Prime time in any presentation is the first 60 seconds after you begin. By the end of this time, most members of your audience have already formed important judgments that will affect how your message will be received, or even if it will be received at all. Just as in competitive diving, your entry will have a disproportionate impact on your score, except that in presentations your goal is to make a large splash rather than a small one.
Unfortunately, the first 60 seconds is also the time during which most speakers are at their worst. They tend to be nervous, boring and sometimes even offensive, and it takes far more time to undo a bad impression than to create one. Let’s take a look at what speakers do wrong when they begin their presentations, and what you can do about it:
Mistake #1: Starting off slowly and predictably. You will probably not have the audience’s full attention when you begin. Listeners are still thinking about the previous presentation, or have taken a few moments to check messages or talk to their neighbor. That’s why the first ten seconds of the first minute are the most critical of all. You need to grab your listeners by the shirt collar and get them to look into your eyes and pay attention. So what do most speakers fill that first 10 seconds with? “Good morning, my name is Joe Fizzlewhait, and I’m delighted to see you all here today …” Get rid of the boilerplate fluff. As Churchill said, “Opening amenities are opening inanities.”
Solution: The human brain is wired to pay attention to novelty, so give them something unexpected. Surprise them, challenge them, question them, anything that will engage their minds, eyes and ears. Although you don’t want to overdo it, this is not the time to play it safe. Safety and mediocrity go hand in hand. Start strong, launch right into your message and get their full attention. Then, if you still want to introduce yourself or thank the audience, do it after you have their full attention. Another variation of this idea is to simply stand there quietly until conversations die down and all eyes are turned on you, but you probably don’t want to try this if you suffer from mistake #2.
Mistake #2: Letting your nerves get the best of you. Of course you’re nervous before an important presentation—there’s a lot riding on it. Your audience will expect it and empathize, because most of them would rather not be in your position. What they don’t want is for you to make a big deal about it. Don’t apologize for not being nervous, and don’t make excuses.
Solution: A strong beginning is the best antidote to nerves. Know your beginning by heart. It will give you a confidence boost that can carry you through your initial butterflies. Fake it ‘til you make it: physically act confident (shoulders back, head up, smile on your face, etc.) and you will begin to feel confident. You will also transmit confidence which will be felt by the audience and returned to you in a virtuous circle.
Mistake #3: Making it about yourself. Self-introductions, as we’ve seen, waste the most precious time during the presentation. Many speakers compound this by going on at length about their background or credentials to establish credibility. The ironic thing about credentials is that the more time you spend talking about yours, the more defensive you sound. The other problem is that they don’t connect their topic to something their listeners directly care about.
Solution: Have your sponsor tell your credentials, or list them in the program. If you have to introduce yourself, don’t give them a complete resume. Give them as little as possible to establish your expertise or unique perspective on the topic. Better yet, tell a relevant story or ask questions that will show how much you know. To make it relevant, be like the tax accountant who told his audience: “I realize tax law isn’t too exciting a topic, but I’ll tell you this: ten minutes listening to me this morning just might keep you out of jail.”
Mistake #4: Trying to lighten the moment with a joke. This is one of the oldest suggestions in public speaking, and more of the most harmful. It supposedly breaks the ice, and helps you connect as a regular person. In my experience, this is the surest way to dig yourself a hole that you might not be able to climb out of. First off, even if the joke goes perfectly, the audience sees through the ploy. And, unless you’re a professional comedian, chances are that it won’t come off perfectly. In today’s oversensitive society, you also run the risk of offending at least one person in the audience. This doesn’t mean there’s no place for humor in presentations, but just don’t make it the first thing you do.
Solution: Be serious, direct, and to the point, especially if it’s a senior level audience. The best way to connect with them is to provide value from the beginning.