This column is aimed at those of you who either deliver presentations. A situation that deals with communication is a non-familial setting (as opposed to, say, a meeting with a co-worker whom you deal with on a daily basis). Delivering presentations involves apprehension on the part of the audience concerning the outcome. Is this meeting going to be worth my time? Am I going to be bored or excited? Will I like this person? The audience, or listener, in these circumstances experiences one of two emotions; nervous or comfortable. If the listener is comfortable, they will trust what you say, be engaged, cooperate with your suggestions, and speak well about you to others. If the listener is nervous, reverse all those responses.
Comfort is not only caused by a feeling that the listener likes the speaker, but that the speaker has behaved in such a way that the listener can trust that the experience itself will be pleasant. Essentially, the audience can relax because the speaker is confident and exudes an attitude that, not matter what may happen during the presentation, the speaker will remain in control and unflustered. In order to be comfortable, the listener has to know for certain that the worth of the presentation does not rest solely on the worth of the content, but in the quality of the delivery. Listeners may indeed become nervous if they are worried about how the content of a presentation might affect their lives (Will a new process be difficult to implement? Will a new policy be a hassle?). However, listeners can be just as nervous about whether the presentation itself will be difficult to endure. So nervousness isn’t just about what the speaker is likely to say, but about how well the speaker says it.
The nervous-or-comfortable reaction is the guiding force behind a listener’s decision making. If we like the messenger, we are more likely to follow the message. Sadly, many presenters approach their presentation incorrectly. They focus solely on the content, the meat, of the presentation. They ignore the fact that a listener will typically react with nervousness or comfort based, not on the entire presentation itself, but on the first thirty seconds of the presentation. If the first half-minute inspires a good response from the listener, you are in good shape. If, within the first thirty seconds, the audience is nervous about how well the rest of the experience will go, you have a lot of work to do to win back the crowd; if you can win them back at all.
One way to correct this mistake is to follow the old adage, Well begun is half done (often attributed to Aristotle, but was an oft-used axiom long before his birth). Even though most audiences will judge whether an experience is worthwhile within a few moments, many presenters focus their attention of the middle of the presentation. While it is true that all the statistics, charts, graphs, and recommendations are important, they are worthless if people have checked out before you get to that part of the presentation. So giving some thought to your opening is certainly worth the effort. The first few lines of your presentation should not simply be an attempt to buy time to get to the point, but to put the audience in the best frame of mind for the outcome you want.
Think of the greatest speeches throughout history. Each had an desired outcome, and the opening lines supported that goal. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation, he needed congress and the public to support his appeal to declare war; “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…” did that. When Martin Luther King needed to inspire unity for civil rights at a time when it was dangerous for minorities to advocate for themselves, his I Have a Dream speech began with, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” And when Abraham Lincoln wanted his audience to reflect on the tragedy of war, as well as to honor those who had fallen, he created The Gettysburg Address, what is considered to be one of the greatest speeches in modern history; opening with, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…” None of these speeches started with, “Hello everyone. Thank you for having me, it is a pleasure to speak to you today.”
Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that workplace presentations should be approached with the same sense of grandeur or gravity as world leaders addressing matters affecting the country or the world, but the job of every orator is to put the audience in the best frame of mind; to instill comfort from the outset that the presentation will be worthwhile, as well as worth listening to. If your first few lines are just a weak jumble of sentences, you show the audience you haven’t given the effort to justify asking for their attention. Give the first few lines of your presentation, pitch, or speech the respect they deserve. If you do, the meat of the presentation will be better received by your audience.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.