Saturday, May 25, 2013

The All-Important First Minute

You hit the stage (or the conference room, or the classroom, or the pulpit) and all eyes focus in on you. The audience, who were mentally somewhere else just a moment ago, one by one begin to watch and wonder "what will this person say to me?". They may be charitably attentive and hope for the best, or they may be cynically imploring "Please don't waste my valuable time", presumably as so many prior speakers have done.

You generally have a minute or so--sometimes less--before people start drawing conclusions about the quality and value of your presentation.

Many fail to capitalize on that first minute and as a result have to hope they can win you over later in the speech. But if you get off to a great start, you're winning them over from the get-go.

And so today I will talk a little bit about your speech introduction. It's that first 10-20% of your total speaking time. For that 5 minute talk it's that first 30 seconds to a minute. (If you have the luxury of a 50 minute talk, obviously, it would be longer and you have more time to develop it).

A good Intro has three parts: the hook, the promise, and the road map. Allow me to explain.

As I mentioned, prior to your speech your audience is somewhere else mentally.  They're talking with other audience members, looking at their schedule on their IPhone, or thinking about all the things they could and should be doing instead of waiting for you to begin your talk. Therefore it is important to pull the focus of their attention on to you.

Here's how not to do it. "I'm here today to talk about _________". Never begin by announcing your topic because you give your audience an "opt-out moment" and believe me they will opt out and go back to thinking of all the things they could be doing if they didn't have to be here listening to this topic that they don't fully understand yet and therefore don't see the benefit of listening to. The problem is you can't tell them the topic until you have first made "the promise"...but I am getting ahead of myself.

Start your speech with a story ( for more on storytelling see this or this). It may have to be a short story, of 30-45 seconds, but start with a story. It can be the story of how you came to speak in front of this particular group, the story of the humorous hotel clerk last night, the story of how your daughter had a birthday party last week and what a fiasco of fun it was. If you can directly tie the story in to your topic or the occasion that's great. But even if it doesn't, the story ends with you being here today to talk about something really important. For instance you might say, "Now I know, you didn't come here today to hear about my daughter's birthday party, we're here to learn how to sell more widgets and increase revenue". As long as the story is a brief one, the audience will forgive the non-topical start (if you must). The important thing is you've captured their attention. They are no longer working on their schedule or talking to the person next to them. When someone starts a story, it's almost impossible not to get caught up in the plot and wonder where it is going. Mission accomplished...you have their attention, and that is the goal of the hook.

The promise must come next (or if you're creative and your topic and story align the right way you have built it in to the story itself and in that way kill two birds with one stone...you'll understand this better in a minute). The promise is where you give them a reason or motivation to listen to your talk. This is where you tell them how the information you are sharing with them today will benefit them. There is presumably some value to the audience in what you are sharing with them (if there is not then you are wasting their time and need to reexamine your motives for speaking!). Come right out and tell them this will help them in some way. Depending on the topic and context it could be anything from increasing the bottom line, to better mental or physical health, to improving communication with their loved ones. As an audience member, How is my life better as a result of learning/knowing what you are about to teach/tell me? This sometimes takes a lot of thought and some people have difficulty seeing this, but it is essential. For without it your audience has no motivation to listen to you. What can they do, post-speech, that they couldn't do pre-speech? Tell them.

The promise though, is two-fold. Part of the promise is that the audience will benefit from your talk. The other part is that you know what you're talking about and can be trusted. This is your credibility. I will be writing an entire blog about credibility soon, but for now let's just say you need to establish your expertise on the topic and your general trustworthiness (both on the topic and as a person of good character). That's why the story about your daughter's birthday party is not without value...any person who loves their child enough to not only throw a great party but be so happy about it to come in and tell a room full of strangers about it, is probably a pretty good egg, no? People can relate, and if they can relate to you they like and trust you. Credibility is established--as long as they also believe you know what you are talking about!

Now sometimes your story/hook has the promise built into it. If you tell the story of how you first got involved with this topic and the change it's made in your life and how you're here to share those benefits with the audience today, you have built the promise into the story. This is ideal when you don't have a lot of time to develop your intro.

The last thing you need to set up your speech and prepare the audience for what is to follow is your road map. This is where you explicitly state your topic and lay out what the main points you will be covering in your speech are. It's okay to say "Today I will be talking about ________" now because you have already made the promise, and only foolish audience members would opt-out if there is real value to be gained by listening. And the last line of your intro should always be that preview of main points. "So in order to better understand (topic) today we're going to discuss ________, ___________, and _________. (And you should have three main points, not one or eight...another topic for another blog entry!).

The road map is essential to help your audience follow along and gives them a mental checklist of what you are covering, which will help them remember your message. Have you ever tried to follow someone in a car when you don't know where they're going? Well you should stop being a stalker! Just teasing. If you have, you know it is difficult and stressful. You want to make things easy for your audience, not difficult. And you want it to be a pleasant experience, not stressful  So tell them where you are going in your speech and they will happily follow along.

Now you have captured their attention with your hook, given them motivation to listen and reason to trust you with the promise, and told them where we are going together with the road map. You are on your way to a great talk!

That's all for today. Be well and speak well. And as always, thanks for reading!

For more information about Dan Leyes and his consulting services visit Semiosphere Consulting.