Openings… The biggest stumbling block

“The first few moments of a presentation always terrify me.”

“I know my subject really well and know what I want to say, I just don’t know how to get started.”

“If the first few minutes go well, then I relax for the rest of the talk.”

Statements like these are almost universal. It seems that for almost everyone, how they open a talk causes a great deal of anxiety.

And, when you think of it, these first few moments are daunting. As presenters, we have to accomplish several important tasks very quickly. We have to relax, establish our credibility, engage our audience, and introduce our topic. We have to overcome whatever inertia the audience is feeling having come from some other activity and mental focus. And, we have to do all this despite whatever level of anxiety we have been experiencing building up to the presentation.

In general, jumping right into your talk is preferable to starting with what I call “fluff”; eg., “My name is…” or “Thank you for inviting me to speak…” or “I’m delighted to be here today…” None of these opening gambits will grab your audience nor will they help you relax as a speaker.

In my work with private clients, I’ve found that once we’ve thought through the opening of a talk, everything else begins to fall into place. And for each person, the opening might be different.

For some people a good opening might be to plant their feet before they begin and to feel their ground. For others, it might be to begin talking while walking up to the front of the room. For still others, standing silently to help them connect with the audience before speaking might be the perfect approach. Personal stories often help loosen up both the speaker and the audience. Humor is good for some people, but not for others.

Regardless of the approach, if you’re feeling anxious about a presentation, then what you do to open your talk should especially be designed to help you relax, and as you do so your audience will come along. The rest of the talk can then be for the audience, but the opening is for you. Openings are your opportunity to move from “arrows in” to “arrows out” and to set the tone for your “conversation” with the audience. Ironically, by taking care of yourself, you will also be more successful in engaging the audience.

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