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How to start a presentation

How are you going to start your big presentation?

Well, that begs a question. When does your presentation actually start?

You might be tempted to say, “Well, when I start talking. Duh.” But you’d be wrong. Your presentation begins long before you begin to speak.

That’s what this blog post is about, starting your presentation, from the moment you’re waiting backstage to be announced or waiting to stand up in your meeting. We’ll start by looking at how to get in the right mindset. What to do as you approach the spot you’ll be presenting from. What should the first words out of your mouth be? Finally, we’ll go over some common intros. When you’re done with this post, should have a better idea of how to start your next presentation with a “bang, not a whimper.”

Ready? Let’s go

How to prepare your body and mind

Now, you may not be presenting on an actual stage. You may be speaking from the head of a table in a corporate meeting room or in an informal space. But the concept is the same. Before you come out on stage—or into the room—you need to be prepared.

You want to exude confidence from the first moment your audience lays eyes on you. To do this effectively, you’ll want to be in a calm, centered frame of mind and body.

Start with calming your body.

Pause. Close your eyes. Take several deep breaths. One method of breathing that I find very effective is called the “box.” Breathe in through your nose for four seconds. Then hold your breath for four seconds. Then breathe out through your mouth for four seconds. Pause another four seconds. Then start again.

Now . . . get your thinking straight—both about yourself and about your audience.

Say what you will about positive self-talk, but it works. When preparing for your presentation, take the time to prepare your mind with positive statements that reinforce your self-esteem:

  • I am a calm and confident public speaker.

  • I have a great voice for public speaking and come off knowledgeable and confident.

  • I am fearless.

  • I am excited and positive about this presentation.

  • Giving this presentation will be fun and exciting.

While you’re thinking these things, keep breathing!

As far as your audience is concerned, reinforce positive statements like the following:

  • My audience will appreciate the information that I am going to share.

  • The material will be well received and appreciated.

  • My audience will feel inspired and ready to take action after my presentation.

(For more on the topic of how to get into the right mindset before you walk on stage, see How to calm your nerves before a presentation.)

What to do as you approach your speaking location

Now . . . let’s talk about first impressions. The second you come on stage—or the second you stand up at a staff meeting table and head to the front of the room—people are forming their opinion about you. Are you confident? Should they believe the material you’ll be presenting?

When you are moving to where you’ll be presenting—whether behind a lectern at the center of the stage or at the head of the table—I want you to approach it with confidence and purpose. Don’t slouch and shuffle. Don’t stare at the floor. Don’t futz with your hair or clothing.

Stand tall and stride out with purpose!

The message you’ll send to the audience will be “I am someone who knows his/her stuff. You’re going to want to listen carefully!”

As you’re walking out, you have two effective options for what to do with your eyes. Either focus on where you’re headed—the lectern or the head of the table—or make eye contact with your audience. And smile! You’re not headed to the gallows. This is going to be a great experience for everyone and you’re glad you’re right here right now!

Before you dive into your topic, connect with your audience

You’ve already started forming a connection with the audience from the moment they laid eyes on you. You can build on that with the first words out of your mouth. And I don’t mean the words of your prepared speech or topic.

Those first words are “Thank you” and/or “Hello.” That is, thank the person who introduced you or thank the audience for showing up. If there was no introduction, introduce yourself and your topic (quickly and succinctly).

These first few moments work to connect you with your audience. You are “with” them which creates a more trusting relationship. The more the audience trusts you, the more they listen.

A look at some engaging ways to start your presentation

Now it’s time to start the presentation proper. There are a number of time-tested techniques for how to start a presentation and here are some of my favorites with examples so you can dive in further:

Start with telling a story

Who doesn’t love a good story? Humans are hardwired for stories. The Harvard Business Review had published numerous articles on how leaders can use storytelling and you can watch any number of TED talks on the neuroscience of why stories are effective. You can leverage that to grab your audience’s attention and create a path into your topic that engages on a heart—not just a head—level.

Here’s an example of a TED talk that opens with a story.

Make a provocative—maybe even shocking—statement

Larry Smith, an economics professor from the University of Waterloo, started off this TED talk in this manner: “I want to discuss with you this afternoon why you're going to fail to have a great career.”

Got your attention?

A statement like this takes people aback. It’s a jolt. It creates a desire to know more. It makes a person receptive to what’s about to follow.

Here’s an example of a TED talk that used a provocative statement as an intro.

Being authentic

How do you feel when you are talking with someone who is real, honest and vulnerable? If you’re like me, it’s refreshing and incredibly attractive. Too many people have bought into the idea that when we are giving a presentation we have to take on some “persona” of perfection. We can’t be ourselves. However, studies prove that authenticity, being truly ourselves, is how we develop strong bonds with others.

When you are real in front of your audience, it gets their attention. Wow, I didn’t expect that!

Dr. Brené Brown studies courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. She says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Here’s an example of a TED talk that used authenticity in its opening.

Quoting an influential person

“Quotations offer a kind of social proof to support the claims you make in your talk,” says presentation expert John Quinn. “The well-known people who said each quote make your message more credible.”

Imagine starting your presentation with one of these:

--The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” -- Nelson Mandela

--“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” -- Walt Disney

--“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people's thinking.” -- Steve Jobs

--“If life were predictable it would cease to be life and be without flavor.” -- Eleanor Roosevelt"

If you use a quote, make it short. Make it a grabber.

Here’s an example of a TED talk that used a quote from an influential person in its opening.

Starting with a question

Another creative way to immediately engage your audience is to start your presentation with a question. Bring them into the discovery with you. Sometimes it’s an actual poll of the audience or simply rhetorical. Immediately, your audience begins to wrestle with the question or at a minimum, they are intrigued. They may think, “He/she is going to give me the answer so I better pay attention!”

Connect the opening question with the central idea of your speech so you can set the theme and the tone easily.

Here’s a Ted talk that opens with a question.

Spur the imagination of your audience

I am a huge fan of the 1950’s TV show, “The Twilight Zone” with host, Rod Serling. Every week, an episode would start with some strange scenario and often he would ask us to imagine a place or a time or a person. Wow—I was hooked!

Fast forward to today. You can do the same thing by inviting your audience to use their imagination. Start your presentation by saying, “Imagine…” Paint a word picture of an extraordinary scenario. Use sensory details. Invite them to put themselves in that scene in their minds. Help them see your vision for themselves.

Here’s a very powerful (and surprisingly short) Ted talk that opens with “imagine.”

Wrapping Up

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. That’s so true when it comes to opening your presentation. This is your moment to shine! Remember to get yourself centered both in mind and spirit. Begin by connecting with your audience. Then, utilize a variety of strategies to start your presentation off with a bang and connect instantly with your audience. By engaging with your audience with authenticity and creativity, you are more likely to keep their interest and their attention.

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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at


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