Last week, Sharon and I were watching a rom-com to unwind after a long workday. The hapless lead, eyeing an attractive target across the room at a party, fumbled the pickup line. “Is that your opening?” was the scornful reply from the object of the poorly-delivered line. Do you think this evening ended as our lead would have liked? It did not, and things did not get better from there, at least not until later in the movie.
Lesson? Your open counts, a lot. Start a talk well, and you are likely to end it well.
Ask yourself two key questions as you plan to get your audience engaged, interested, and wanting to hear the rest of what you have to say. What’s the mood you want to drive, the emotion you want your audience to feel? And what’s your opening tactic?
Set the Mood
Start with the end in mind. Know what your closing call to action will be, and think about the emotional state you want your listener in as they hear it and decide whether to say “yes.” Do you want them curious or confident? Hopeful or fearful? Angry or happy?
When you’re looking to drive change, ask what will motivate action—concern about what will happen if you don’t, or imagining the bright future ahead if you do?
If asking the boss or the VC for investment, is it about their ego and status, or their humility and the bigger cause you’ll both be serving with your plan and their money?
Is the competition going to eat your lunch if you don’t do something, or are you pressing your advantage if you take quick action?
In every case, you are reaching for a particular outcome; you have to assess what emotion will get the answer you want.
As they say, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Even if you are well known to the audience, the same is true for the idea you’re bringing to them in this meeting, this presentation. Start with an eye-opening beginning to get your audience paying close attention, and you will have upped your odds of keeping them focused throughout.
Don’t you quickly lose attention when a speaker spends their first precious minutes with you introducing themselves, citing jobs they’ve had, schools they attended, and all the reasons you should be listening to them? You’ll have much more impact when you show, not tell, why the information you are about to share is vital, why it demands action.
I’ll never forget the power that a seventeen-year-old brought to her high school auditorium with a simple request and a prop. At an assembly to promote a week of charitable giving, Monica supported a nonprofit that provides reconstructive surgeries for children born with cleft palates in developing countries. She strode onto the stage, walked to the microphone stand, and stopped. She looked over the audience in silence, making a show of taking it all in.
Monica expressed gratitude for the chance to be there. Reaching into her back pocket to take out her phone, she told them she wanted to capture the moment before she began and asked her fellow students to smile. She took the picture and then asked everyone to turn to their left and right to share their smiles, watching as the smiles got bigger and even turned into a few laughs.
And then Monica dropped the hammer. “What if you couldn’t smile? What if you couldn’t share a moment like this with friends?” And she proceeded to tell her audience about what it was like for her, lucky to have been born in North America so her own cleft palate could be fixed easily, unlike children in other places for whom the same birth defect can be a death sentence if they cannot suckle, or breathe easily.
Her classmates were captivated. Monica had won the battle for their attention with her strong opening—finding something universal they could share, raising a frightening yet real possibility, making them wonder even as they felt grateful for their blessings and sad for those who could not share them. And yes, they responded with their applause and also their support of Monica’s cause.
How can you have that kind of impact? Here are a few ideas.
- Ask a provocative question to get your audience thinking. Tell a story to illustrate the challenge or opportunity ahead. Cite a remarkable statistic.
- Bring out a great prop, like Monica with her humble phone or my friend Elisa who rolls onto the stage in the wheelchair she used after a horrific car accident, and a few minutes in steps out of it and walks to center stage to show the completeness of her recovery.
- Tell a story. Reach into history for an analogy to today’s challenges and opportunities. Or talk about a time your company, department, or one of your employees was a hero. Share a day in the life adventure of a member of your target customer.
- Show a picture that arouses curiosity or concern, tells a story, or leaves an image in the audience’s head that you can bring them back to throughout your presentation.
- Make a great graph that shows a trend you like or need to change and use it to inspire the action that will get the result you want.
Grab attention with your open , and you’ll earn the right to make your call to action at the end. And increase the likelihood of getting the answer you want.