The first words you speak when you start a presentation are very important. This is your chance to capture your audience’s attention and let them know that your talk is not going to be just another cluttered slide show.
To use this precious moment, you do not want to do, what many speakers do (and what I have done too many times myself). You do not want to thank the organizers for this opportunity, you do not want to read aloud your presentation title, and you do not want to say “I am going to talk about…”
None of the above captures your audience’s attention, and the first words are all about capturing attention.
Now, sometimes you might be in a setting where it’s custom to start by thanking the organizers. You don’t want to appear rude or ungratefull by skipping it. But make sure that the “Thank you” is not part of the start of your talk. Thank the organizers briefly, then pause and look at the audience. Then you start your talk.
So how do you capture attention?
You should make an interesting intro for your talk. In the intro, you should state WHY what you are going to talk about is important and worth listening to. To be honest, I think this part is hard, and I have to step out of my comfort zone to do this—it’s not the normal way to start a scientific talk, so it will make you stand out. Standing out is a good thing when you want people’s attention, but it’s also scary and uncomfortable at first. In the end, it’s all about practice, and learning how to start your presentation is an important step towards becoming a good speaker and presenter.
Let’s get more concrete.
First, you need to write an intro for your presentation, and then you need to memorize it and practice how to say it. There are two parts of your presentation you should always memorize: the beginning and the end. In the beginning, you capture your audience’s attention, and in the end, you repeat the most important parts—the parts your audience should remember.
As an example of an intro, here’s how I started my last scientific presentation (while showing a blank black slide):
“Vastly different diseases such as hereditary brain calcification, salmonella infections, and Alzheimer’s disease have one thing in common: The vasculature is involved in their development and progression. So if we can learn to manipulate the vasculature—both its growth and its barriers— then that could have a major impact. One way to approach this big goal is to start by trying to understand the little details of how the vasculature is developed. Today, I will talk about one such detail. And that is …..”
So why did I structure my intro like this?
Many, including an earlier version of me, might have skipped the intro and said something like: “Today I am going to talk about the role of X signaling in Y regulation.”
Does that capture your attention? It certainly does not capture mine.
To capture attention, I instead started by stating WHY this research I am going to present is important. It’s important because it plays a role in vastly different diseases, and if we learn more about this, it could have a major impact. I’m saying all this to convince my audience that what comes next is worth listening to.
I’m still learning how to build a captivating intro. The above example is not the “Gold Standard.” But the beauty of daring to start with an attention grabbing intro, even if it’s just mildly captivating, is that it will outshine many of your fellow presenters who are still reading their titles out loud.
If you put a little effort into writing an intro and you dare to stand out, then you can quickly outshine the average presenter and grab your audience’s attention from the start.