The introduction is your chance to captivate the audience. Their attention and willingness to listen to you for the next 5, 15 or 30 minutes depend on the way you start the first 15 seconds. 

In 1962, Bennet Murdock in his article called “Serial Position Effect of Free Recall” stated that people remember the beginning and the ending long after they have forgotten most of what was said in the middle. So introduction and conclusion not only frame your speech but also they might be the only things that people will remember out of your presentation. And you do not want either of them to fall flat. As Margaret Atwood once smartly noted: “A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used.”

Now, recall the poor introduction I`ve started with. If my goal was to bore the listeners to death – I`ve reached it. After 20 seconds your brain started to send signals that it is the right time to draw a phone out of the pocket and check how things are on Instagram.

Let us focus on three good ideas of how to actually start a speech.

1. Once upon a time …

One of the best ways to start a speech is to say: “Once upon a time…” However, these words would sound odd within an academic topic. So let us rephrase it. Start your speech with “Once…” “In the year 19……” “At the dawn of a new century…” You got the point. Start with a short story that is connected to your topic. Introduce a real person, remember, even if you talk about software, there are always people behind the production, tell about the founders, consumers, your own experience. Be creative, nothing grabs attention better than a well-told story.

2. Start directly in the action

Find a context where your presentation will be relevant to a specific audience. Use descriptive language to help them visualize what you are telling about. Start your sentences with “Imagine…” Or ask the audience questions: “When was the last time…”

3. Brief preview

If you are totally stuck – no ideas on how to best orient your audience, no ideas on the topic or context – at minimum give a preview of what you are going to talk about. Start with the words: “I will talk to you about 3 things: the bread, the butter, and the cucumber…”

Now, when you got one step closer to giving a successful presentation, let us learn to avoid the common mistakes in the introduction:

Presentation intro is not an introduction of yourself

Usually, the audience already knows who you are and what you will talk about before you step on the stage. So no need to tell your full name, occupied position or the years of experience you have in the current job. This will not make them lean forward in anticipation. Rather start with why should they listen to you. How your topic is related to their lives. How they can use this information. If you do need to introduce yourself, it is better to do it right after the intro when their attention is already hooked. And of course, make it short and clear.

Presentation intro is not a sound check

Even though this might sound obvious, many speakers still enter the stage apologizing for a technical delay, checking the sound and taking time to adjust the equipment. Even worse, they start with apologizing for being nervous. It will not benefit your presentation no matter how confidently and easy-going you act afterwards. Respect people’s time and prepare everything in advance. If possible, make friends with the staff and ask them to help you with your slides so that the moment you are on the stage everything goes smoothly.

Presentation intro is not a brief outline

Don’t go through the outline in your intro. You do not want to open the cards before the game even starts. Your task is to orient the audience towards the body of the presentation, not giving them all the “meat”. What you can do is explain the topic, tell why it is important and how the audience will benefit from getting this information. But don`t go into details.

Presentation intro is not a conclusion

Imagine that introduction and conclusion are two bookends holding up your speech. They have to be equally strong but not contain the same information. Leave your punch line for the end of the speech and focus more on arising listeners curiosity, perk up some interest from the audience towards your topic. Place them in a scene or in a situation that is similar to what you are trying to teach them. Let them understand the practical value of the presentation, because eventually, their ultimate goal is to learn something new and apply it later on.

For any outline there are 1000 ways to start a presentation – don`t get stuck with just one of them. Play with different approaches, find several that works the best for you, be creative and exlore.

An example

I created a sample outline in the previous lesson on outlining. If I want to create an introduction to it, I need to ask these questions:

What’s the most common experience people in the audience have where my topic is relevant?

Since the outline is about a career change, I can start with:

  • A situation where I just got made redundant/fired.
  • A daily mundane routine that I have to do every day just to get paid salary.
  • My friend did a career change and I got very envious.

After that, I look through the above; and decided I’ll tell a story about my day that I found super boring (the second point). Once I do that, I can decide on some format for the first sentence. The format is easy to choose once you pick the context for your intro. These are some examples of the first sentences based on my super boring routines:

Question: Have you had a bad day?

Story: I woke up this morning at 6 and went to work at 8. I’ve done that for the last 10 years, and I’m bored with it.

Quotation: “I tend to get bored quickly, which means I must be boring”, Sir Anthony Hopkins. That’s what I thought every morning, but I was wrong.

Statistic: According to The Forbes 70% of employees hate their jobs

Startling statement: Suicide is the leading cause of death in England in adults below the age of 50, and past research shows that some occupations are at particularly high risk.

Personal anecdote or experience: Today, I woke up, got dressed and took the bus to work. When sitting on a back seat I saw that I still have my slippers on, I suddenly realized how much I hate my job.

Humor: “To bore or not to bore, that is the question”.

Expert opinion: Scientist says…

What to do next?

Make a list of 3 possible contexts for your introduction where the audience can easily relate to

For one of the context, write five sentences of how you will start your introduction. Note that I won’t ask you to write your entire presentation, but I find writing intros are very useful because it improves your confidence when you first start talking. Once you have the intro done, usually it’s much easier to get into the flow of speaking.

Olha Minchenko

Content Manager @ Get Sandwich

An entrepreneur in the past, Olha built a career in translation, working on a variety of projects from fiction books to medical manuals. Currently exploring the field of Content Marketing she finds inspiration in good writing and promising authors.