The primacy effect, when applied to presentations, suggests that we remember more strongly what happens at the beginning of a presentation. In order to establish a connection with an audience, we must grab their attention right from the beginning. A punchy opening that gets the audience's attention is paramount. Granville N. Toogood, author of The Articulate Executive also stresses the idea of starting off quickly and beginning with punch. “To make sure you don’t get off on the wrong foot, plunge right in," he says. "To galvanize the mind of the audience, you’ve got to strike quickly.” There are many ways to strike quickly and start with punch to make a strong initial connection. Conveniently, at least five proven ways to begin a talk form the acronym PUNCH. Some of the best openings include content which is Personal, Unexpected, Novel, Challenging, or Humorous. Some of the best presentations contain at least one or more of these elements.
Make it Personal. I once saw an amazing presentation on work-place safety at a company whose employees have dangerous jobs. The presenter started off his presentation with a high resolution image of some cute children. After talking about how import "our children" are (most people in the audience had children), he confessed that the children on screen were his and that his main concern in his life was being around a great long while to take of them. We all have a responsibility, he said, to our families and to each other to make sure we pay careful attention to safety procedures and rules so that no one's children here ever have to be told that their mommy or daddy are not coming home. This opening was emotional, personal, and relevant. It got everyone's attention and set the stage for the presentation. What could have been a presentation simply listing safety rules in bullet points to be scanned now was something far more personal.
There are many ways to make the opening personal, but personal in this case does not mean a long self-introduction about your background complete with org charts or why you are qualified to speak. However, a personal story can be very effective opening so long as it illustrates a key engaging point or sets the theme in a memorable way.
Reveal something unexpected. Doing something or saying something which goes against what people expected gets their attention. Even the very fact that you have chosen to eschew the normal and expected (and boring) formal opening of thanking everyone under the sun and saying how glad you are to be speaking is a happy small surprise. Instead of the normal formal and slow opening, consider opening with a shocking quote or a question with a surprising answer or a revealing statistic that goes against conventional wisdom. Do or say something that taps into the emotion of surprise. This emotion increases alertness and gets people to focus. "There must be surprise...some key facts that are not commonly known or are counter-intuitive,” says management guru Tom Peters. “No reason to do the presentation in the first place if there are no surprises."
Show or tell of something novel. Get people’s attention by introducing something new. Start with a powerful image that’s never been seen, or reveal a relevant short story that’s never been heard, or show a statistic from a brand new study that gives new insights into a problem. Chances are that your audience is filled with natural born explorers who crave discovery and are attracted to the new and the unknown. Novelty is threatening for some people, but assuming the environment is safe and there is not an over abundance of novelty in the environment, your audience will be seeking the novel and the new.
Challenge conventional wisdom or challenge the audience’s assumptions. Consider challenging people's imaginations too: "How would you like to fly from New York to Tokyo in 2 hours? Impossible? Well, some experts think it’s possible!" Challenge people intellectually by asking provocative questions that make them think. Many presentations or lectures fail because they simply attempt to transfer information from speaker to listener as if the listeners were not active participants. But audiences pay attention best when you call on them to use their brains — and even their bodies — to do something that taps their natural curiosity and stretches them.
Use humor to engage the audience emotionally with a shared laugh. There are many benefits to laughter. Laughter is contagious and an audience that shares a laugh becomes more connected with each other and with you; this creates a positive general vibe in the room. Laughter releases endorphins, relaxes the whole body, and can even change one’s perspective just a bit. The old adage is if they are laughing they are listening. This is true, though it does not necessarily mean they are learning, so it is critical that the humor be relevant directly to the topic at hand or otherwise fits harmoniously with the flow of your narrative without being distracting or derailing you from the objective of your talk.
The idea of recommending humor in a presentation gets a bad rap because of the common and tired practice of opening up a speech with a joke, almost always a lame one. Usually such jokes get only polite sympathy laughter at best, and at worst the joke falls completely flat or even offends, either way the presenter is off to a poor start. But, I’m not talking about telling jokes. Forget about jokes. However, an observation of irony, or an anecdote or short humorous story that makes a relevant point or introduces the topic and sets the theme are the kinds of openings that can work.
Take a chance
There are many ways to start a presentation, but how ever you choose to start your talk, do not waste those initial valuable two-three minutes “warming up” the audience with filler material or formalities. Start strong. The five elements comprising PUNCH are not the only things to consider, but if your opening contains 2-3 of these approaches then you are on your way to opening with impact. Of course, it's safer just to do the same old thing, but part of presenting naked means being different and taking a chance to make an impact. Making a difference and influencing a change always has some risk.