Five ways to start your presentations and the one I recommend for my clients

We’ve all been to presentations where the presenter immediately started sharing all the facts or just did a quick outline of the presentation and dived right in.

If you want your informative presentations to be memorable and engaging, it is critical that you start by getting the attention of your audience.

Five tools you can choose from to get your audience’s attention:

In Stephen Denning’s book, The Secret Language of Leadership, he shares 9 generally effective tools for getting attention. I have picked out five to highlight in this article. You can find his full list on pages 152 and 153 of his book that I mentioned above.

    1. Ask a question: Not every question is equally effective. Asking “What are you hoping to learn today?” may be a good question at some point but not one that will get the audience’s attention. I recommend a challenging question that will cause the audience to think. You must make sure that the question relates to the purpose of your presentation. My client at Yourbrooke Energy, a great company based on beautiful Haida Gwaii in BC, that has developed a unique method of effectively harnessing tidal energy. The challenging question at the start of their presentation is “Did you know that the north half of the Haida Gwaii power grid relies solely on diesel powered generators for the production of its electricity?” That is a great challenging question and one that really gets the audience’s attention.
    2. Tell a story: Mr. Denning includes two types of stories in his list: tell a story about your audience’s problems or tell a story about the presenter handling adversity. What I recommend to my client’s is to start with a challenging story. Like the question, the challenging story must be relevant to the purpose of the presentation. Otherwise, the audience will remember story but not the key information you are there to share.
    3. Use a striking metaphor: Unexpected metaphors can grab our attention and help us make sense of something complex. A colleague of mine at the BC Securities Commission used the metaphor of a climb up Mount Everest when talking about the steps in a particular policy project that took a lot of time and effort to bring to completion. Using that metaphor helped keep things in perspective.
    4. Issue a challenge: You can challenge your audience as long as the challenge is factual. Mr Denning notes that if your audience later discovers the challenge was misleading, it can backfire and undermine the main message.
    5. Use a combination of the tools above: You can start by picking just one tool and using that to start your presentations in a way that will get the audience’s attention. If you find something that works well, you can keep using that or can experiment with combining a couple of the tools above.

What tools do I use to start my presentations?

I personally like using a combination of tool 1 and 2. I start my presentations by asking if the audience members have seen a presentation where the presenter overwhelmed the audience with a ton of information. I then ask if they have done a presentation like that themselves? Finally I tell a challenging story where I did exactly that. I was terrible and I was terrified.

When your next presentation is coming up, think about how you will start your presentation in a way that gets the audience’s attention.

The tool I help my clients use to start their presentations

Having clients start their presentations in a way that grabs the audience’s attention, is something I help with. I recommend starting with a Challenging Story. As I mentioned above, a Challenging Story must be relevant to your overall purpose of your presentation and must include a pain point. For more information about crafting a Challenging Story, check out my post.

See some of these tools in action

If you are interested in seeing how I start my presentation using a combination of a challenging question and a challenging story, sign up for my free 30-minute Webinars. I host two each month. Find more information and sign up for my Monday webinar here: and for my Thursday webinar here: