Landing the Catch: Why Starting Strong Matters in Presentations

Landing the Catch: Why Starting Strong Matters in Presentations

Amy English
Instructional Design Specialist
Baker Communications, Inc.

Do not tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where they know the fish.” – Mark Twain

First impressions are powerful. We all know this. We also know that we never get a second chance to make one. At the beginning of our presentations, then, we should have only one goal: to capture the attention of our audience and let them know they won’t regret being there.

Why, then, do so many of us fumble through our presentation openings? The start of a presentation is not the time to tell people at length where we got our degrees, what our professional background is, or how much trouble we had finding the conference room. If we were fishing, we’d be kicking over the tackle box and dropping our rod in the drink.

As a general rule, the audience would prefer not to see us fail. Despite what our nerves may be telling our adrenal glands, they are not out to get us. It’s far more comfortable to see someone do well in a presentation. The audience wants to like us. They would prefer that we be interesting, informative, convincing, compelling, or entertaining.
That said, if we don’t manage to capture their attention at the very beginning of the talk – within the first minute or two – they will start to tune out. This is our opportunity to ensure that they are ready and willing to listen to what we have to say. If we haven’t hooked and landed them within the first two minutes, we have lost our opportunity.

Reeling Them In

There are a few things our presentation’s opening needs to accomplish for us. One is to get their attention. One is to provide an overview of what we’re going to be talking about, and what the audience can expect to learn. Another is to give them a good reason (or a few good reasons) to continue listening.

The best way to accomplish all of these goals is with a brief but compelling four-point opening. We can catch our audience with just the basic equipment:

1. HOOK: This is where we get their attention. Usually, the best approach is to find an interesting way to state or illustrate a problem or concern the audience can identify with. What issue are we addressing by presenting to this audience? In other words, why are we here?

2. LINE: Here we identify the way we propose to solve the problem, achieve the objective or meet the need that we used as our Hook. (It’s okay to do a brief personal introduction here, especially if we think it will add to our credibility.)

3. ROD: This is what supports our Line. This section concisely summarizes the ideas or concepts that will be used in our argument. We’ll elaborate on these later – right now we just need to hit the basic ideas.

4. BAIT: We tell the audience specifically what we expect them to learn, do, or think as a result of hearing our presentation. This lets them know what we’re driving at, and – crucially – why they should listen to what we have to say.

Keep in mind that this is only the beginning – we don’t have to give away too much information upfront, and in fact, the audience will be more inclined to listen if they are curious to learn more. Our goal is to pique their interest and let them know, in general terms, what to expect.

Hook ‘Em

The Hook is arguably the point at which we have the most room for creativity. There are lots of ways to illustrate what the audience’s concern is – assuming, of course, that we know what it is that they are interested in. Presumably, that would be the reason they are here to see us speak.

Rhetorical devices like questions, informal polls, startling statistics, or short anecdotes can work well here. If we know what the audience’s problem or concern is, we might hook them by asking how many have encountered a particular issue related to that concern, and propose a “What if” scenario for solving it. We might ask whether they are aware of a particularly interesting fact, statistic, or expert finding related to the topic.

Throw Out a Line

Our solution, proposal, or premise needs to be stated clearly and concisely to ensure that the audience knows exactly what our point is. It defines a connection for everything we say, a central theme that we will return to again and again during the talk.

In our opening, this statement can be accompanied by a brief self-introduction so that they will also know who we are – and thus, why we should be talking about this topic in the first place. Again, brevity is key – our name and title is usually sufficient to establish some credibility.

Assemble the Rod

My childhood fishing rod was bamboo, with metal sleeves at the ends where the pieces slid together. Many fishing rods are constructed in sections that either telescope or fit together to build the length of the pole.

The “Rod” part of our opening also has multiple parts: the supporting ideas or concepts that we are using to illustrate or support our solution or main theme. There should only be three or four of these.

Set the Bait

By the end of this presentation, we hope to accomplish something. We may simply hope that the audience will have a better understanding of what we came to tell them. We may want them to learn something, to gain a skill, to make a decision, to take an action, or to come to an agreement.

Whatever our purpose is, we should let them know upfront what the payoff will be. What’s in it for them if they give us their attention for a little while?

The key to a great opening is to make it interesting, make it relevant, and make it quick. Keep in mind that our time is limited and the audience’s time is valuable. They won’t ever thank us for wasting it.

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Baker Communications offers leading-edge Presentations Training solutions that will help we address the goals and achieve the solutions addressed in this article. For more information about how our organization can achieve immediate and lasting behavior change that leads to success during presentations in any setting, click here.