There’s one surefire way to mess up any presentation, no matter how good, or useful, or well-researched your content may be.
And that is by projecting a lack of confidence.
Imagine a speaker going up on stage with their shoulders hunched over and head looking down. Then getting to the podium, clearing their throat and saying:
“Yeah. Hi. I’m Jake. (Laughs nervously.) Um… Is this on? So…”
By now, you’re sitting down in the audience, shifting uncomfortably in your seat, almost feeling the pain from the speaker’s discomfort, and wishing you could close your ears as easily and discreetly as you could close your eyes.
What a nightmare!
Now imagine that you’re the speaker on that stage.
Ugh! Nightmare scenario just got amped up by the power of a thousand, and you wish you could just die!
And it's not even over yet. Because then you get to the end of your presentation and go:
“So, yeah… I mean, that’s what I think,… And, uh, yeah… Questions? Or, um…”
You shrug, put your head back down, hunch your shoulders over again, leave the stage defeated.
Oh gosh, please no! Right? Can you imagine all your research, prep, and hard work going to waste like that?
Well, if you can, stop! It doesn’t have to be that way.
Presentations need not give you the frights or turn your stomach into a knot.
The secret to awesome presentations is knowing how to start a presentation strong and how to end it powerfully. And that’s exactly what we’re going to look at today.
Before jumping into this tutorial, first 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
Let's look at how to start a presentation strong and what me mean by that. In the context of giving a great presentation, starting strong means starting unpredictably.
Surprising but true.
Psychological research has shown that when we know what to expect from a cue (for example, you flip a switch and the lights come on) we don’t pay much attention to what happens after the cue.
But when we don’t know what to expect from the cue (for example, you flip the switch, and sometimes the lights come on, sometimes the bell goes off, and sometimes nothing happens), we pay more attention to what happens.
By the way, that's the same reason why we love movies with a twist: the unpredictability engages us deeply into the story.
So how can you incorporate the unpredictability factor in your presentation to start it off strong?
There are a number of ways to achieve this, and the way you choose will depend on the topic of your presentation, the circumstances, and your personal presentation style. The techniques below provides guidance on how to start a presentation off strong.
1. Make a Bold Claim
Everyone knows the “I have a dream” speech of Martin Luther King.
Something to note, however, is that the speech doesn’t actually begin with “I have a dream.” That's the climax. The entire speech starts off 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.”
Wow! Say what?
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 off with a claim that contradicts what people expect to hear from you. That will make them sit up and pay attention. Then use that attention you've earned to ease right 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 he 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 his statement catches them by surprise. And the speaker uses that surprise (and his reference to the great speeches before him) to lunge right into his own topic.
Pamela Meyer achieves similar results through a slightly different technique. She starts off 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.”
At this point, the audience laughs. They weren't expecting to hear that they were all liars. But the contrarian claim is not off-putting, it's captivating: Why are we all liars? They want to know, and 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. Which is good news for your presentation.
Why? Because once our curiosity is piqued we want to know the answer. We must solve the puzzle. And 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 start off by announcing that you have a secret to confess like Dan Pink does in his famous Ted Talk when he says:
“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 does he have to confess? 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 he leaves us with no option but to pay close attention to his every word to find out!
4. Ask Questions
A simple, yet effective approach start a presentation that grips attention is to ask a question. Few things are more unexpected than a speaker starting off 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 incredibly well in his talk on how great leaders inspire action in which he 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 to what he has to say.
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 actually a survival mechanism humans have developed and refined over thousands of years. That means that as humans we're naturally wired to pay attention to stories.
And one of the best ways to start your presentation off strong is by telling a story (of something that happened to you, or something you heard about, etc.) that’s related to your topic and to why you’re giving your presentation.
That's how Brené Brown opens her now-famous Ted Talk about vulnerability. She relates the funny story of working with an event planner who didn’t know how to classify her for an event. Turns out, she didn't know either!
Should she 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, she calls herself a researcher-storyteller.
The audience is both delighted and intrigued by this story:
What is a researcher-storyteller? And how does this woman's research tell a story?
We’re intrigued and willing to 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 here 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. Pausing for Effect
Good speakers know to take pauses during their presentations.
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 too fast, the audience will begin feeling lost and stop paying attention.
For an in-depth view of how to write the main body of your presentation, make sure to check out the following tutorial:
- PresentationsHow to Write a Professional PowerPoint Presentation (Discover the Writing Process)Brad Smith
2. Aiding 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 conceptualize an idea and a 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 without feeling lost or confused.
To learn how to create a persuasive powerpoint presentation, have a look at the article below:
You can find more great PPT design options in our Ultimate Guide to the Best PowerPoint Template, or browse through the article below:
- Microsoft PowerPoint22+ Professional PowerPoint Templates: For Better Business PresentationsSean Hodge
How to End a Presentation Powerfully by Being Memorable
Remember the example of a bad close we mentioned at the beginning? Someone ending 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 of how to end a presentation well, and you should choose the one that best fits your presentation and personal style.
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 her speech (starting at 19:01). Once she finishes all her points, she tells the audience:
“There’s another way, and I'll leave you with this.”
And she then goes on to explain exactly how the audience can apply the principles of vulnerability she's discussed to their work and everyday lives.
For more ideas on how to inspire your audience to action, check out the following article:
- Presentations10 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 at changing your entire community or at benefiting your customer's business in a specific way, 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 finishes his legendary “I have a dream” speech. He 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 his speech (from 17:17 forward) on the vision of strengthening businesses and maybe even 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 his 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.”
He then goes on to tell the audience that the virologist is right.
This contrarian quote goes contrary to our expectations of having the human species portrayed as a positive power on earth. And 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 he goes on to recapitulate his main advice about reforming education.
The contrarian example shakes us out of our comfort about the positive impact we have on the world and makes for a powerful ending that we're sure to remember long after the presentation is over.
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 it is you have to do say.
What is the best way to end a presentation? Again 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 have a presentation, you're currently working on, share with us your ideas about 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.
If you need to design a great presentation, then browse through our best-selling PowerPoint templates 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.