The second most effective way of starting a presentation

Posted: 20th March 2016


I recently wrote a blog (see here) about the many ways in which people start their presentations with a form of apology, and how it can quickly turn off an audience. But that doesn’t necessarily answer the question of how to start one well.

One suggestion for a great way to start a presentation that will keep your audience with you is to evoke some kind of curiosity. By this, I don’t mean starting with a “did you know…” statement and a bunch of facts and pie charts. I mean something that will genuinely have people leaning in and paying attention; because well-engineered curiosity creates its own need to be resolved. You only have to have found yourself wasting half an hour online on Twitter or browsing click-bait driven celebrity gossip to have felt its pull.

I recalled a story recently, of a conversation I had with the Managing Director of a leisure trust in England during one of my Desire Code training workshops. He was telling me that their local council had just approached them with £180,000 to spend on delivering the most fantastic summer holiday activity programme for young people. It was part of an effort to keep youngsters engaged and active during the school holiday, but also, mostly, to reduce anti-social behaviour in some local areas. He said the opportunity had come in at the last minute and they had had to pull out all the stops to plan and cost their programme in time to present to the Council Cabinet.

He said, “we presented to them the second most effective way of spending their money to achieve their objectives and pitched our comprehensively designed activity programme to them”. He then described it in some detail. I asked why they hadn’t presented what they considered the most effective solution. Surely everyone, especially the customer, would want the top, the number one, the best?

He said in his opinion the most effective solution would be “to identify 180 of the worst offenders, give each of the little b***ers £1000 each and tell them to f**k off for the summer!” We all laughed.

There’s two lessons in here and the one about having the objective in mind first when it comes to designing services can wait for another time. The interesting thing that happened when this guy told the story is that we all leaned in. We all wanted to know what the top one was, the number one.

I’ve heard this exact same approach done in a keynote too. “Let me start by telling you what the second most common…” “Would you believe that the second most popular…” you get the idea. People lean in and listen. Curiosity makes them want to know the top answer. It’s a bit like the presentation version of “Family Fortunes”. Imagine if they closed the show without telling you what the top answer was, you’d be really irritated. How many times have you wanted to turn the TV off mid way through a programme, but paused, remote control in hand, waiting for the resolution of something you really wanted to know the answer to first. How daft did you feel at realising how little impact on your life this knowledge would have, but you still needed to know.

Here’s a challenge for you… choose an up and coming presentation you have to give. Find a second best thing to talk about at the start. Tell your audience it is second best and build up to the number one, the best, the top. (Note: make sure it’s a good number one – you know, worth waiting for!) See what happens…


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