Guide on the Side – The Two Most Important Parts of Presentations, Part I

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries’ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters Internationaland is active with the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: [email protected].

Recently I attended conferences hosted by three different professional organizations and was struck by how many of the presenters wasted the two most important parts of their presentations–the beginning and ending. Excellent content in the body of speeches was diminished with circuitous openings and dead endings.

Speech beginnings are like a stage entrances. It is when you make your first and often enduring impression. Yet speakers commonly throw away their opening moments with discursive and negative comments about the weather, location, facilities, their preparation (or lack of) and irrelevant jokes.

“I don’t know anything about your profession and can’t imagine why you would be interested in what I do but this is what I was asked to talk about.”

“I know there are many more interesting things to do in San Francisco than sit and listen to another speaker on a dull subject like mine.”

Non-beginnings leave the audience confused and frustrated and likely to discount the speaker or tune out. By contrast, skilled presenters start like a horse out of the gate at the Kentucky Derby. I am sure you have never seen a horse walk out of the gate and amble around before starting to run but you probably have heard many speakers start this way. You can get an audience juiced up by:

  • Getting the audience’s attention with

    Tone of voice

    Variations in pitch, pace and volume

    Body language and bearing

  • Establishing rapport and credibility with the audience by


    Making eye contact

    Appearing enthusiastic about being there

  • Introducing the topic so you

    Relate it to the audience’s interests

    Reveal your point of view

    Highlight the benefits to the listeners.

Here are eight often used techniques to jump start your presentation and get immediate audience buy-in. They work equally well with a manual speech or one delivered with presentation software support.

1. Ask a question–real or rhetorical

“Is it safe to rely on documents obtained off the Internet?”

“Is there anyone here who has not violated the copyright law?”

2. Relate a story, anecdote or parable

Many of the best stories are personal and often happen shortly before your presentation. For instance, when I was in a cab on the way to catch the plane from Auckland to Wellington to conduct a seminar for the New Zealand Law Library Group, Pat Northey and I were discussing an off-beat topic, which prompted me to consider that taxi drivers must hear bizarre things. I asked the driver what he would do if he overheard his fares plotting to rob the bank. With out hesitation he replied, “Oh, I’d ask, will you be needing a ride?” I used this story to introduce the marketing portion of my seminar as an example of perceiving customer needs.

3. Make a startling statement (often a statistic)

“According to a national survey reported in the Wall Street Journal 82% of respondents say they access pornography on the Net at work”

You can also make a startling statement by using an unanticipated prop. For more on props see “Guide on the Side – Getting the Drop on Props.”

4. Use a quotation

“Confucius said ‘What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand. You need to master this procedure so I have planned a hands-on session.'” Pick your proverb, saying, motto, poem, or one liner from movies, political speeches, newspapers, reports, or official documents. Use your favorite quotation book (Amazon has hundreds of them) or an online source such as The Quotations Page and The Land of Quotes. Paraphrase a familiar quotation for humor.

5. Arouse curiosity or suspense

“We are close to being able to file hyper-linked legal documents on CD-Roms. Only one thing stands in the way and that is my topic today.”

“There is a poison in your home. Your children use it and so do you. It kills thousands every year. Yet neither the FDA or EPA regulate it. Here it is– table salt.”

6. State the importance or timeliness of the topic

“With approximately 400,000 job vacancies for computer professionals in the United States, it is imperative that we train a supply of domestic talent now. I have a plan that will do this quickly and with relatively little expense.”

7. Involve the audience

Ask for participation in an interactive exercise or poll.

Show a picture or short video and ask for audience comment.

8. Reference the occasion

Speeches are often part of a special event for a group, organization or community. Tie in any anniversaries, inaugurals, commemorations or celebrations to your topic.

These opening techniques can be used individually or in combination. For instance, ask a question which arouses curiosity “What is the single biggest problem facing Federal judges today?” Or combine a familiar quotation with a startling statement. “FDR said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Yet today Ecology of Fear is a best seller in Los Angeles.”

Effective speakers know that the beginning part of a speech should take between 5 and 10% of the allotted speech time. For a one hour presentation, this is between three and six minutes. It is only 30 to 60 seconds for a 10 minute speech.

Although you should spend no more than 10% of your delivery time on the beginning of your speech, over half your preparation time may be spent on honing your opening. Once the beginning is crafted though you have laid the groundwork for your conclusion as well. (The topic next month will be endings.)

A word of caution about presentation software. You want to bond with your audience as soon as possible in your opening. Immediacy involves emotional resonance and is achieved quickest with the power of your persona–eye contact, voice and body language. ( Guide on the Side – A Communication Skill Suite: Speaking, Writing and Graphics.) Technology assisted delivery is more impersonal. It reduces rapid and unimpeded audience feedback and diverts attention from the speaker. Consider saving the technical wizardry and graphical pyrotechnics for the body of your speech where they will add critical visual dimensions.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills