There is a pervasive myth in public speaking and presenting that you have to have an attention-getting opening.

I would argue to the contrary. The beginning of your talk is the one time that you can guarantee that the audience is paying attention. They will pay attention for the first one or two minutes to see if your presentation is going to be useful to them. But after that, if you don’t deliver good value through your content they may get bored and turn-off.

I believe that this attention-getting myth came from the advertising world. Advertisers generally have to interrupt what people are doing to get them to pay attention to their ads. So they’ve developed many attention-getting devices. Classic advertising formulas like AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) have been imported into public speaking and presenting without consideration of the different context. Generally, our audiences have decided to come and listen to us – we’re not having to interrupt what they’re doing to come and listen to us.

This attention-getting myth has led to two problems:

  1. Some speakers feel like they have to start with an attention-getting device. This puts extra pressure on you just when you don’t need it.
  2. It’s led some speakers to start with inappropriate attention-getting devices. I heard today about a speaker who started a business presentation by showing a photo of himself in an apron with a woman’s body in a bikini painted on. That may be an extreme, but often the attention-getter is cheesy and has little relevance to the content of the talk.

Here’s my advice. If you’re a beginner or nervous speaker, let go of the need to start with an attention-getting opening. Start in a conversational manner by simply introducing yourself and your topic. Be yourself.

If you have more experience, do try out different ways of opening your talk. But ensure it’s relevant to your topic. A useful technique is to design the rest of your talk – and then choose something interesting from the body of your talk to open with. For instance, you may have a good story or case study which would make a good opening, or you may have an interesting statistic that will intrigue your audience. But remember it’s a myth that you have to have an attention-getting opening.

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