Kicking off your presentation with something fun, different and even spontaneous can be a great way to break the ice with the audience, get their attention and give you confidence and energy from the outset.
I use this technique to open most, but not all presentations. I typically reserve this for larger and main stage presentations and less so for breakout room environments – drawing too much attention to your self in a small room usually doesn’t make as much sense.
Areas I look for inspiration include:
• Items located on stage or in the room
• TV shows from the previous night or current/breaking news
• Local or national sporting events
• Local culture, language or music
• Walk-up music
Sometimes inspiration or planning may come as you prepare your presentation, but often it may occur shortly before or even as you walk on stage. Examples of things I’ve done over the years include:
• At an event held in an Atlanta office building housing start ups I noticed several large Razor-type scooters sitting in a corner of the lobby. I was co-presenting with a client and asked her if she would be comfortable making our entrance on the scooters. She said yes and so we went with it, fortunately with neither of us falling or making fools of ourselves.
• Shortly before going on stage at an event in New York City, I noticed American flags on each side of the stage. The event was held on an anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and my co-worker and I who were delivering a joint keynote, decided to walk on stage waving the flags. It was spontaneous and serious, but it felt like the right thing to do at the moment.
• In San Francisco a few days after the San Francisco Giants baseball team won the 2010 World Series and day of the celebration parade, I ran on stage waving my orange World Series towel. That was an easy decision since I live in the Bay Area, went to one of the games and am a lifelong Giants fan.
• I’ve started presentations several times by singing a line or two from a song or dancing a few steps in response to the walk-up music. Once in London about 5 minutes before going on stage it came to me to sing a few lines of the Beatle’s “Hard Days Night.” I changed a few words to reflect my talk: “It’s been an email days night.”
This approach is not with out its risks. The audience may not get the joke, reference or be receptive at that moment to your stunt. Or you may simply not execute well or have equipment failures. A couple of examples of where my opening didn’t go as well as planned include:
• Singing “It’s been an email days night” in London went OK, but the audience seemed a bit unprepared for my singing and didn’t show much emotion – positive or negative. Anticipating the potential of little reaction, I asked a table of American co-workers to jump up and act like crazy teenage Beatle’s fans from the 60’s.
• In Amsterdam I was the keynote speaker for an event called the “Sexy Email” conference. I asked the A/V person to play Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” – which seemed a simple request since he actually had the song. But as I walked on stage to sing along, the A/V person botched playing the song … so he had to restart the song. That gaffe took all the surprise and fun out of my karaoke-like singing … and so instead of a laugh from the audience I had to apologize because of the A/V person’s mess up.
Don’t be afraid to go with your gut and instinct to try something fun as you open your talk. Even if your attempt doesn’t go exactly as planned, you should have the audience’s undivided attention.