The opening of your talk is crucial: your main goal is to capture your audience’s attention and show them why they should listen to you. It also sets the tone and direction of your presentation. This is often the time where you’re most edgy, and the audience is most focused on you, so you don’t want to get it wrong!
So with that mind, here are some suggestions for what NOT to do at the opening of your speech. With these tips, I’m assuming that you’re speaking to a group for the first time, or one which you don’t know very well (e.g. they don’t apply at your weekly team meeting).
1. Apologise for your lack of experience/preparation time/nervousness. Apologising as you start your talk simply focuses on the negative, and also focuses attention on you in very unhelpful ways! Do you really want the audience to view you through those judgement filters? Telling them you’re feeling nervous, or lack experience is usually because you need to release tension in your own system. But good public speaking is fundamentally not about you: remember, you’re not that interesting, and they don’t care that much about your presentation – really! Your audience just wants to know if you can help, educate or entertain them; and they want the information they came for to be delivered clearly and succinctly. And never tell them you haven’t had time to prepare: it shows no respect for their time, and your credibility will plummet
2. Tell a joke – it’s dangerous, you’re almost guaranteed to offend somebody. So unless you’re a comedian, or know a particular joke will work, don’t risk it
3. Fire up the slides before you’ve connected with the audience – remember that you’re the main visual aid in your presentation! Speak to them first, establish some commonality; then you can get onto your visuals
4. Say the “Good morning/I’m delighted to be here/thank you for inviting me” rapport building chat, unless you’re obliged to. It’s a weak start. If you do want or need to add these elements, put them in the second section (phrase/paragraph) after your ‘strong’ opening
5. Be negative. Don’t complain about – for example – the logistics of the room, the traffic in the city, or the weather. As an example, I went to a presentation last year in Melbourne where the presenter who’d flown down from Sydney introduced her talk by telling us that she’d had to find her winter coat to cope with the Melbourne weather, and she was still cold and miserable! These kinds of negative topical comments are not uncommon in speeches, and while they’re obviously meant to break the ice in a humorous way, they usually fail. By all means comment in a light-hearted way if something needs to be mentioned – just don’t whine or complain about it, no matter how frustrated you are! Keep any negative energy to yourself
6. Repeat the title of your talk, if you’ve already been introduced, or it’s in the program. The opening moments are so valuable, don’t waste them with this repetition; plus, it may annoy the audience, who just want you to get on with it
7. Focus on you or your organisation. So many business presentations still begin with “our story” or “our history”. No-one cares! Make the opening about your audience, and you’ll be off to a great start.
So there you have it: 7 ways to avoid opening your talk.