Remember, it’s not just your words that you need to choose carefully.

There’s that classic saying that goes, ‘You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression’. Some say that the first few seconds are all that stand in the way of your presentation either ‘soaring with the eagles’ or ‘sinking with the Titanic’. So, what should you avoid?  What can you do to give yourself a better chance of holding your audience from the start? To find out more, read on.

What you say first, can and usually does make all the difference.  To both the audience and to the power of your message. Over the years, the first words I’ve uttered (or rather, spluttered) range from ‘Right’, ‘OK’, ‘Well, err um’, ‘Ah, looks like I’m up’, and ‘I’m not used to doing this’. Rule 1. Don’t do any of these things, and in particular, never apologise!  That’s a sure sign of weakness for which you won’t receive much empathy.

Your audience is looking for and wanting assurance and to feel at ease. If you show any nervousness or display any signs of being uncomfortable, so will they.  You are a mirror to them; they will feel what you project. Your primary aim really is to move them, to leave them with something memorable and ultimately call them to action.  Start right to finish right. To achieve this, what you need to embed at the start of your presentation is;

  • Attention
  • Connection
  • Interaction

Gaining these will raise the level of energy, rapport and interest to your message. Think about the last time you were captivated by a speaker. What did they do to draw you in?

Some of the best start techniques I have both seen and used, include;

  • Asking a Question. Even a rhetorical one can work. This immediately engages people and gets them thinking.
  • Start with a story. People connect well with stories. Make them personal and short. Add some vulnerability in there too. It becomes more genuine. Maybe a metaphor or anecdote. A great rapport builder.
  • Deliver a great ‘hook’, a powerful statement, an interesting fact. For example, ‘Great storytellers are made not born’ or ‘Did you know that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on earth’. Then pause. They will curiously be drawn in.

Nigel Smith speaking at Toastmasters International

These are all great techniques to do something different and to get you to stand out from the crowd. Often, people will forget what you said, or even how you said it, but they are unlikely to forget how you made them feel. Starting right is essential to this.

What you say at the start, is, however, only half the story! Would it surprise you to realise that the real impact comes from what you don’t say, rather than what you do?  Back at the start of this article, how do you project confidence, so that your audience feels comfortable? Welcome to the wonderful world of body language. Here are a few things I’ve learnt.

Your body needs to communicate that you are open. First and foremost, stand up. Even when presenting on-line. You will create much more presence, have easier access to movement, together with much-improved speech and vocal variety. Even when standing you want to make sure you’re doing it right, so feet spread slightly wider than your shoulders. Roll your shoulders back, rather than slump forward. Give a nice positive gesture with open palms. Head straight and make eye contact, or if virtually, look straight into the camera, not the people lower down on the screen. Eye contact is so essential for gaining trust and building that vital rapport.

But, there’s something else that comes before any of this, before you compose your stance, before even your first words. It’s all about the way you set things up and this includes you. You need to be in that correct mindful state (and yes, using the Amy Cuddy ‘Power Poses’ off-stage works too!).

For me though, Deep breath, Smile, Pause…..then…..Start!

Now you’re off and you’re taking your audience with you, but what about the rest of your presentation?  The structure, for example?  Well, for this, you need to start with the end in mind, as Stephen Covey reminded us.  That, however, is another article for another time!

About Nigel Smith

Nigel has been a PMI UK volunteer since 2015. He melds his 20-year project management experience with coaching competencies to meet the empowering demands of the Agile age. He focuses on people, presentation, and process to prepare project managers to perform and deliver more and better. Connect with Nigel via LinkedIn or his website at

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