8 Presentation openers that grab your audience from the get-go

Andy Rodriguez Feb 1, 2022 1:57:11 PM

Your message is concrete. Your argument is watertight. But are you opening your presentation in the most engaging way? Here are 8 tried and tested techniques for opening your presentation with a bang. 

1. Amplification technique

Take something minor and demonstrate it's a serious problem. Take something farfetched and make it seem real. Take something alien and make it close to home. The surprise factor will have them hanging on to your every word.

Good for: Grabbing your audience's attention, challenging expectations.

Example: It's widely accepted that girls tend to do better than boys in school. Philip Zimbardo begins his talk with a series of startling facts – 'Boys are 30% more likely than girls to drop out of school [...] Girls outperform boys now at every level, from elementary school to graduate school' – turning this idea into a nationwide issue.  

The reverse of this is to take something seemingly scary or complicated and make it very simple.

We know that Malaria kills half a million people each year, and we've had a cure for it since the 1600s. Wait, what? Now speaker Sonia Shah has our full attention. 


2. Sensory technique

Stimulate your audience's imagination by describing a scene in vivid detail, or ask them to remember a particular memory and recall what they saw, smelled, heard and felt. You could even make them aware of their physical surroundings in some way.

Tying what you're saying up with physical memories will help your audience retain information for longer.

Good for: Creating a lasting impression, making your ideas come alive.

Example: Amy Cuddy makes her audience 'do a little audit' of their bodies. She asks them 'how many of you are sort of making yourselves smaller? Maybe you're hunching, crossing your legs, maybe wrapping your ankles?' Activating the audience's sensory awareness (before revealing what those body habits mean) gives her talk greater resonance.


3. Personalization technique 

Even well-meaning people sometimes won't act until an issue affects them personally. Make the problem relevant to your audience by showing that it's relevant to (or is caused by) them or their community.

An effective twist on this is revealing an unimagined connection between our current actions and things happening in the future or in far-flung places.

Good for: Making your audience care, making complex ideas simple.  

Example: Emily Wapnick asks the audience 'Raise your hand if you've ever been asked the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?"', bringing cultural attitudes towards skills and work into the spotlight and revealing how it affects our perceptions of ourselves.


4. Puzzle technique

Opening with a puzzle piques your audience's curiosity from the get-go. It could be a problem, a riddle or the conundrum at the heart of your theory. It could be a real-world puzzle or a metaphor for the ideas in your talk.

Leave the puzzle open-ended but direct your audience to some place they can find the answer if you want them to continue engaging with your content after the talk. Or, promise to tell them the answer at the end so they listen throughout.

Good for: Waking up your audience's brains, inspiring curiosity.

Example: If someone gave you a candle, some thumbtacks and some matches, could you attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn't drip onto the table? Dan Pink's candle puzzle challenges us and provides a springboard for discussion of what motivates us in the workplace.


5. Question technique

Your questions could probe the listener's personal memories, sense of identity, or general knowledge – whatever gets the cogs turning. Asking questions can be an effective way of prompting your audience to have an 'aha!' moment. 

Opening questions are usually rhetorical as you're asking the listener to self-analyse, but you might like to direct them somewhere that they can share their ideas or experiences with you. 

Good for: Helping the audience recognize a problem or come to some conclusion.

Example: Kelly McGonigal asks her audience to raise their hand if they've experienced different levels of stress over the past year. Almost the whole audience responds and demonstrates, very quickly and simply, how endemic a problem stress is.


6. Quotation technique

Quoting a famous person is an easy way to borrow a little of their power, especially if it's someone respected by your audience. If they're a more obscure choice, there's no harm in reminding your audience of that person's credentials.

Your audience may read personal things into your choice, so choose carefully. People are likely to have personal associations with famous quotes or speakers so be mindful of these too.

Good for: Giving your talk respectability, summing up an argument or an idea. 

Example: Elizabeth Nyamayaro's chosen quote – 'As Africans, we must uplift all the people of Africa' – serves as the heart and soul of her entire presentation. It expresses the principles at the heart of her work, and tells her audience something of her as a person. 


7. Story technique

Stories are perhaps the most effective tool for inspiring empathy and understanding in the listener. It's also a vastly underrated skill in the business world, even though it can engage your audience's mind in incredible ways.

Telling a personal story may make us feel vulnerable, but it's an opportunity to show confidence and character. Telling the story of someone you admire demonstrates your values. The story of a customer proves you listen and take pride in providing a good service.

Good for: Explaining ideas in an accessible way, synchronizing the audience's emotions with your own. 

Example: Peter Attia begins his story 'I'll never forget that day back in the spring of 2006' – and now nor will we. His story is powerful not just because it's illustrative of the wider problem he's describing – but because he expresses genuine emotion as he tells it. 


8. Humor technique

Making a joke makes your audience feel warmer towards you and more receptive to your ideas. The best presentation jokes involve self-deprecating humor, so being able to laugh at yourself is a must. You could also exaggerate a story for effect. 

Your sense of humor tells your audience a lot about your values and can be a shortcut to building trust. It may also help them feel more comfortable about sharing their ideas and joining in if that's a part of your presentation. 

Good for: Relaxing your audience, building rapport. 

Example: Shawn Anchor's perfect comic timing makes this opening anecdote side-splittingly funny. The humor makes it easier for us to open up to what he's trying to say, making the serious message of his talk all the more impactful.

You can find more about these and other useful techniques at changingminds.org. Which is your favorite?