Three levels of presentation openings – which should you use?

I get frustrated at presentation advice which says you have to do something clever or dramatic at the beginning of a presentation to grab your audience’s attention. That’s for three reasons:

1. You don’t have to grab the audience’s attention at the start. You have their attention at the start. The challenge is to keep it. (I’ve written about this a lot – see these posts on this blog The Attention-Getting Myth and Attention-Getting The Evidence and also a discussion between myself and Rowan Manahan on his blog).

2. It’s hard to pull off a dramatic opening when you’re nervous. And most people are most nervous at the beginning of a presentation.

3. Being dramatic can lead you into a performance mode. It’s difficult to perform and make a connection with your audience at the same time.

So don’t get hung up on having a dramatic opening. My advice is to match your presentation opening  to your level of presentation competence and confidence. Here are my suggestions:

Level 1 – The Organized Opening

If you’re a beginner or very nervous, demonstrate that you’re prepared and organized. This will reassure your audience that your presentation is not going to be a waste of time. Here’s a formula you can use – answer the three questions your audience will have in their minds:

1. What’s the topic of your presentation?

Give a one-sentence overview of what you’re talking about.

2. Why should your audience be interested?

What’s in it for them? Give them a reason to listen.

3. Why are you talking about it?

What are your qualifications or experience which give you the credibility to be talking about it.

People in your audience will sense that you’ve carefully planned your talk (which will give them a sense of relief that it’s not going to be a disorganised ramble), and they’ll be receptive to what you’re going to cover.

This type of opening is also appropriate for most business presentations you give internally.

Level 2 – The Story Opening

Once you’ve got the Organized Opening mastered, step up to the Story Opening.

Telling a story is, for most people, the easiest of the more advanced opening techniques. Opening with a story helps you to be conversational and establish rapport with your audience. Stories allow you to:

  • subtly establish your credibility without bragging
  • add humour with some funny lines – but if nobody laughs its not a disaster because it’s just part of the story
  • gently raise controversial issues.

In fact, stories are such effective openings that there is no need to ever move onto anything else. You can keep using stories as your opening throughout your presenting career.

Don’t start planning your presentation by trying to think of a great story to start your presentation. That’s hard. Instead plan the rest of your presentation – which will (of course) include stories to back up your points. Then have a look at what you’ve prepared and see if there’s a story that could be used for your opening.

Level 3 – The Dramatic Opening

So you’re ready to experiment a little. There are a number of dramatic openings which are commonly recommended. Here’s my take on them:

1. Use a quote

A quote is just using someone’s else words rather than your own. They happen to have made the point you want to make in a particularly pity or evocative way. Although I think quotes can be useful at times in a presentation, I don’t think they make the best openings for three reasons:

  1. They’re often long and so you need to read it
  2. They use written language so can be difficult to grasp quickly
  3. They set you up to perform rather than connect.

2. Ask a question

This seems like a good idea. Steve Roesler says:

Opening with a question creates curiosity and jump-starts the thought process. Thinking causes  engagement with your topic–exactly what you and the audience are hoping for.

I think using your very first words to ask a question is risky. Your audience is not always ready to think. They want to check you out first. I believe in building rapport with the audience before you ask them to think (you maybe able to do this within 1-2 minutes). Click here for more on asking questions in your presentation. So use with care.

3. Refer to a shocking statistic

The best way I’ve seen this done was by a speaker from New Zealand’s Child Support Agency. She had a number of figures written up on the whiteboard and then told us what they represented. I can still remember the Number 11. It was the age of the youngest boy to be paying child support! This works.

4. Ask the audience to imagine themselves in a situation

For example, you might start a talk on “Building relationships at work” by asking “Remember back to your first day at this company. When no-one’s face was familiar…when you constantly had to ask where something was or who to talk to before you could get anything done…”

Bert Decker recently recounted on his blog how he doesn’t just get the audience to imagine a situation – he actually recreates it for them:

Usually I will start my presentation by doing the absolutely wrong thing – reading a speech. I walk out on stage with what looks like a written text, plop it on the lectern, grab on to the sides, look down and begin reading in a monotone. And here is a supposed speech expert who is immediately boring with monotone voice and no eye contact – bad! For only about 30 seconds though, as the energy plummets so quickly I then raise my voice, step out behind the lectern, look at people with good eye contact and rip up the speech. Usually I get a round of applause, as people are so relieved to get a speaker, not a reader.

So choose your dramatic opening with care. Ensure it enables you to connect with your audience as well as provide drama.

What’s your experience with using different types of openings for your presentation?

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  1. Good information. I say that there are two other things that need to be established quickly in a presentation from the attendee’s perspective: WITFM (What’s In This For Me) and DIMTY (Do I Matter To You). The first 30 seconds of a presentation are critical and an audience will make quick judgments if the presenter is authentic and sincere. An audience’s trust level and attention will increase when the presenter shows authenticity and empathy towards them. I’m also a firm believer that if you don’t “Tell them what you’re going to tell them” by stating some type of learning objectives or agenda within the first three minutes, you’ll lose your audience’s attention. Some of the attendees want to know where the presentation is headed and if the content will meet their needs. I say that in today’s attention deficit economy, every presenter has an audience of one, even when there are 200 people, and must meet that one’s expectations or manage them. So with 200 attendees, there are 200 individuals, each with their own expectations.

    I like Bert Decker’s opening as an attention retaining method. Similarly, if I saw Bert present different topics on different occasions, I would expect a different opening each time. If the same opening was repeated and I had seen him before, I would lose attention, as I would think the presentation is canned or a repeat of what I’d already seen.

  2. Olivia,

    I almost always start with a story. I love telling stories. I’m good at it. People like stories. It works for me.

    A speaker I really liked years ago told me never to put my best material right up front, advice that went against much of what I’d been told. People, he said, aren’t paying full attention at first. They’re asking too many questions and adjusting to too many other issues — your appearance, your voice, the room set up, the volume, the rest of the audience, etc. You need, he said, to gain their attention — and I love all the ways you suggest for doing so — before you give them your best shot. Start with something that’s good, he said, but save your best for a bit later.


    • Hi Chris

      I agree that the audience can be a little distracted as they get used to you at the beginning of your presentation. So I recommend not saying anything absolutely critical in the first minute or two.


  3. The beginning is very much where you have to answer the loudest questions in people’s minds.

    I like the way you’ve ranked the beginnings in order of difficulty.

    You *do* need some chutzpah to start with a dramatic opening – and if it’s not your style, it can fall flat.

    One of the questions to answer is ‘Which of my problems are you about to solve?’. In the first few sentences, I’d say.

    You’re also on the money with allowing people to get used to you in the first minute or two – depending (of course) on the group’s familiarity with you.

    Nicely done!

  4. I tend to open with a question. And when I read “this seems like a good idea” I was feeling confident until you followed up with “I think using your very first words to ask a question is risky.”


    Well my experience for the most part has been positive. People don’t expect my question, they raise their hand (I say “raise your hand if you think ________), laugh for a moment and at that point I know that I’ve loosened up the crowd. So far, so good.

    I feel weird opening up with a strict presentation of my business/company profile. Is that wrong? Would you advise opening up with that as opposed to closing?

    • Thanks Ricardo for adding your experience. Notice that I say that opening with a question is “risky” not that it shouldn’t be done. The risk is that some audiences who are conditioned to take a very passive role during a presentation will not respond. The riskiness also depends on the personality of the presenter – if you’re the type who can develop instant rapport – the risk will be less. So congrats that it works for you – and it may not work for everyone and for every audience.

      I definitely don’t recommend opening with your business/company profile. People aren’t interested in this until they’ve decided that they might want to do business with you. As not everybody in your audience is likely to be interested in this, I would recommending putting this information in a handout.


      • Hi Olivia!

        Thank you for the quick response and the reinforcement! I never opened up with an extensive business/company profile because I didn’t want to come across as pushy. I guess I figured “I’m here to be helpful and if people see value in what I do, they’ll ask me for help afterwards” – and those are the kind of people I ultimately want to work with anyhow.

        What I don’t have are handouts. I have my business cards and I direct people to website (portfolio and blog) and schedule appointments then and there. I’m often pretty good about follow up to which has worked well. BUT…maybe I should cook up a few hand-outs to compliment my presentation :-)

        Thanks Olivia!

  5. When addressing a group of juniors at work, I always use the Steve Jobs Stamford Univ. Commencement Speech pattern. Here’s how he did it –
    Sentence 1 – “I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world.” (Praise the audience)
    Sentence 2 – “Truth be told, I never graduated from college and this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.” (Connecting with the audience)
    Sentence 3 – “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.” (Set the agenda)

    I call this the NOBO approach (NO-Brainer-Opening) and has worked everytime I address my staff members who are junior to me and esp. in sales meetings.

    • Hi Shankar
      That does sound like a great system for opening a presentation.

  6. Hi Mam, I impressed after read your presentation opening.

  7. Hi Olivia! Hi at at I’m sharing tips and advice for all the people interested in delivering unconventional presentations and I agree with you about the opening! I just wrote “9 tips to get your audience’s attention in 10 seconds” maybe can be an additional help for your readers :)

  8. I have had the opportunity to put across my thoughts to students, learned
    audiences & colleagues on topics ranging from supply chain mgt., project mgt.,
    shipbuilding, ship repair, international trade logistics, etc. A sure shot winner
    opening statement has been an anecdote or short story or apt quotation—-
    believe me it works ! But, you have to a fair amount of research to find the
    correct opening gambit. Thanks & warm regards,

  9. Using levels seems a GREAT idea! A similar approach would really help for other presentation issues, too (e.g. for graphic design of slides, which isn’t a strong suit for most presenters. So BEFORE people worry about the niceties of fonts etc — which some experts get hooked on — it would be good to start with the bigger picture (literally!) like Ellen Finkelstein does here: .)

    Back on the subject of opening lines for stories, Patricia Fripp gives 5 useful examples in a video here:

    I think your “levels” idea has a lot of scope, Olivia. I’ll see if I can use it for openings, and maybe other areas too. Thanks!

  10. I agree that attention-getting opener is very important in a speech. I do find telling a story, letting my audience imagine a situation or giving them a scenario, very effective as speech openers…thanks for the info.

  11. Recently I joined Toastmasters, and I’ve been using it as a chance to try out different openings.

    Two of the opening lines I’ve used so far were “Picture yourself in this scene,” and “You and I have the same goal.” Naturally, the first of those is asking the audience to imagine themselves in a situation. Not sure what category the 2nd one fits into, but the idea was to make the audience see me as being on their side, and to make them wonder what the shared goal was.

    Whatever type of opening you choose, I think there’s a lot of benefit in using a strong opening *line* to launch right into your talk. After that – when you have the audience wanting more – you can briefly introduce yourself if needed.

    Here are a couple of related resources you might like. The first is a short PDF by Patricia Fripp with almost 30 great opening lines in it:

    The 2nd is a video by Carl Kwan where he suggests you start by telling the audience they’re wrong. To me, that’s superbly provocative – and brilliant!

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