In the first thirty seconds of a presentation, you must grab your audience’s attention. Communicate your main point, and why your audience should listen to you. If your words are in the wrong order, or you waste them, it won’t matter how well designed your slides happen to be, how precisely you articulate, or how much your command the stage. The first step in delivering a concise, powerful, well-worded informational presentation is to craft a strong opening. Accept no substitute.
While there are many kinds of talks or presentations, the informational presentation is one which we are most called upon to deliver, especially in professional environments or in school. In such a talk, be sure your main thesis—your point—is up front. A presentation is not a mystery novel, and there is zero need to build suspense or to give the audience a surprise ending. For most talks, most of the time, begin with the point, spend your talk supporting that point, and end with a recap and a specific call to action.
What should an excellent informational opening look like? Imagine your task is to convince a room of dessert lovers of the best way to eat an Oreo cookie. Perhaps you might begin by building empathy—advice often given by presentation coaches—and so you tell your audience a personal narrative of the Oreo:
When I was young, my mother used to give me a half dozen Oreos after school and, if I completed my homework by eight, three more after dinner. She arrayed the cookies on a plate, presenting them perfectly. She poured just right amount of milk, and I never forgot how loved and appreciated those cookies made me feel. Those Oreo cookies, as much as anything else I can remember, brought me closer to my mother. I’m sure many of you, here tonight, have similar stories—
Not bad, but not great. This opening captured a percentage of listeners, those who resonate with narratives, and it lost anyone who’s waiting for a point. For an average presenter, these words have taken 45 seconds to speak. We have roughly a minute to get our audience onboard, before they drift, before they’re jettisoning everything we say as they search for the point. Even the ones who love a good story will start forgetting what we told them, almost immediately, and will be wondering what they’re supposed to be learning. After all, they showed up to learn something, not for a book reading or a bedtime story.
Telling personal stories to connect is an extremely good tool for certain talks—the rousing inspirational, the spiritual journey, the magnetizing battlecry—but it’s the most common false start for an informational talk. Let’s look at another option:
An Oreo cookie is 11 grams of goodness, and aren’t we thankful for that? It was invented in 1912 in Chelsea, New York City. That block of Ninth Avenue is, to this very day, still referred to as “Oreo Way.” The Oreo was first sold in Hoboken, New Jersey, and today almost everyone in America has tried an Oreo. They may be 45 empty calories apiece, a teaspoon of sugar in every delicious wafer, but they remain the world’s favorite cookie…
The opening sentence is good. Using that single line, an excellent presenter can create rapport with the audience. In one or two phrases—seven to 10 seconds—we can develop a connection.
Yet while all these facts may be pertinent, and it may also be true that deepening an appreciation for the history of a cookie may also deepen our love for its flavor, the task is to convince a room of cookie lovers of the best way to eat an Oreo cookie, not to give them a Litany of Facts about Oreos. Loaded at the front like this, the Litany becomes a disconnected laundry list, divorced from any thesis, point, or call to action. The facts will fascinate some listeners, but they will struggle to connect them to any call to action you may later give, or most will check out by the time you say, “In 1912 in Chelsea.” Let’s try again:
An Oreo cookie is 11 grams of goodness. Delicious, scrumptious cocoa and cream—can’t you taste it? Today, I’m going to teach you the best way to eat an Oreo, and why that Oreo tastes so good. I’ll cover the basics—how to twist the Oreo open, how best to dunk the Oreo into milk so that it doesn’t dissolve, and why this method delivers the greatest amount of chocolatey-vanilla flavor to your mouth. Next, we’ll explore the gastronomy of the Oreo, its basic flavor profile, and why the milk should be at 35 degrees for the best results. Lastly, in order to deepen your appreciation for this marvelous dessert, to titillate not just your tastebuds but your mind, I’ll take us on a brief tour of the Oreo’s marvelous history.
That is a strong opening. During those first 17 words, an effective speaker can connect with the room. The point is delivered in the third sentence, within 37 words, or about 20 seconds. The structure of the entire talk is revealed within 60 seconds.
Most of you will never present on the best way to eat an Oreo cookie. Instead, you may have to communicate, to an entire salesforce, their collective strategy for the next quarter. You might find yourself before a curriculum committee or a school board, arguing for changes to an educational program. You could be addressing a roomful of your peers, from all across an industry, at a professional conference where you must persuade them of important shifts in the market.
In all great informational talks, the opening is the same:
- A quick, effective connection.
- A clear thesis or point, delivered within the first 20–45 seconds.
- A roadmap, letting your audience know what to expect, and how what you’re going to talk about relates to your main point.
Along the way, as you deepen each subtopic, you’ll relate it to your main thesis. Then at the end, you’ll recap what you’ve said and how it related to your key idea. Finally, don’t forget, end with the call to action—ask your audience to do something, to consider something, or to acknowledge something they never have before.