Those of you who have read my Whole-Brain Presenting E-Book or attended one of my seminars know how much I hate 'boring' openers - the type everybody else uses. Greetings, thank you's, apologies, self-introductions, etc. (read How to grab 'em by the throat for an overview of 6 great ways to open).
You have about a minute to grab the audience by the throat and give them a #*¬#~* good reason to listen to you. Or their minds will start to wander to the 1001 other things they could be thinking about - the game on TV last night, the fight they had with their partner before coming to work that morning, what they're going to cook for dinner, etc., etc.
And one of the ways you can do that is by being interesting. By opening with a startling statistic or a fascinating fact. Your objective here is to say something unexpected that piques their interest and curiosity and makes them want to listen.
I once heard an owner of an art gallery give a presentation to a Board of Directors to try to sell them on the idea of leasing art for their corporate HQ. And he opened with the question, "When the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, what do you think was the value of the art that was lost in the disaster?" Now I (and, I guess, everyone else in the room) had no idea. It's not something I'd ever thought about. I guessed $5 million, maybe $8 million?
But we were wrong. The answer was $155 million. WOW! He had our attention right away with his startling statistic.
So if you were speaking at a charity event trying to raise money for cancer research, you could open by launching straight into your speech without any preamble, hitting them right between the eyes by saying:
"The US National Cancer Institute estimates that over 12 MILLION people in the USA today have some sort of cancer. It accounts for one in every four deaths and it will kill about half a million Americans this year alone ..... That's more than 1,500 ...... every ...... single ...... day. And about 1.2 million people (many of whom are convinced it will never happen to them) will receive the dreaded news from their physician this year that they have it ......"
If you don't think a startling statistic would work for you (or you can't find one!), you can try a fascinating fact. Try and find something that is genuinely interesting but (and this is vital) has some relevance to the subject of your presentation. The relevance doesn't have to be blindingly obvious at first. In fact, it can help if it isn't and the audience thinks, "Hang on ...... why is she talking about XYZ?" I've given two examples below.
Example 1: For when you want to point out that the 'experts' aren't always right
"When the ancient Egyptians wanted to calculate the diameter of the sun, they galloped a horse along the horizon for the duration of a sunrise, and measured how far it had traveled. From this they concluded that it was just over a mile wide.
They were a lot closer than the Greek astronomer Heraclitus, who thought that a new, different sun rose every day and that it was 'about the size of a shield.' Most Greeks knew he was wrong, of course .... they knew the sun was a fiery chariot ridden across the sky by the god Apollo.
The Arabian bedouin thought the sun was a celestial hag who forced the moon to sleep with her once a month, thus reducing him to an exhausted crescent, and the Chinese recalled a time when there ten suns, before an heroic archer shot nine of them out of the sky.
The Babylonians were so fearful of solar eclipses that their king would go into hiding when one occurred and a hapless peasant would be forced onto the throne for the day so that the curse of black daylight fell on him instead, and he would then be executed when things returned to normal.
Now these weren't just the beliefs of the great unwashed. The ignorant masses. The hoi-polloi. No ...... they were the sincerely held beliefs of the intelligentsia and greatest brains of the day ... priests, scientists, philosophers. Which just goes to show that you can often take the opinions of so-called 'experts' with a grain of salt. Because they don't always know what they're talking about.
In the past twelve months, the industry experts said that we couldn't succeed in our battle against competitor X. They said we weren't big enough, we didn't have critical mass, our new product wasn't good enough. But as our results this year have shown, they were wrong. They knew about as much as Heraclitus knew about the sun ....."
Example 2: For when you are trying to persuade people to take a long-term view of something
"Here in the United States we are justly proud of our democracy, enshrined in the Constitution by giants such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. But what many people don't know is that democracy already existed in north America long before 1776.
The native American 'People of the Six Nations' (the most famous of which are perhaps the Mohawks), also known by the French name the Iroquois, had a democratic system of government since about the eleventh century, pre-dating our own by about 700 years.
A key part of their own constitution instructed their leaders to always consider the effects of their actions on the next seven generations. The exact words were: 'In all of your .... efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion..... Have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.' What a great phrase .....'those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground.'
Now I'm not quite suggesting that we bear in mind the next seven generations of the company's employees when we make our decision today, but I do think that we've suffered from short-termism in a lot of the decisions made in the past twelve months. And today I want to discuss the long term implications of the decision facing us ......."
Example 3: Same as above
"In 1986 the population expert Paul Demeny came up with the radical idea that children should not be left disenfranchised for some 18 years until they were old enough to vote, because as the population of most countries is rapidly aging, there was a very real danger that governments would find themselves passing more and more legislation that pandered to the interests of the old, at the expense of the young.
Under a Demeny voting system, each parent would cast a proxy vote, worth half a vote, for each of their dependent children, thus allowing for a split vote if the parents' political views differ. Once children reach the minimum voting age, their parents would no longer vote on their behalf.
Despite its rather radical nature, the Germans actually voted on such a proposal in 2003 and 2008, it's been discussed seriously in Japan and the Hungarian government is currently considering it.
And the reason it is being seriously looked at is that it's difficult to get governments - or companies - or individuals - to look at the long term implications of what they are planning to do today. We all claim to take into account the long term effects of our actions, but very of few of us actually do so.
And we're no better than anyone else at this in this company. We've suffered from short-termism in a lot of the decisions made in the past twelve months. And today I want to discuss the long term implications of a very important decision that faces us right now ......."
So ....... now you've seen how it's done, get online and find some fascinating facts to back up your argument!