Five Ways Not to Start a Presentation

In his new book, Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every TimeBill McGowan walks us through those high-stakes situations in which saying the right thing can make the difference between bombing a presentation and owning your audience—and details common mistakes even the most seasoned pros make. Avoid these five presentation killers

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You set the agenda

Here's how it sounds: "Good morning, I'd like to spend some time this morning talking about x, y and z." Sound familiar? The majority of presentations start this way, and it's one of the hardest habits to break. Unfortunately, agenda setting is clunky and dull, and there's no quicker way to lose your audience. Instead, McGowan says, start with some visual storytelling. The payoff to your story should directly relate to the broader point of your presentation.


You bury your lead

Almost any presentation could be drastically improved by lopping off the first couple of paragraphs or sentences. These two intros say the same thing, but the latter gives the audience the jolt it needs.


Before: “So if we are to look at this from an international perspective, and take into account that certain macro-economic trends are creating headwinds for the brands we are positioning for the greatest amount of global growth, then what we find is something that just about every company is working to figure out. Which is, where will we turn for game-changing growth if the economies in the emerging markets remain tepid. The solution could lie in placing bigger bets on young under-developed and innovative companies.”


After: “The key to our future growth may not lie in emerging markets.  Those economies are now tepid at best.  Where we need to be looking is closer to home—the young companies that are primed to grow.”


You use this word

Have you ever started a speech like this: “Good morning, I’m so excited to be here.” You’re not alone, McGowan says. Excited is among the most overused word in the speaking world. And because it has become an almost obligatory thing to say, it no longer has any effect. Instead, he says to show your audience your excitement through something more conversational and anecdotal. “For more than a month now, this day has been circled on my calendar—my colleagues have been under strict instructions not to try to schedule anything that could possibly conflict with this, because I have been eagerly looking forward to the opportunity to be with you today.”


You apologize without apologizing

“Even subtly hinting that they may have something else they’d rather be doing is Ambien for your audience,” says McGowan. Instead of the 4p.m. apologetic start of, “Listen, I know I’m the only thing standing between you and the cocktail hour, but just bear with me here,” try saying, “Okay. Now starts a brisk sprint to the finish line of the day. We’re going to end with a bang!”  


You don’t include an element of suspense

A tease is a short snippet of copy that compels listeners to want to wait to see what happens next (and not get up to run to the bathroom or check their phone)—and the best presentation openers include them. If you’re giving a slideshow presentation about the future of your industry, something like this might work, McGowan says: “The woman on the slide behind me is a total stranger to you. But next year, her decisions will have more of an impact on our careers than just about anybody else.  Today, I’m going to explain how.”


Next: 9 Reinvention Tips for Any Age


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