Many have heard this advice when structuring a presentation:
Tell ’em what you’re going to tell them.
Tell ’em what you’ve told them.
The above encourages many people to begin presentations with a review of the main points to be covered. While helpful to people who are just learning to give presentations, it comes with a downside:
It’s not that engaging.
While there are some who use this structure in a compelling way, I rarely see people do this effectively and get the audience involved. It’s just not that interesting to listen to someone spend several minutes talking about what they are then going to spend the remainder of the time still talking about.
The best business communicators don’t begin a presentation with the table of contents. Instead, they use the opening moments to engage the audience fully, so they earn the opportunity to influence more later. Here are three ways you can do the same:
1. Tell a Story
People find stories compelling and want to know how those stories resolve. It’s one of the reasons Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People became so popular. The concepts were not new, but they were presented through a set of powerful stories that most anybody could relate to.
Pick an incident to talk about that relates to the overall message of your presentation. Tell your audience what happened and how the lesson, conclusion, or action leads into your message.
Resist any urge to use that dramatic voice from your high school acting class. Just tell the story like you would to a friend you ran into outside of work. You already do that kind of real-life storytelling all the time.
2. Congratulate the Audience
A great way to get the audience’s attention is to congratulate either an individual or the audience as a whole on a recent accomplishment. Be sure to cite a specific incident or situation you know of that your audience would be proud of. For example, I recently began a presentation by congratulating an organization on an impressive rise in their stock price.
You accomplish two things almost immediately by doing this: First, you get the audience’s attention since you make them the star of the show (as they should be). Second, you increase credibility with your audience since they recognize that you’ve taken time to do your homework about things that matter to them.
Caution: this isn’t the way to open a presentation if you’re speaking to a hostile audience. For that, see option #3 below.
3. Appeal to a Shared Goal
Appealing to a shared goal means that you start where you can find common ground. While useful in many presentations, it’s especially valuable as a starting point when you might not be on the same page as your audience.
For example, if you’re presenting to offer an answer about how to respond to an angry customer, appeal first to what everyone can agree to. In this case, speak to the fact that while there may be disagreements on the solution, everyone in the room wants to preserve the relationship with the customer.
When you start by appealing to a shared goal, you position yourself as a problem-solver that’s open to solutions and wants to do the best for everyone involved. With that attitude, your audience still may not agree with you, but is far more likely to consider and engage with your message.
Yes, You Can Still Review an Agenda
Of course there is a time and place for an agenda in a presentation. If it is appropriate to do this for your audience, speak to it only after you’ve first used a more engaging opening, like one of the above. By then, you’ll already have their interest and attention to better engage with the agenda.