How to start your presentation

How to Start your Presentation

(ou Comment vous pouvez démarrer votre présentation)

Imagine that you are sitting in your local multiplex. You are waiting for the film to start. A big box of popcorn is next to you. You have been asked to turn off your mobile phone. The lights go off properly and the film starts. You have heard only good things about the film so you are keen to see it. The screen stays black, though, and the opening credits start to roll. And then they continue to do so. For 7 minutes.

And only then does the film start.

The next day you go back to the same multiplex. You buy some more popcorn and you settle back down again in the same place. The lights go off. But this time you get straight into the action. A man is falling through the ice. Why? The sun is coming up over the moon. A computer screen with green alien script filling it up.  In each of these are curiousity has been peaked and we want, even need, to know what happens next.

Which would you stay still for?

The first film is Casablanca. Often voted one of the best films ever. But nowadays we would not sit through 7 minutes of facts on their own. Times have changed and we have become used to new ways of listening and watching.

(For information, the other films I mentioned are Skyfall, 2001: A Space Odysey and the Matrix. Here is a short videoexplaining what makes a great intro to a film.)

And so it is with presentations.

My last blog looked at the different types of structure you could use when putting it together. However, once you have the structure you still need the content. And you need to start somewhere. This blog will look at some ways you can find your starting point.


Before doing anything else, even before putting pen to paper or moving your cursor across you screen, (or finger if you are on a tablet or phone), is to ask yourself what are your objectives. Are you trying to motivate a team? Sell an idea? Explain a concept? Convince VCs of the worth of your product? Something else?

Then you need to find out as much as you can about who you are going to be talking to. What are their expectations? What is their background?

Now you can start thinking about what type of story you are going to be telling.

But you still need to tell the story. And this is where your job becomes a little bit harder still. You need to find the right way in. Many tests have shown how important first impressions are – and there is a lot written about it that is easy enough to find. (A particularly good source is Blink by Malcolm Gladwellbut you can also read about the studies done by Nalini Ambady). These are talking about physical first impressions, though.

(Just as a side point – I would suggest that even before opening your mouth to speak, you should think long and hard about how you appear. Although how you look should not matter, it does. How you stand, how confident you appear, even how you dress has a startling impact on how your presentation will be received.)

But your first words are also going to go a long way to building or breaking the trust that your audience wants to give you.


You know who you are talking to. You know the subject. You know what your content is. But you don’t know how to start. I would suggest that you make a short list before you do anything else.

As I have said above, films and TV programmes, even video games, today start with the story and not the credits. They are trying to create the “And then what…” reaction in the minds of the audience. Your role as a public speaker is the same. You want your listeners to be asking that question, too.

As in my last blog, you don’t need to start at the beginning. The only criteria is that where you start needs to have a relevance sooner rather than later, otherwise you will loose your audience.

There are very few films that can keep people guessing in the way that Sixth Sense did – and even the film’s director hasn’t managed to do the same trick twice. By all means use suspense as a trick, but be careful how long you keep your listeners guessing. They are there to learn from you and they are not watching a film.

Just a quick reminder. If you chose to follow this path, don’t forget that at some point you will need to introduce yourself, just as films eventually tell the audience what they are watching!



1 Quote someone

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is noting left to take away.” Antoine de St. Exupery, French writer, (1900 – 1944).

I like this quote. I find it useful when putting the final touches of my presentation together. However, there is a problem with it here. It does not fit. It is not the subject. Choosing the right quote means that the citation is relevant for the subject. If the quote has been correctly chosen then it segues nicely into what you have to say. Getting the quote just right is a shortcut to adding instant credibility.

2 What is the problem?

By having done the checklist, you know what the problem that you are there to address. Use that as your starting point. But be careful how hard you go in. You don’t want to rub people’s noses in the problem. Phrase your words positively or even use an allegory.

“When you find someone who has difficulty walking up stairs because they are carrying too much weight, you don’t remedy their problem by hacking bits off them. You start by making the person fitter by changing their diet and getting more exercise. And this is what we aim to do for your company…”


These questions can be either rhetorical, (“If I could show you a way to double your sales, would you be interested?”) or direct, (“How many of you enjoy James Bond? A show of hands, please.”)

Asking questions, (you of the audience and at the right time), creates and keeps their attention and engagement.

One of the most popular and best speakers at the TED talks is Simon Sinek. In 2009 he gave a speech on inspirational leadership and to date his talk has racked up over 34 million views. He uses rhetorical questions as a springboard to great effect.


Recently I re-watched the real first Star Wars film, (A New Hope) and I was struck by just how slow it was in parts. And it occurred me that as a society we have become more and more greedy in needing things to happen quickly. We no longer have the patience to wait. (It is also true with other films as I mentioned right at the beginning of this blog).

So accepting that, why not make it work for us? With cheap animated films that anyone can make themselves available, such as using this website, digital cameras available on every device, fast download times for YouTube, then why not start with that? Everyone, and especially this current generation loves images that move!

Just a word of warning – if you do choose to use video, use it sparingly. People are there to listed to you, not to go to the cinema.


The most powerful presentations are those that go directly to the heart and by pass the brain, (metaphorically!)

Work with people’s emotions. Use words like “Close your eyes…”, “Imagine that you are…”, “What if…?”

By playing with people’s emotions, you are getting them engaged with you. Chemicals are released and create a rush of feeling that does not happen when you just use facts. A good example of this is Jane Chen’s talk at, once again, TED. You can find it here.


A perfect example of the power of a well chosen prop is the speech given by Bill Gates warning of the dangers of the mosquito.

In a room full of well-paid, well meaning executives and film stars he strode onto the stage and opened a jar, saying:

“I brought some. Here I’ll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.”

He waited a bit, and then he let his audience know that the mosquitoes were malaria free.

I guess those present still remember his message.


If you have a room full of happy students, participants who have just come back from a free lunch, a crowd that has just sat through a boring speech, then you will probably have a noisy crowd to work with.

Don’t be afraid of starting with silence. Used well it can get control of your audience quickly.


I have left this point to last because it is the one that I want you to remember the most. Find a story that illustrates what you want to impart. Tell it.

Once again looking at TED 30% of the most successful talks (in terms of views) start with the presenter telling a story. Our brains have been hardwired from the very beginning of our species existence to listen to stories. Told well, it gets those present in the right mood straight away.

However, the story needs to be brief, with just the right amount of detail to make it live. Don’t keep adding what is not necessary. Now my quote at point 1 makes sense!

Make the story believable, make it have a message, let it illustrate what you want to say, keep it kind.


Getting the right words in the right order will make or break your presentation. You can overcome stage fright, you can overcome equipment failures, you can overcome dressing incorrectly, you can overcome slides that don’t look great – you cannot overcome poor content.

Finding the right hook should be your priority. You have the tool kits as to how to put the presentation itself together, how to find out what is needed, who is wanting to hear you – it is now over to you to find the right way in.

We at Think Training are happy to help you if you are stuck and don’t know where to start. Give us a call and we will be more than willing to give you a helping hand.

Thank you and we look forward to hearing from you.

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