How to Start a Presentation
Starting a presentation effectively is critical to its success. If the introduction to a presentation does not go well the audience can slip into a negative frame of mind or switch off. Presenters start their presentations badly for three major reasons: nerves; failure to understand audience attention levels; and not having an understanding of what the start of a presentation is really for.
Audience Attention Levels
It is commonly assumed that audiences pay maximum attention at the start of a presentation, and that attention levels decline steadily until after a certain point most audience members have simply switched off. This isn’t quite true however – which dictates optimal sales presentation structure. At first, audiences are typically focused on what they were doing before the presentation, and only partially engaged. The first few minutes of a presentation are spent considering whether the presenter is worth listening to, or whether the time would be better spent day-dreaming, checking email, or writing a novel. Most audience members have wasted too many days of their lives listening to mindless presentations to simply assume that a presenter deserves attention.
The fact that audience members don’t automatically pay maximum attention at the start of a presentation guides how sales presentation introductions should be approached. Go in assuming that the audience will be paying attention from the start and the audience might miss your key points. Leave your best content until last and the audience might have nodded off to sleep before you get to it.
What to do at the Start of a Presentation
How to start a presentation will depend greatly on what you are trying to achieve with your presentation, and of course on what kind of presentation you are delivering. Even within a single type of presentation – sales presentations – there are a number of different approaches to the start of a presentation.
Audience members decide early on whether a presenter is worth listening to. Most enlightened presenters understand that boring the audience with dozens of slides about the presenter’s company is inappropriate. Yet, a couple of slides that demonstrate that a company has the right experience can put the audience into a constructive frame of mind – seeking to find ways to use what the presenter is offering, rather than seeking to find holes in your arguments.
If audience attention levels don’t start at their maximum, that isn’t to say that it is impossible to quickly raise them. One way to start a presentation is with a question or challenge for the audience. By presenting a well-judged puzzle and asking the audience to solve it, attention levels can quickly be raised. Anything too hard or too easy and the audience may disengage though, so be careful.
Prospects are usually looking for somebody who understands the challenges they face, and who can offer a solution to these problems. So, draw the audience in by presenting an outline of the issues they face to show that you have understood. Then, spend the rest of the presentation – after this introduction – showing how you can solve the problems you understand the audience to have. The key issue here is to make sure that you actually talk to the audience’s challenges; if the audience don’t recognise themselves in your portrayal, then you won’t succeed in displaying empathy.
High impact animation sequences can start presentations with a bang. Add music, video, interesting pictures, and a good script, and the audience are drawn to a presentation like moths to a flame. But, remember; while grabbing the audience’s attention may be easy, keeping it is hard. Shiny animations will draw an audience in, but without relevant content in the rest of the presentation, they are wasted.
Abolish Pre-Conceived Ideas and Reframe Evaluation Criteria
When audience members think they understand an issue, or know what a presenter is going to say, they don’t always bother to listen. Even when they do pay attention, it’s all-too-easy to fall into the trap of hearing what one expects. Abolishing pre-conceived ideas at the start of a presentation isn’t easy – and is often best done in conjunction with techniques that force attention. Try being upfront, and acknowledge that you know what the audience are thinking. Then, give clear examples of facts that clearly contradict the popular misconception. To reframe evaluation criteria, outline what you think the audience are looking for, and then explain why they are looking for the wrong thing, and what they ought to be looking for instead. You don’t have to change audience members’ minds at the start of a presentation – only open them.
Some companies are looking for suppliers and partners who see the world in the same way that they do. Others will only work with companies with certain accreditations. If the presenter doesn’t reassure them, they may spend the rest of the presentation trying to guess if the presenter’s company is the right cultural fit, or has the right certificates. Presenting to Starbucks? You’d best talk about environmental policies up front, rather than leaving your audience waiting until you tick the right box.
Delivering the Start of a Presentation
A lot of presenters are nervous of presenting. Nerves can be reduced when the presentation introduction is well-planned, though-out, and rehearsed. If a presentation starts well – most presenters tend to relax. So, work out what you want to achieve with the start of your presentation, and then practice presenting these first few slides, again and again.
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Fergus Appleton, Contract Manager, Central Parking System
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