Blast Off to Big Results: Openings Set the Tone

When you stand up to speak, you have no guarantees that your audience will listen intently to your every word. We all know that behind those "I'm-all ears" looks, your listeners' minds can wander. Think about how much your mind has wandered during other people's presentations!

You can't gain support, sell ideas, or push a new initiative if people aren't listening. So, it's your job to shatter that fixed facade, grab your listeners' attention, and hold on tight. You have to earn their attention right from the beginning of your talk. Here's how:

Plan. Plan your opening words carefully. Don't stumble into your presentation with a hackneyed "Today, I'm going to talk about..." Say something meaningful (even bold!) that will grab the attention of your audience immediately. Don't lead up to it with trivialities. Think about your audience's single biggest concern within your topic, and speak directly to it. There are a lot of different ways to open a talk; just make sure you ichoose one that begins with substance and matters to your listeners.

Rehearse. Stand up and deliver your opening out loud several times prior to the talk. Make sure you can do it comfortably and reliably. For most people, the first words of a presentation are the hardest. Make certain you know yours well enough so you don't have to worry about them. By spending extra rehearsal time on your opening, you can turn the hardest part of your talk into the easiest.

Get ready. When the time comes to deliver your presentation, you will want to be focused, in control of your voice, your body language, and those pre-presentation jitters. So, before you stand up to speak, practice some "stage fright" prevention. Use our tips for breathing easily to warm up. If you have a chance to exercise or go for a walk before your presentation, do it. It's important that your mind and your body are ready to deliver a powerful presentation when you arrive in the room.

Connect. Make an immediate connection with your audience. Look 'em in the eye. Before you begin, find a "focus person" for your opening. The focus person should be someone who is sitting toward the back of the room and roughly in the center. Ideally, this should be a person who will listen attentively and will be a friendly face for your first sentence or two. Remember to establish your eye focus first, then take a fresh breath, and, only after you have a full tank of air, begin to speak.

Leap. As much as possible, jump right into your talk. Get right to the point. Try to avoid any long preambles or explanations. Deliver your opening just as you've practiced it, right to your focus person. Once you've landed your opening, the rest of your presentation is more likely to go smoothly. And, you will have gained the attention of the audience right from the start of your talk.

Stop ... and go. After you deliver your opening, pause. Let your words sink in for a second or two. Next, link that opening to the body of your presentation. Make sure your audience sees how your opening leads into your first point. There's nothing worse than gearing everyone up with a great opener, only to let everyone down by wandering off on other track.

And they're off... You delivered your opening and linked it to your first point. You've set the stage for your success. You've got momentum heading into the body of your presentation. You're out of the gate and rounding the bend. Just make sure to keep your head up, eyes focused on your audience, and charge ahead with an energetic and effective presentation.


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Developing the Speaker Within You: The Make or Break 10 Seconds

Generally there isn't a drum roll as we step up to the dais or platform.

OK. So you do get a drum roll whenever you get up? In that case I am not speaking to you, but to all the rest of us who usually don't get one.

We then have to create our own aura, sense of interest, excitement.

It is widely understood that the first few moments, perhaps 10 seconds that a speaker spends on the stage are amongst the most critical of their entire address. In fact, even their ascendance to the stage, the very act of rising from the floor, or their seat on the platform is just as critical.

We only get one chance at a first impression. One chance at that vital impact that makes us memorable to an audience.

Audiences seem to have this perceptive on/off switch embedded in their minds that is activated immediately the speaker is introduced. Within seconds it swings one way or the other: I like this speaker, or I don't!

And once triggered it takes much, much more energy to change the position of that switch (if it can be done at all) once the address is properly underway so the message is clear: get it right first up!

It is always advisable to demonstrate an impression of enthusiasm, liveliness immediately our cue is given.

Never, ever just lounge up to the stage, with our face fixed on the floor and meander casually to the dais. Even worse is to, once having shuffled to the dais, spend 10 seconds or so sorting notes, adjusting microphones, sipping water and generally doing all the things that should have been organized well before.

This just breeds a perception of a speaker that is disorganized, careless and in all probability, boring.

It is best to spring to our feet, move at a brisk pace to the platform or dais and then simply spread our prepared notes (if we are using notes) in one smooth motion while keeping eye contact on both our host and the audience.

Eye contact is just so important even at this early stage of an address so it is advisable to do everything possible to keep the audience attention on your eyes, not on the surroundings.

They are, even at this point, instinctively working out whether they will listen to us, or not.

For this reason it is usually best to transport our notes in a matt black folder that is basically invisible to the audience while we are moving: not a bundle of loose, flapping pages that give the appearance of a newspaper caught in a wind gust.

Once ensconced at the dais, depending on the event and the audience, great energy and expectation can be created by maintaining an interested, roving eye contact with the audience for a few seconds, coupled with appropriate body language, before uttering our first (very carefully chosen) opening line.

Whilst it may seem forever, a well executed pause at this critical moment of about 4-5 seconds will almost have our listeners lifting out of their seats in expectation. It is almost like inflating a balloon right up to bursting point: the audience are almost holding their breath waiting for the bang!

At this point, for a few critical seconds, the world is our oyster.

The selection of our opening words, the first 5-10, is key to creating the life and energy that will either turbo charge or stall our entire address.

I once was commissioned to introduce a keynote speaker, from WorkCover, a key Government agency responsible for employee safety at an industry conference.

My opening five words were "WorkCover is killing this industry".

Everyone went quiet.

Our CEO's face looked like the blood was draining from it. I could see him thinking "what is Neil doing, what have we done, how am I going to apologize to our speaker?"

But, the audience attention was palpable.

What the CEO (and the audience) didn't know was that I had done my homework in advance. As any speaker should. I had spoken with the keynote before the session, talked over his content to make sure that I didn't detract from his key address.

And, I had meticulously explained, and gained his consent to open with an inflammatory remark.

We got the attention of the audience. Our keynote was pleased. Our CEO recovered his composure and didn't have a heart attack. The session went well.

Our first few moments on the stage will often determine our success. Plan them well, execute them well and our audience response will be positive.

Neil Findlay has been involved in the business and Not For Profit sectors for nearly 40 years in Australia and abroad. During this time he has been an active public speaker. Take a moment and review his website at or his e-business card at