How to start a presentation

How to start a presentation

The start of your presentation; the bit that makes people glad they came…or wonder if they have made a mistake.

So, of all the advice on all the internet, what actually works?

Well, Steve Rawling, Author of Storyteller Tactics, knows a thing or two about presentations - and he’s shared his top tips with us. And of course, we’ve included a few tips for closing your presentation out with style, too.

So, let’s crack on.

How to start a presentation

Start strong.

It’s no surprise. “Start weak” sounds dumb (it is). But how do you start strong?

Well, not by telling everyone your name (which they already know) and what you’re going to talk about (which they also already know; it’s why they’re there).

Start your presentation with an opener

Your opener has to grab the attention of the audience. You can do this in lots of ways:

  • Ask a question (rhetorical or otherwise) - to include them in your talk from the very start, and to get them thinking. You can literally start with “Let me ask you something:...”
  • Say something surprising, such as an unlikely fact (preferably relevant to your talk!). “Did you know that 80% of opening facts aren’t strictly true?”
  • Use a photo or infographic to convey a lot of information very quickly.
  • Tell a joke to help people loosen up and relax into your talk.

But the most powerful way is to start with a story. And the good news is that you can include any of the openers above when you use a story, too!

Here are some ideas based on the Storyteller Tactics Concept cards you can play with to get things off to a flying start.

Secrets and Puzzles

The Secrets and Puzzles tactic is one of the best concept cards for coming up with a strong starting point. As you’ll see, it promises “a secret waiting to be revealed, or a puzzle to be solved!” - and what could be more enticing than that?!

You cleverly highlight a gap in your audience’s collective knowledge, which they then wish to close up. And how do they acquire the knowledge required to do so? Well, they listen to you.

Or you create a puzzle from your story - look for an anomaly, irony or inconsistency that you can help make sense of.

It’s easy to see how these set you up for a strong finish, too - but we’ll come to that later!

Good and Evil

The Good and Evil tactic is great fun to play with, which makes it great fun to listen to when it plays out in a presentation, too!

It goes beyond choosing a side (good or evil) - perhaps you’re choosing the lesser of two evils, or trying to untangle the mess created by two rights somehow creating a wrong. These are the types of conflict that make for riveting watching. Bring a little bit of drama into your presentation; your audience will thank you.

If you fancy something in a similar vein, but this one doesn’t quite fit your narrative, try Rules, Cheats and Rebels. Lots of great stories start with rule breakers; maybe yours is one of them?

Curious Tales

Curiosity is a powerful emotion - if you can get people in your audience to feel curious, you’ll have their attention till the moment your talk is over.

So kicking off with a Curious Tale seems like a pretty sure thing.

This tactic helps you find the unusual, the intriguing and the bizarre in your story. It helps you evoke some key emotions that are great for keeping engagement high: curiosity, sure, but also envy or caution, as well as interest in other people’s sacrifices.

Story Hooks

Story Hooks are another simple yet powerful way to start your presentation. They’re also really great for crafting catchy titles, too!

Starting with a question is a power move! But it’s not the only ‘hook’. You can also start with a surprise, an irony or a superlative. Anything that’s not your name and the title of the presentation, really.

Finish strong

Ending your presentation can feel like the easiest bit. But recency bias means it’s the bit most people will remember, even if it’s not great - so make sure it is!

If you started with a question, puzzle or secret - this is the moment to wrap things up. Answer the question clearly, in one sentence, even if you have just spent the past 15 minutes answering it in detail. Explain how the puzzle was solved, and the impact of the solution. Remind them that you’ve let them in on a secret.

Give away a gift

Not a literal gift.

Remind them of the take-away message. What did they gain from this talk? How can they apply it?

You want everyone to go away feeling like they are smart, part of something and that they earned something by attending your talk. That feeling will stick in their head, and it’s what will have them talking about you for the rest of the week.

It’s like the famous saying by Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.


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