How to Start a Presentation: Learn from Some of the Biggest Speakers

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Three Examples of How to Start a Presentation

This past weekend I attended the Synergy Global Forum in New York. Some of the biggest names in business and entrepreneurship presented.

It was a public speaking coach‘s dream.

Specifically I was interested in how everyone opened their presentations. So I took videos of each speaker right as they were beginning.

The opening of the speech is the hardest part for most people, and the most critical. But it’s also the biggest opportunity.

If you can nail the opening, the rest of your presentation will probably go smoothly and be well-received.

But if you struggle right from the beginning, the rest will be a tough slog. At best, you won’t make the impact you want to make on the audience.

One key trait of these very educational, charismatic and well-known speakers is that they know how to open well.

As you can see, they each open their presentation with a different style. They each have a unique personality, but all get the audience reacting in a positive way right upfront, to set a positive tone.

Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk at Synergy Global Forum October 2017 - Opening 3 Minutes (Public Speaking Lessons)

Gary starts off with a joke about his mom writing the bio that the hostess had just read to us (it took her forever to read his bio and introduce him).

He teases what he’s going to talk about–“perspective”, an unexpected term that makes us curious to pay attention. And he mentions he’s “never talked about this publicly on stage before.” Now the crowd is really curious.

Any time you can make the audience feel like they are hearing something new, a secret, or special information, you are sure to get them excited.

Gary also goes out of his way to thank his parents for his success. This gets the crowd cheering.

So literally within 2 minutes of walking on stage, Gary has already made us laugh and applaud, and he hasn’t said anything of substance yet. And he has us paying close attention to his words by creating anticipation.

How Ray Kurzweil Started His Presentation

Ray Kurzweil at Synergy Global Forum October 2017: Opening 2 Minutes (Public Speaking Lessons)

Ray Kurzweil is the opposite of Gary: low key, relatively quiet, and low energy. But he still opens with a joke: “I’ll start with my own personal history… so I’ll start in 1868.”

It’s just funny, but also endears him to the audience because it’s self-deprecating.

He tells a story about his great-grandmother who started the first woman’s college in Europe. It’s an interesting story, although not delivered in the most exciting way.

The main purpose of the story is to lead into Ray’s first experience with the typewriter as a kid. And that leads into the main topic, which is technology and innovation.

Telling a story is a great way to open a presentation. The key, as Ray does here, is to smoothly lead into the substance of the presentation.

Occasionally you’ll see a speaker just tell a random story that is disconnected from the main topic. And that’s not as effective.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Presentation Opening

Malcolm Gladwell at Synergy Global Forum October 2017: First Few Minutes - Public Speaking Lessons

Malcolm Gladwell begins his speech with a few jokes about the Knicks and Madison Square Garden, which get the crowd laughing right away. And then a self-deprecating joke about the joke he just made: “that’s the end of my Knicks jokes.”

He then immediately gets into the substance of the talk.

He introduces “a question which I’m sure has run through many of your minds.” So before revealing it, he is drawing attention to the universality of this question.

But before he names the question itself, he frames the overall issue: “technological innovation has never been faster, disruption is happening to traditional industries.”

This leads into the question: “what is the best way for organizations to react to those changes?”

This is important: he didn’t just get on stage and say “What is the best way for organizations to react to change?”

He could have easily done that, but it would not have been as powerful.

Instead he spells out the challenges, and frames the problem before identifying a specific question to ask.

By citing specific events that are happening right now, he creates urgency and anticipation that would have been lost if he just went straight to the core question.

Framing and setup are essential techniques that many speakers fail to use.

Three brilliant speakers. Three very different ways to open a presentation.

Now for several things they DON’T do when they open:

  • They don’t check to see if there are any technical issues (“can everyone hear me?”)
  • They don’t apologize for being late (some seemed to start late, but nobody cares). Starting your presentation with an apology is one of the worst things you can do.
  • They don’t fiddle with their notes – they are 100% prepared right from the get-go
  • They don’t rush through their opening. They take their time to set up their jokes and comments, so that it lands with the audience.

Obviously humor (prepared or not) is a very common strategy among great speakers, and for good reason.

But other than that, there are a lot of effective ways to open a speech.

You can tell a story, you can setup an interesting question, you can use anticipation, or you can get the crowd cheering or nodding in agreement with universal truths.

You can tailor these techniques to your unique personality and style.

Justin Aquino