Author: Pascal Heymann
In my previous article, I spoke about a particular phrase you should avoid when beginning a presentation. Today, I want to introduce you to 3 types of phrases you should use. Finding the first words for a presentation can be challenging. They are the first verbal impression you leave on your audience. And first impressions stick. So make them count. How?
1. Make a statement
While simple in theory, this type of beginning phrase has the potential of being either suuuuuuper boring or incredibly effective. Why? Because most of the phrases we use – both in everyday language and in presentations – are statements. So it’s tempting to think that by using just any statement, that you’ve done your job. That’s not enough, though. Your statement needs to fulfil a few criteria. If you’re beginning a presentation with a statement, that statement should:
a) Be relevant to the topic of your presentation
b) Contain new (factual) information for your audience
c) Challenge your audience’s knowledge/emotions/beliefs
d) Evoke/elicit curiosity or an emotional response
On the topic of video games:
“The average gamer isn’t an 18-year-old child; the average gamer is that child’s parent.”
On the topic of love:
“According to psychologists, the longer you hide your feelings for someone, the harder you’ll fall in love.”
One example that has stuck with me for several years was the beginning statement by Mark Henick during his presentation at TEDxToronto, on the topic of suicide:
“I was barely a teenager, the first time I tried to kill myself.”
Depending on the audience or the topic of your presentation, you might not always find a statement that fulfils all 4 criteria, but if your statement fulfils only 1 or 2, it’s time to rework the statement. It’s also important to note that while you want to challenge your audience’s knowledge, emotions, and beliefs, you don’t want to alienate them either. After all, the main purpose of the first phrase is to get the audience on your ‘good side’.
2. Make a claim
A claim is very similar to a statement, but with one defining difference: it’s a statement that has not yet been accepted as fact by your audience. The statement examples above either contain publicly known information or reveal something about the speaker that the audience needs to take at face value. In addition to the statement criteria, a claim must either:
a) Be novel to the audience
b) Be too absurd to be accepted as truth
On the topic of motivation:
“There is no shame in giving up.”
On the topic of love:
“At the end of this talk, you will have fallen in love with the person sitting next to you.”
On the topic of time travel:
“Flux capacitors are real and we have successfully travelled back in time.”
3. Ask a question
Questions are the easiest form of audience involvement and by beginning a presentation with a question, you are letting your audience rest assured that you won’t spend the next 15 minutes in a dry monologue. Will any question suffice then? Of course not. A good question will:
a) Encourage the audience to reflect on the topic
b) Be sincere / treat the audience like adults
I cannot stress the sincerity part enough. Don’t treat your audience like little kids by asking a silly question everyone knows the answer to. People don’t like being patronized, so a condescending question will turn off your audience in a heartbeat. You know the type: “Who here has a dream?” / “Do you think you deserve more in life?”
Instead, ask a question that makes the audience genuinely reflect and give them a moment to arrive at an answer. Whether you ask them to verbally throw that answer back at you is your choice (just be clear about what you want from them, to share or to reflect). If you are fairly unfamiliar to the audience, I suggest leaving it as a rhetorical question and not expecting an answer shouted into the room. Proper audience interaction requires both the audience and the speaker warming up to one another.
On the topic of phobias:
“What do a Nazi, a homophobe and yourself have in common?”
On the topic of morality:
“Do you think it is right to risk the lives of others to save your own?”
On the topic of physics:
“What do you think happens if I shoot this samurai sword with my revolver?”
Of course, the beginning of a presentation doesn’t need to be confined to just one phrase. After all, what happens after the first phrase? Where do you go next? Sometimes, beginning a presentation with the right phrase allows the rest of the introduction to fall right into place.
Try it out in your next presentation and stay tuned to find out how you can craft an introduction beyond the first phrase!
For more speaking advice, check out our short videos!