06 Jul 2022

Building back your presentation muscles


With conferences starting back up and in-person interviews becoming the norm again, many of us are having to dust off our speaking skills and remember how to present in person. If those muscles are feeling a bit out of use, focusing on getting off to a great start can help you nail the result you want.

I recently went to a wedding where the Best Man started his speech by telling us he wasn't used to public speaking and had been dreading the moment. It got me thinking about how we often sabotage our speeches and presentations within the first 30 seconds.

The reality was that the speech was absolutely fine, but here's the thing - everyone was sympathetic but also bracing themselves for disaster. And what's fine in the context of several glasses of prosecco, is definitely not so fine during a job interview, or when you're representing your company.

A great opening doesn't just set you up for a great presentation, it carries on working for you until the very last word. Positive first impressions create a golden glow around the rest of your talk. If we like something or someone, our brains actively seek out information to confirm that initial opinion and discount anything that undermines our belief. Basically, we just love to be proved right!

The way to do this is to make sure that you're answering one simple question: what's in it for you? Rather than taking their attention for granted, give the audience a reason to keep listening - will they learn something, will they be entertained, will they be challenged?

What does this look like in practice? Let's take a typical intro, the potted biography. Great for establishing your credentials. Unfortunately also great at putting the audience to sleep. But you don't need to ditch the concept, just tweak the delivery. I once worked with a bus company who were giving careers talks to potential apprentices. One of the delegates started his talk with a list of his roles from the age of 18 to 52 - even I was struggling to stay engaged and I was being paid to do so! Instead, we explored his motivation for joining the business and he told the story of his grandad taking him on a bus ride every Saturday when he was a kid, triggering a life-long fascination with transport. Immediately his voice and his delivery changed - and more importantly, so did the audience's response.

It matters even more when you need to stand out and be memorable - say in a conference where you're one of many speakers. If you're coming on after forty-five slide yawn-fest, then the audience is probably primed for yet more boredom. Surprise them. Start with an anecdote that leads into your main theme. Throw out an unexpected question that gets them involved. Or find a statistic that changes everything they thought they knew about your subject.

The biggest barrier to a powerful start is that this is the time you feel the least confident! But regardless of how you feel inside, the audience can only see what you choose to show them, so avoid drawing attention to your lack of experience or your discomfort. Instead, learn your opening minute or so off by heart so that you can hit the ground running, even when your brain has turned to mush and your legs to jelly. Nail your first minute and bask in the positive response from the audience. Your brain will be getting the reinforcement it needs to ace the rest of the speech.