Struggling with how to open your presentation? In our most recent blog, we talked about why it’s so important to make a great first impression as a speaker. We broke down what you need to accomplish during the introduction of your presentation according to Jerry Weissman’s “90 seconds to launch” theory.

Before we move on from Weissman’s theory, we want to explore in further depth his notion of the opening gambit. In his book Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story, Weissman gives “seven classic opening gambits.” These are ways to capture your audience’s attention right from the start. If you are stuck for ideas on how to open your presentation, this list can help.

1. Question

This is one of my favorite ways to open a presentation for a couple reasons. First, it reminds the audience from the very first sentence that their presence and participation matters. But handle it carefully. Generally, it’s better to ask for a show of hands or ask a rhetorical question so that you maintain full control of that crucial first 90 seconds. I also like opening with a question because it gives me just a few seconds of silence after I ask the question to catch my breath. And a deep, full breath will help slow down your fight-flight-freeze adrenaline response.

2. Factoid

You might also try opening with a factoid which is a shocking or surprising statement or statistic. Sometimes it works to unsettle the audience a bit right off the bat with information they didn’t know about or weren’t expecting. Make sure to handle this carefully so that it doesn’t feel like emotional manipulation. But don’t be afraid to rock the boat a bit to break up the calm waters of the status quo. This builds both interest and energy.

3. Retrospective/Prospective

This opening gambit transports the listeners away from the present moment either backward or forward in time. An opening like this might begin with the word “remember” or “imagine.” This opener draws upon narrative elements and taps into our love for stories.

4. Anecdote

Weissman defines an anecdote as “a very short story, usually one with a human-interest angle.” Note that if you choose to open your presentation this way, it might be more emotionally evocative than others. That’s because an anecdote allows the audience to zoom in and relate to or identify with one human being (versus a factoid which usually shows the wide scope).

5. Quotation

A quotation works to build your credibility from the start. Here’s a general rule about quotations. The closer the relationship of the topic of the quote or the speaker of the quote, the more powerful it will be. The audience should not have to ask, “How does that relate?” The relevance of the quotation should either be spelled out or immediately obvious.

6. Aphorism

You might try using an aphorism, a commonly known phrase or saying. This builds connection and trust because it is familiar. It establishes some common ground which is always a good place from which to start a presentation. You can also introduce a fun or unexpected twist if you alter the saying slightly to fit the purpose of your presentation or if you take a different approach to the saying.

One of my students was giving a persuasive speech about the importance of financial planning. She began her speech by saying, “Hakuna Matata. It means no worries for the rest of your days.” The audience smiled at this familiar lyric from Disney’s The Lion King. She went on to say, “this is a great life philosophy” and she paused dramatically, “if you are planning to end up with no job and no money to take care of your basic needs. Thanks, Disney!” Her anti-thesis surprised the audience, and they laughed because they weren’t expecting her to disagree with it.

7. Analogy

If the topic of your presentation is complex or unfamiliar, an analogy might be your best bet. Here’s why. An analogy relates something the audience might not understand with something they already do. What is your topic or product like? How might the audience understand it better through the lens of something more familiar? It’s important to make sure your analogy isn’t overly complicated or superficial, though. Check out The Harvard Business Review’s suggestions for how to use analogies well.

While there are other ways to open your presentation, Weissman’s list of 7 is a great place from which to start. Consider the context of the speaking event, the audience you’ll be presenting to, and your own speaking style. Then chose the opening gambit that works best.

At Ethos3, we love reading about the theories, practices, and research behind presentation strategies and then sharing them with you. Check out our full line of presentation design and training services now.


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