Whether you are making a presentation at your local library or to senior executives at your firm, the first 60 seconds set you up for success or failure.
Everything most precious to me in this world is the result of the first 60 seconds of a speech I gave on a cold day in Philadelphia. It was my turn to speak during a Wharton MBA Toastmasters program; I would be given a topic, and then would have to begin without advance preparation. My topic: explain why MBAs aren’t all greedy jerks.
Terrified of boring the audience, I decided to flip the topic and embrace the dark side. My speech was a rant about how MBAs are all-powerful masters of the universe (note to readers: I was kidding.)
An attractive woman came up to me afterwards and said, “You are either utterly evil, or the most creative speaker I’ve seen. Which is it?” I’ve been married to that woman since we graduated.
The first 60 seconds you spend in front of an audience are pivotal. If you’re nervous or too excited, time can be a blur. But this is when the audience decides whether or not they like you, and it’s your best opportunity to get in a groove that will guide you through the rest of your presentation. I’d like to make the following suggestions:
- Plan your opening in advance. You should know exactly how you are going to open your speech. Just as people do when meeting a stranger, audiences will notice your body language, confidence level and demeanor. Don’t just focus on what you will say; practice your movements and tone. Look for ways to signal that you are a person with a valuable message to share.
- If at all possible, prepare the room in advance to your liking. If you like to move around, give yourself room to move. If you feel more comfortable in one place, set up any aids (water, notes, clicker…) so they are easy to access. Make sure the lighting is right. The worst thing you can do is to step in front and start fumbling around.
- Expect the unexpected. I’ve had 45 hung-over people show up for a “major keynote speech” (lesson: never be the first speaker of the morning in a casino) and 500 show up for a “casual little discussion.” At one event in an arena, all the lights went off while I was speaking, then back on again 30 seconds later. No matter what happens, your role is to remain calm and composed. If you do this, you will win over the room. I actually rehearse how I might react to unexpected occurrences.
- Be immediately interesting. Even if you have housekeeping notes or details to go over with the audience, don’t start with these! First, build a rapport and demonstrate that you are both in control and worth their attention. Audiences are happy to support a speaker, once they recognize his or her talents.
- If you are terrified, use that terror to your advantage. As part of your planned opening, say something that either acknowledges your anxiety or makes it seem like good acting. In the past, I’ve opened with stories that began, “If it seems like I’m nervous, it’s because _____” and then wove that into a joke, cautionary tale or vivid example of what we’d be focused on in my session.
Many years ago, my wife came home from a conference with a video of the keynote speaker, who I think was Captain Charlie Plumb. He had an opening like none I’ve ever seen before. On a bare stage, with a huge audience present, he didn’t say a word. Instead, he walked eight feet in one direction, turned and walked eight feet. He did this repeatedly. He took his time, and seemed unaware of the audience.
When at last he looked up and spoke, he shared that as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, his cell was eight by eight feet long and that the lessons he learned inside it were relevant to what professionals experience in the business world. In a simple but powerful way, he accomplished all the items I’ve shared with you today, and gained the audience’s rapt attention in the first 60 seconds.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.