You can mess up any presentation, no matter how good, or useful, or well-researched your content may be.
How? By delivering it without confidence.
Imagine going up on stage, your shoulders hunched, head bowed. At the podium, you clear your throat and say:
“Yeah. Hi. I’m Jake. (Laughs nervously.) Um… Is this on? So…”
You notice the audience cringing in their seats. You wish you could just die!
At the end of your presentation, you say:
“So, yeah… I mean, that’s what I think,… And, uh, yeah… Questions? Or, um…”
You shrug, put your head down, hunch your shoulders, and shuffle off the stage. The audience gives you polite applause.
All your research, prep, and hard work have gone to waste! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Presentations need not give you the frights or turn your stomach into a knot.
The secret is knowing how to start a presentation strong and end it powerfully. And that’s exactly what we’re going to look at today.
Before jumping into this tutorial, check out our guide on how to beat anxiety during your presentation:
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Read on for presentation strategies and killer tips to grab and hold the attention of your audience. First up is how to start your presentation strong. Then, we'll dig into tips on commanding the middle, and finish with how to end a presentation powerfully—so that your points resonate with unforgettable surprise.
How to Start a Presentation Strong by Leveraging Unpredictability
Starting a presentation strong means being unpredictable.
Research shows that when we know what to expect from a cue (for example, flipping a switch turns on the lights), we don’t pay attention to what happens after the cue.
But when we don’t know what to expect, we pay more attention. That's why we love movies with a twist: the unpredictability engages us more deeply.
How can you incorporate unpredictability at the start of a presentation?
There are several ways to achieve this. The choice will depend on your topic, the circumstances, and your presentation style.
The techniques below guide us on how to start a presentation strong.
1. Make a Bold Claim
Everyone knows the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The speech doesn’t begin with “I have a dream.” That's the climax. The speech starts like this:
“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
The claim that the rally would become "the greatest demonstration of freedom" may seem “normal” to us today who already know the subsequent events of history. But can you imagine what it must have been like hearing that claim on that very day?
Bold, to say the least.
Could anyone in the audience help but pay attention after that?
If you're confident your presentation will make a measurable and immediate impact on your audience (like changing your how your industry solves a pressing problem, improving a customer's metrics by fifty percent, or helping teams double their productivity without putting in longer hours), don't save that claim for the end.
State it at the beginning and state it with confidence. When your audience understands what they stand to gain, they can't help but pay attention to your every word.
2. Contradict Expectations
Let's look at another way of how to start a presentation in an interesting way: by contradicting expectations. This is a classic application of the unpredictability principle.
Start with a claim that contradicts what people expect. That will make them sit up and pay attention. Then use the attention you've earned to ease into your topic.
Sir Ken Robinson does this marvelously in the most-watched Ted Talk of all time. Coming onto the stage after other speakers have already delivered amazing speeches, Robinson says:
“It’s been great hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away by the whole thing. In fact, I’m leaving.”
You can hear in the way the audience laughs that this statement catches them by surprise. And the speaker uses that surprise (and the reference to the earlier great speeches) to lunge into the topic.
Pamela Meyer achieves similar results through a slightly different technique. Meyer begins a presentation on how to spot a liar by accusing the audience of being liars themselves!
“Okay, I don’t want to alarm anybody in this room, but it’s just come to my attention that the person to your right is a liar! Also the person to your left is a liar.”
The audience laughs. They weren't expecting to be called liars. But the contrarian claim isn't off-putting; it's captivating. "Why are we all liars?" they want to know, and now they're paying attention.
3. Stimulate Curiosity
One of the most powerful ways to start a presentation is to stimulate curiosity. The human brain relishes curiosity. In fact, research has shown that curiosity prepares the brain for better learning. And that's good news for your presentation.
Why? Because once our curiosity is piqued, we want to know the answer. We must solve the puzzle. So, we pay attention looking for the right clues. It’s simply the way we were built to think and operate.
So how can you stimulate curiosity at the beginning of your presentation?
You could announce that you've got a secret to confess, like Dan Pink does in a famous Ted Talk:
“I need to make a confession, at the outset here. A little over 20 years ago, I did something that I regret. Something that I am not particularly proud of. Something that in many ways I wished no one would ever know, but that here I feel kind of obliged to reveal. In the late 1980s, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, I went to law school.”
The announcement of this confession piques our curiosity. What's the secret? And the contents of the confession heighten it: Why is going to law-school such an embarrassing confession. We must solve this puzzle!
And so, there's no option but to pay close attention to every word to find out!
4. Ask Questions
A simple yet effective approach to start a presentation that grips attention is to ask a question. Few things are more unexpected than a speaker beginning a presentation with questions. Isn’t the speaker supposed to be answering our questions?
But these questions are rhetorical. They're not meant to be answered with a simple yes or no. They intend rather, to plant the seed of an idea into our heads so that the speaker can then focus our attention on that idea throughout the presentation.
Simon Sinek does this in a talk on how great leaders inspire action. Sinek begins by asking the audience:
“How do you explain when things don't go as we assumed? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example, why is Apple so innovative? [...] Why is it that Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement?”
By this point, we’re all sitting there scratching our chins going: “Huh, how do they do that?”
So, we perk our ears and pay attention.
5. Spin a Surprising Story
One of the most gripping ways of start a presentation is to tell a compelling story, especially one that surprises.
Stories are not just an entrainment mechanism. They're a survival mechanism humans have developed and refined over thousands of years. That means as humans, we're naturally wired to pay attention to stories.
And one of the best ways to start your presentation strong is by telling a story (of something that happened to you, or something you heard about, etc.) related to your topic and why you’re giving your presentation.
That's how Brené Brown opens a now-famous Ted Talk about vulnerability. Brown relates the funny story of working with an event planner who didn’t know how to classify her for an event. Turns out, Brown didn't know, either!
Should Brown be called a researcher (which sounds boring) or a storyteller (which sounded something like a magic pixie to Brené Brown at the time)? In the end, Brown calls herself a researcher-storyteller.
The story delights and intrigues: What's a researcher-storyteller? And how does research tell a story?
We pay attention to find out.
How to Hold the Middle Together With Pauses and Visuals
Before we get to how to end a presentation powerfully, we should mention a few strategies about holding the audience’s attention through the middle of your presentation.
If you’ve watched even a few minutes of the presentations mentioned above, you'll have noticed two things: pauses and visuals.
1. Pause for Effect
Good speakers know how and when to pause.
After you’ve made a big claim, pause. Give the audience a few seconds to take in what you said.
Same if you're adding a touch of humor, somewhere. Pause. Let the audience laugh and relax momentarily without missing anything important.
After concluding a section and before moving on to the next point, pause.
If you rush through your presentation, the audience will feel lost and stop paying attention.
For an in-depth view of how to write the main body of your presentation, read the following tutorial:
- PresentationsHow to Write a Professional PowerPoint Presentation (Discover the Writing Process)Brad Smith
2. Aid the Flow With Visuals
Even the best Ted Talk presenters who seem to have a natural way with words, use PowerPoint presentations.
Why is that?
Because visuals help us grasp an idea and understand the point better.
By engaging our eyes in addition to our ears, visuals help direct all of our attention to the presentation—eliminating the possibility of getting distracted by something else.
The right PowerPoint presentation can also help guide your audience through the various sections of your speech so they don't feel lost or confused.
To learn how to create a persuasive PowerPoint presentation, have a look at the article below:
The easiest way to create an impressive PowerPoint presentation is to begin with creative slide templates from Envato Elements. All the Envato Elements templates are fully customizable, from the fonts and colors to the special effects.
What's more, your Elements subscription gives you unlimited downloads of PowerPoint templates and everything else you need for a powerful presentation: fonts, photos, videos, icons, and music tracks. You get all that for one low price.
Envato's GraphicRiver allows you to download PowerPoint templates one-at-a-time. It's a good choice if you're looking for a pay-as-you-go template solution. Check out the amazing pay-per-use PowerPoint templates on GraphicRiver, with one of our most popular PPT designs (Marketofy) shown here:
You can find more great PPT design options in our Ultimate Guide to the Best PowerPoint Template, or browse through the article below:
- Microsoft PowerPoint25+ Professional PowerPoint Templates: For Better Business PPT PresentationsSean Hodge
How to End a Presentation Powerfully by Being Memorable
Remember our example at the beginning? Where the speaker ends their speech mumbling, “yeah, so… like… that’s it…” and other such incoherencies?
That’s no way to end your killer presentation! Or you’ll end up killing all the hard work you did in your opening and throughout the main body.
Instead, you should end your presentation in a powerful way that the audience will remember long after you leave the stage.
Again, there are many ways to end a presentation well, and you should choose the one that best fits your presentation and personal style.
If you like these tips, you'll find even more PowerPoint tips here:
- Microsoft PowerPoint43 Effective PowerPoint Presentation Tips (To Improve Your Skills)Brad Smith
- Public Speaking10+ Top Public Speaking Tips (To Help You Improve Quickly)Laura Spencer
1. Call the Audience to Action
Approaching how to end a presentation that compels your audience to action requires you to take initiative with your closing. Don’t just leave your audience sitting there wondering what to do with all the wonderful information you’ve given them.
Tell them exactly what to do with it and how they’ll benefit from it with a clear and direct call to action.
For inspiration, watch how Brené Brown does this in the speech (starting at 19:01). Once Brown tells the audience:
“There’s another way, and I'll leave you with this.”
And Brown then goes on to explain exactly how the audience can apply the principles of vulnerability to their work and everyday lives.
For more ideas on how to inspire your audience to action, check out the following article:
- Presentations15 Creative Presentation Ideas: That Will Inspire Your Audience to ActionJulia Melymbrose
2. Paint a Vision of the Future
What will happen if the audience follows the advice or plan of your presentation?
Whether your presentation aims to change your entire community or benefit your customer's business, paint a vision of that future with your closing words.
When your audience sees that visions in their mind, they’ll remember it. More than that, they’ll start to believe it as a possibility.
That’s how Martin Luther King, Jr. finishes the legendary “I have a dream” speech. King imagines the day when:
“...all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
But your speech doesn’t have to change the history of the world to end with a vision.
For a different example, listen to how Dan Pink ends the speech (from 17:17 forward) on the vision of strengthening businesses and possibly changing the world.
3. Use a Contrarian Example
Here's a great example of how to end a presentation dynamically. Sir Ken Robinson moves into the ending crescendo of the Ted Talk with a bleak quote by the American virologist Jonas Salk (starting at 18:13):
“If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings were to disappear from the earth, all forms of life would flourish.”
Robinson then goes on to tell the audience that the virologist is right.
This contrarian quote goes against our expectations of the human species as a positive force on earth. So, we pay attention. Will we really destroy the earth?
No, Sir Ken Robinson goes on to say, but only if we learn to use our imagination and creativity in a positive and constructive way. And then Robinson goes on to recapitulate the main advice about reforming education.
The contrarian example shakes us out of our comfort zone about the positive impact we've got in the world and makes for a powerful ending that we're sure to remember long after the presentation is over.
Read this article and dive deeper into how to end your presentation:
Start and End Your Presentation With a Bang!
Your presentation can only be successful if you capture your audience's attention.
The best way to do that is, to begin with a bang. Make a bold statement, contradict their expectations, stimulate their curiosity, ask a rhetorical question, or spin a fascinating story. In other words, do something that will intrigue them into finding out what exactly you've got to say.
What's the best way to end a presentation? Also, with a bang.
Don't just leave your thoughts trail off. Call the audience to action, paint a vision of what the future will look like based on your suggestions, startle them into awareness by using a contrarian example. Whatever you do, make sure you leave a memorable impression when you walk out the room.
If you you're currently working on a presentation, share with us your ideas for how you can start your presentation strong and end it powerfully.
What example, quote, claim, or story will you use to capture your audience's attention?
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Remember to Hold Attention With Great Visuals
The beginning and end of a presentation are incredibly important, but so too is the middle—which makes up the bulk of your presentation. You don't want to neglect it.
You'll have more confidence in your presentation when you know you've got a riveting slideshow, made possible with one of thousands of PowerPoint templates in Envato Elements. Remember, with an Elements subscription, you get unlimited downloads of slideshow templates as well as stock photos, fonts, icons, infographics, and so much more.
If you prefer to pay as you go, then browse through our best-selling PowerPoint templates in GraphicRiver. With the vast selection available, you're sure to find one with a powerful design that you can customize quickly.
Also, you can find more awesome PPTs in our Ultimate Guide to the Best PowerPoint Template, which includes numerous PowerPoint options and tutorials to help you get started fast.
Editorial Note: This post was originally published in 2016. It's been comprehensively revised to make current, accurate, and up to date by our staff—with special assistance from Lexi Rodrigo.