presenters start way too predictably - so predictably in fact, I've given the most common ones a name:

  • The Awkward Hello: 'Hi everyone, how are you all doing?!'
  • The Bio: 'My name is Alex, and before I start, I'm going to bore you with my career history in a poor attempt to convince you that I am worth listening to.'
  • The Spoiler: ‘Today I’m going to spend the next 5 minutes telling you about why we should do [insert main point here].’

If you are ever guilty of any of the above, your future audiences will thank you for reading the rest of this article.

Your presentation will live and die by the way you open it.

Unless you are famous and people have specifically turned up to watch you speak, you are in a battle for your audience's attention. Why? Because the people you're speaking to have pretty much decided whether or not they are going to pay attention before you've even started speaking.

Some of the factors that help us to shape that decision? 

How you've been introduced on stage, the topic of your talk, your speaker bio in the programme, how you walk on stage, what time of the day it is, how interesting the person sitting next to them is, what's going on at work/home etc.

Get your opener wrong and you are giving your audience permission to switch off and start playing on their phones. Here are 4 ways to capture your audience's attention and their imagination right from the get-go:

1. Start Your Presentation With a Question

And not the kind of patronising, forced question you might see from someone that has spent too much time at toastmasters e.g. 'put your hand up if you've ever felt sad 🥺.'

Your audience will see right through that. Instead, ask a question that challenges them. It doesn't have to be provocative like Rutger Bregman's, but it does need to be one that sparks curiosity, one where the answer isn't easily apparent.

Rhetorical questions help your audience to mentally engage with you. They create a silent conversation. Prime your audience to tune into the question you're about to ask by telling them you're going to ask it e.g.

'I want to start with a question... (insert question)'

Credit: Rutger Bregman, TED 2017

2. Start Your Presentation With a Story

When done right, stories are a presenter’s trojan horse. They are the most effective way to connect with an audience and it will be no surprise to you that if there was one story in particular that your audience doesn't care about, it's your life story. So do everyone a favour and keep it to yourself.

There are three things that make an opening story great: relatability, unpredictability, and relevance.

There are so many ways of telling stories and so many types of stories to tell, but one of the most effective, in my opinion, is a story of a failure.

Where have you failed in relation to
your subject matter?

One way of opening this story might be... 'You won't believe what happened (insert date)...'

For me at least, the secret to telling a great failure story is to really own it. Don't fall into the trap of trying to give it a happily ever after - because let's face it, it's what everyone will be expecting). But do tell it in a self-deprecating and entertaining way. Failure stories can be upbeat!

Tell it well and your humility, self-awareness and desire to connect will shine through.

Credit: Tim Urban, TED 2016

3. Start Your Presentation With a Joke

I once interviewed a comedian who said the two easiest things to joke about are yourself (because no one can get offended by that) and the environment you're presenting in (because it's something everyone can relate to.

I once attended an awards do in this very grand ballroom. When the keynote speaker took the stage, looked around at the audience, paused and then exclaimed

'Welcome to Hogwart's!'

Everyone laughed. He had us within 3 seconds - so simple, so effective.

Credit: Geoffrey Canada, TED 2013

4. Start Your Presentation With a Power Statement

A power statement is a single sentence that leaves nothing to the audience's imagination. Opening with one is a great way to set the tone and command the attention of the room.

They don't contain any filler words (e.g. um, like, you know) or hedging words ( e.g. just, sort of, probably, kind of etc.), instead, they cut right to the core of the point you're trying to make.

To create a power statement, ask yourself what is the point you want to make and distil it down to a short, sharp sentence.

  • A Punchy Statistic - Like Jamie Oliver in his TED talk - 'Sadly, in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat, four Americans that are alive will be dead through the food that they eat.'
  • Power of 3's - Things that come in three’s are funnier, more satisfying and more effective than any number of things. See what I did there?!
  • Parallelism -  The art of balancing two or more ideas that are equally important. Still no clearer?! Nor me. I stole that definition from Grammarly! It's essentially a 'not only...but also' sentence. I'll steal a quote from a client of mine who used one to nail her All Hands Debut at a new company...

"Scaling is not just about customer acquisition,
it’s about scaling our mindset and scaling our skillset."

Top Power Statement Delivery Tip:

Sandwich your power statement with two pauses for maximum effect. The first pause is to create anticipation for what it is you’re about to say. It also acts as a life raft for anyone whose concentration might have dropped - they’ll notice the silence and tune back in as a result. The second pause is to give your audience time to reflect on what they’ve just heard.

Here's Monica Lewinsky at TED 2015 starting her talk with a power statement and then proceeding to tell a story as part of her opener (yep you can use more than one of the tips above!).

Credit: Monica Lewinsky, TED 2015

If you're stuck with your opener...

There's really only one rule - Whatever your audience is expecting you to say or do - don't do that!

Subscribe to my coaching email:
3 Public speaking tips a month to help you become a better leader