3 Do or Die secrets for presenters


Your first do or die moment as a presenter is to get your audience’s attention. You have to do this in the first 30 seconds. Every presenter needs a hook at the start of their presentation, in order to grab attention in an attention-deficit world. This is your ‘have them at hello’ moment.

Once you get your audience’s attention, your next challenge is to keep your audience’s attention. This second do or die moment is where most presenters are challenged. One way of keeping your audience’s attention is to think of the key points you are making in terms of headlines, or bumper stickers.

Avoid fluffy or vague statements. For example, instead of saying change is inevitable but difficult and, unless we give it our best, change will not happen (yawn), and imagine the reaction if you had announced that 80% of change efforts are doomed to fail. Then back it up with an explanation and anchor this point with an example, a story or a question.

Keeping your audience’s attention is always a three-step dance. It begins with your bumper sticker statement followed by an explanation, which is then anchored with a case study, a story or humour. The bumper sticker and the anchoring helps the audience remember what you said, and keeps their attention in the room with you. Even if their attention wanders, and it will, both these tools help you reel back attention to the point you are making.

Your last do or die job is to give your audience something to do at the end of it all, a call to action. If your call to action is simply the desire to inform your audience then don’t waste their time, just send them an email!

A call to action could be varied depending on the purpose of your presentation and your audience. You need to be clear on what you want your audience to think, do or feel as a result of your presentation, so you issue a call to action at the end of your presentation. Most presenters fall down at this point and stop short of completing this third step. They leave their audience feeling ambiguous or unsure about what they have to do next.

But inspiring presenters understand the power that every presentation packs in its ending. Speaking after the massive manhunt that led to the capture of the second suspect in the recent Boston Marathon bombings, Barrack Obama ended his address by saying:

“We have the courage, resilience and spirit to overcome these challenges and to go forward as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

So how are you going to get and keep your audience’s attention, and what call to action will you issue at the end of your next presentation?

Would you wear a bikini to work?

We hope not. Not unless it was wear-a-bikini-to-work day and the money raised went to a very worthy cause.

As humans, we have an inbuilt awareness of what is and is not appropriate in certain situations. We can apply this to presentations. There is always a context in which you are presenting. But context is often overlooked.

We’ve made this mistake too. We were once invited to speak at a professional member organisation’s Christmas lunch. We launched into a perfect execution of our organizational storytelling presentation, and were met with stone-cold faces. They were there for the Christmas lunch, the biggest social event of the year. With free wine flowing, the audience was in high spirits all the way through, but sadly not on account of our insights. We did receive a fine bottle of champagne as thanks and it took all our self-control not to drink it on the spot!

So always answer the following questions to prepare you for the context of your presentation:

  1. Why is your audience there?
  2. What does the audience want or need to know from the speakers?
  3. What do you think their attention span is going to be?
  4. Will you be competing against anything or anyone?
  5. Who else is speaking and what are they going to be talking about?

Now we always contact the organisers to find out the context of the presentation and sometimes this means holding off the presentation to another, more appropriate time. It’s in their best interests, as well as yours.

There is a pivotal scene in the film Any Questions for Ben that shows how context can make or break your presentation. When Ben, a twenty-something up-and-coming marketing exec, is invited to his old school to speak at a careers event, his presentation comes straight after Alexis, an international human rights lawyer who works with the United Nations in Yemen. Alexis’ presentation is moving, engaging and she gives the impression, in a very humble, yet self deprecating and humorous way, that she is changing the world. The audience hangs on her every word.

In comparison, Ben’s work seems mundane and even grubby. Immediately after he speaks, the panel moderator asks “Any questions for Ben?” A set of hands goes up, but the first question asked is “I want to ask Alexis …” When the moderator says they’ll be questions for Alexis later and again asks if there are any questions for Ben, all the hands go down and a deathly silence ensues. This moment creates an existential crisis for Ben that makes him question both his work, and his life purpose.

Sure, it’s a movie so they have to exaggerate the consequences of not getting your context, your audience or your presentation right. But it serves as a lesson for all of us, to do our homework and never end up with the presentation equivalent of wearing a bikini to work.

How to have your audience at hello

Jack, one of our clients was preparing to present at a Road Show.  We asked Jack what his audience would be thinking and he answered honestly with this.  “Well when I was on the other side of the fence and had to attend Road Shows, I would often think ‘Not another bloody road show’, so I have no doubt that this is exactly what most people will be thinking”.

Jack used this knowledge and started his presentation with “So I know you are all probably thinking, not another bloody Road Show”.  Everyone immediately laughed, they had been outed, but the audience also felt understood as Jack acknowledged what they were thinking. Jack was immediately on the audience’s side and they thought this speaker isn’t too bad, let’s listen to what follows.

Once we attended a 7:30 breakfast presentation where the CEO of Carmen’s Muesli, Carolyn Creswell was presenting.  She started by saying, “When the alarm went off this morning I thought this breakfast seminar better be good.  And then I thought Shit I better be good!”.  The audience laughed and connected with her straight away.

Depending on what you are able to find out about your audience always try and tap into what your audience is thinking and use that as part of your presentation.

In fact we often recommend you begin with that, like Jack and Carolyn Creswell.  If your first line is about the audience then like the line from the film Jerry Maguire “You have them at hello“.

So, what is the first line you say when you present? The first few moments of your presentation are really important, this is when you can get your audience to connect with you, or not.

Connecting with your audience as fast as you can is vital.  You need to figure out how you can ‘have them at hello’.  You only other choice as a presenter is to lose them at hello.