great presentations

In two previous issues of this newsletter, we discussed a number of techniques that can improve the content of your presentations:

Stories: narratives that describe events which unfold over time
Anecdotes: short accounts of real or fictional incidents or characters
Examples: something that’s typical of its group or something worthy of imitation
Analogies: a comparison of two different things that are alike in some way
Memorable lines: phrases or sentences that people can easily recall and repeat
Compelling data: facts or figures that surprise or otherwise stand out

These techniques are usually found in the “body” of a presentation – the longest portion – the part containing the key ideas or “meat” of the presentation. And for good reason. By placing them there, the speaker is able to punctuate loads of information with something more interesting and memorable.

Now let’s look at the “bookends” of a presentation – the opening and closing. In an interview, Brian May and Roger Taylor, members of the phenomenally successful rock group Queen, talked about the structure of their concerts. “But basically the beginning and end of the show is vital and we were very aware of that.” The beginning and end of your “show” are also vital. But many presenters give short shrift to these two parts of a presentation. That’s a mistake.

How to Open a Presentation: Start with a bang!

There’s only one part of a presentation guaranteed to get audience attention – the opening. But most audiences will give you only about one minute to show you have something important or interesting to say. If you don’t grab them at the onset, you could lose them for the rest of your remarks.

There are two approaches to the beginning of a presentation – traditional and non-traditional. Regardless of the approach you choose, don’t be long-winded. Keep it short – no more than about ten percent of your total presentation length.

In the traditional approach, the speaker usually greets the audience, introduces himself, and identifies the topic of the presentation and the agenda or key points he plans to cover. This is probably the most frequently used opening. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with it (other than its predictability) – especially if it’s delivered powerfully.

Then there’s the non-traditional opening. In this approach, the speaker begins with something unexpected or unusual. The audience is intrigued, and for a few moments, wonders where the speaker is headed. Then the speaker may introduce herself and identify the topic and purpose of the presentation before continuing.

Here’s the opening of a commencement address delivered last year at Hillsdale College (Michigan) by a distinguished professor from the University of Oxford (England):

“Class of 2015, honored guests, faculty and members of the board of trustees of Hillsdale College: I bring cordial greetings from your erstwhile colonial overlords. I bear warmest felicitations from Her Majesty The Queen, Professor Stephen Hawking, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, and the entire cast of Downton Abbey. I think that covers all the important people in England. I, on the other hand, am distinctly unimportant, and so I’m all the more grateful for the invitation to be part of this special day. Thank you for having me. I only hope that I can say something worthy of the occasion.”

As you can imagine, this opening generated immediate laughter and applause.

Every Queen concert began with a song that immediately brought the audience to its feet. Don’t squander your opening on the ordinary or the mundane.

Don’t End with a Whimper.

Some years back, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner gave an important speech outlining his plans to rescue the country from the financial crisis. After delivering the speech (which was judged a failure), Geithner turned and walked away, causing his audience to wonder, “Is he done? Well, I guess we should leave.”

You’ve likely observed something similar where the presentation ended abruptly, with no clear indication that it was over.

The closing of your presentation should return to the most important idea or ideas covered in the body of the presentation. The reason for this is what’s called the principle of recency. People tend to remember best what they heard last.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you simply “Tell them what you told them” (to borrow from a tried and true formula). You can repeat your key messages, but do so differently, emotionally, creatively. Find an impactful way to get your audience thinking about what they just heard or learned, or what you want them to do.

As T.S. Eliot said, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Presentations have three parts: the opening, the body and the conclusion. Nail all three and your presentation will soar.

Want even more presentation tips? Consider getting involved in our presentations training.