How to Start and Finish Presentations

A great piece of advice TED’s Chris Anderson gives in his excellent ‘Official Guide to Public Speaking’ is to ‘Start Strong’ and ‘End with Power’. When we deliver presentations we often forget this.

It’s important because research has shown that people are excellent at recalling the beginning of a presentation and how it ends. The bits in between, not so much. Neuroscientists call this the serial position effect. So, when we design a presentation we need to give an extra focus to these elements.

Here’s some suggestions on how to do this.

How to Start Strong

Firstly, what not to do. Attention is short. Don’t spend those priceless first minutes droning on about yourself. No-one’s interested in your brilliant career and why you’ve been asked to present. Don’t fiddle around with all the technical stuff such as microphones and your slides. It’s a surefire way to get people diving for their phones. Get it sorted in advance. And of course, we all know you’re ‘honoured and humbled’ to be invited to speak. No need to explain.

Instead, you need to spark curiosity immediately and create a sense of intrigue. Here are three techniques.

1) A startling fact. Share something engaging and surprising. Something that will set the tone for the whole talk. This is how Jamie Oliver kicked off his famous TED Talk entitled Teach Every Child About Food in 2009.

Sadly in the next 18 minutes when I do our chat 4 Americans that are alive will be dead through the food that they eat’

Now, we’re all keen to know more.

2) A personal anecdote or story. It’s a great way to show your vulnerability. Reveal something about yourself and get the audience on your side. Evoking empathy is so important to delivering a powerful presentation. It could be funny. The master of this is Ken Robinson. His opening salvo in Do schools kill creativity is full of anecdotes. It could be surprising. Zak Embrahim in Ted 2014, kicked off with a story that has an amazing revelation. His father is a convicted terrorist. We want to know more. If you don’t feel comfortable revealing something about yourself, tell a relevant story about someone else the audience can relate to.

3) A challenging question. Another way to immediately engage the audience ask them a provocative question. It could be on a controversial topic that divides the audience. You could even ask for a show of hands. This way, we become part of the presentation and engaged in its outcomes

Choose whatever approach works for you. The key goal is to hook them in and get the audience on your side. If you want to see a true master at kicking off a presentation, watch Hans Rosling. His opening in ‘The Magic Washing Machine is full of anecdote, humour and intrigue.

How to End with Power

Ok, so now the end is near. Don’t end with a whimper. For example, never end with a video. Tempting, but a bit of a cop-out. You need to end with you. Don’t waste time thanking everyone. Only do this as an afterthought, once you’ve closed ‘properly’. Don’t say ‘sorry that’s all I’ve got time for’. It implies you’ve cut it short or not planned properly. Show you’ve used your time wisely.

You need to end with a flourish. Here are 3 suggestions.

1) A call to action. The whole point of a presentation is to change the audience’s beliefs or behaviour. To hammer this home, make sure you’re clear about what your ‘ask’ is. In Amy Cuddy’s famous presentation on body language, there are two calls to action. Firstly, to practice ‘power posing’ to increase your confidence. Secondly, to share the science so others can learn. It could be your own personal action. The commitment you’re giving back to the audience. 

2) Bring it back to the start. A great presentation needs to have symmetry. If you’ve asked a question at the beginning, answer it at the end. If you’ve set up a series of goals upfront explain how you’ve addressed them at the end. Make sure there are no loose ends.

3) A vision of success. Show people the big picture, the consequences or impact of the message you’re conveying. Leave them inspired. Explain that by following your advice or supporting your vision, you’ll take them to a better place.

So to summarise.

The start and finish of a presentation are of critical importancel. It’s what people remember most. Spend a disproportion amount of time preparing these elements. Make sure you’ve practiced and know them off by heart. There are lots of ways to make sure you start strong and end with power. Choose the approach you feel most comfortable with. Make sure it’s something memorable. You want your presentation to wow the audience and leave a lasting impression.