How to Start a Presentation: Engage your Audience from the First Slide to the Last

Written by Matteo Cassese

I’ve been there: your presentation is due soon

Probably your boss is awaiting an update on an important project. Maybe your client is eager for your update. You might even need to sell something to someone through a presentation. 

Today I want to layout your game plan. It’s my winning strategy. My playbook

It has been my reliable go-to plan each time I get faced with a new presentation. And today, I will guide you step by step. 

These are not easy times. Our presentations used to happen in person; now, they are remote. We used to shake hands with our audiences; sometimes now we don’t see them at all. 

Today you can’t just create presentations. You need to plan for a production. Our medium is not only slides anymore but video calls. And to create excellent video content, you need to put up a show

I am Matteo, by the way, and I have a thing for presentations. This led me to study the art of storytelling. I studied this complex topic to make it easy for you.

Now it is time for me to share all this knowledge with you! Here you will learn the basics on how to create and deliver a presentation, or more accurately your show. 

This article is organized into three sections:

1. The First Slide & How to Start your Presentation

The beginning of a presentation is critical because it is in this fraction of time that your audience will decide whether you are worth the time or not

So it is imperative to make an excellent first impression and capture their attention. A few tricks and tips can help you do that. In the following paragraphs, I will show the wisdom I collected over time!

Crafting the Perfect First Slide 

How to start a presentation? That’s the central question when it comes to presentations. It’s challenging to create a first slide to get your audience’s attention and convey your presentation’s message. I want to show you how to make the best out of it and use it to deliver your message effectively.

You have lived this scenario a thousand times: you enter a conference or meeting room, unsure if it’s the right one, glance at the screen to see if the slide that is being projected aligns with the topic of the presentation that you are expecting. Based on that, you take a seat.

Or maybe you’ve been on the internet a few times and have seen the first slide of presentations being used as a “preview image” on social media, inviting you to click and see the whole presentation.

You may even know (and love) Slideshare, the most popular slide hosting site on the web: here, the first slide is used to invite you to click, like, and download a presentation deck.

You have spent time waiting for a presentation to start looking at a first slide, wondering if the presenter would be any good, wondering who they were and what to expect.

From the cases that I just outlined, it’s easy to understand that the first slide has many jobs, functions, and purposes. First of all, it needs to convey clearly the message of your presentation. It can do that – in the traditional template – with a Title and Subtitle. At least this is how PowerPoint displays a “title slide”. But those are not fields that you must fill in.

There are more critical objectives that a first slide can help you accomplish: depending on the setting, you should have your name or your Twitter (Linkedin or Instagram) handle in the first slide. In some environments, it would be better to have both.

Sometimes it helps to display a 3-word bio. Often you also represent a company, so your logo also belongs somewhere on this first slide.

Some people even feature the location and the date of the presentation. Is this information really useful or just filler?

It’s easy to have an overcrowded first slide that fails miserably at conveying any useful message while trying to accomplish all the objectives.

My solution is to focus on one objective first. The most important one is usually the title of the talk. It’s great if your title goes well with an image. Image and title are then the core element of your first slide.

Once you have a powerful title with a powerful visual you can think about the output format of your slides. When I’m presenting at a conference I always display my Twitter handle and a website as part of the first slide.

If your output format is paper or a slide sharing platform, you can have a super clean title slide with just a title and visual and devote a second slide to you, your contacts, and your bio.

If you are presenting in a more formal environment, you may want to skip the social contacts and focus on your name and bio a bit more. But we will talk about this more accurately in the next chapter.

The important thing is that your core message comes across clearly.

Not Only the First Slide: Start your Presentation by Telling your Audience Who you Are

Your presentation is just starting. How do you start your presentation? What is the first thing you need to do? Should you focus immediately on your topic and start providing your audience your wisdom?

Hold your horses. Before you let your knowledge shine, you have an essential job to do. You need to convince your audience that you’re worthy of their time and attention. 

How would you then capture this attention? My top tip is to start from yourself. Start by showing your humanity. How? By revealing something as simple as your name

Even if most everyone knows you in the call or the room, there might be someone who still doesn’t know your name. Even if someone introduced you by name, it doesn’t hurt to repeat it so that everyone will know who you are and how to address you later on for questions. 

Right after telling your name, give your audience some helpful hints about yourself. I am not talking about reciting a full bio, about hearing about your academic accomplishments and essential role. To understand who you are, I need to place you on a map

In my case, I would say “My name is Matteo, I teach people how to craft amazing stories.” I know this phrase doesn’t capture the essence of Matteo. But it’s sufficient for my audience to understand roughly what I am about. 

My tip for you: keep your bio between 5 and 20 words. Remember: you’re not on stage to gloat or recite your curriculum. You’re there to convince your audience that you’re worth listening to. 

By telling your name and revealing your bio you will make yourself more relatable for your audience. The closer they feel to you, they will be more inclined to listen to you and to follow your advice.

How to Start Your Presentation with Energy: Share your Motivation for Presenting with your Audience

So you made a few things clear: who you are, your bio. Now your audience feels like they know you. And that’s exactly what you wanted to achieve. 

The second thing you need to do before starting your actual presentation is to share your motivation for presenting. Why? In order to convince them to listen to what you will say.  

But how do you do that? And what do I mean exactly by “motivation”? It is the reason why you chose to make a presentation about that particular topic. 

Let’s analyze this accurately: you chose to study a topic and now you want to share what you have learned with the public. 

Now ask yourself “why”:

  1. why are you interested in that topic? Do you have a new perspective on the matter? Do you have a particular relationship with it? What is new and interesting about your presentation? Have you invested a lot in the topic?
  2. why do you want to share that particular knowledge with the public? This is simple: you want to help others. You want to help others answer a question, find a new key to an old problem, reach a new perspective. Maybe you have studied the topic in advance so that I don’t need to.

If you show them why you’re interested in the topic of the presentation, they will automatically be more eager to listen to you. Your motivation will therefore be contagious.

I could say something like: “I will talk about presentations because I care about helping people speak up and get heard”. This is a good example of contagious motivation because the audience will think: “oh, you can help me get heard? How? I am interested!

Tell them that you want to help them and what you want to help them with. If they see a point, a final destination, they will want to know more. 

So my tip is: show your passion and care for the topic, because they are contagious. If you care, your audience will care as well. This way they will be eager to listen to you.

Did you ever have trouble following a presentation because you didn’t know how much it would last? Yeah I know, I have been there too. But you don’t want that to happen to your presentation, right?

This issue occurs because the audience doesn’t feel in control of what is going on.

In order to avoid this, you have to be honest with them. Thus, the best thing you could do is sign a metaphorical agreement with them by revealing the structure and timing of your presentation.

I could say something like: “During this talk I will tell you three stories that will last five minutes each.”

With these few lines, I just made clear a few things: how much the presentation will last and what its structure is like.

By giving this mental map to your public, in every moment of the presentation they will know exactly at which point your presentation is and how much longer it will last.

This knowledge will make them feel in control of what is going on and able to focus more confidently on the topic.

Start your Presentation by Giving your Audience a Sample of the Outcome

Now the third thing to do before starting your actual presentation is giving your audience a reason to listen to you.

I mean, they showed up, and that’s great! The reason to attend the presentations was strong enough and this means that you have already done a terrific job.

But do they have a valid reason to listen to you? I mean, are they eager to find out what you will say?

You want them excited by what they will learn with you and focused on your every word. 

How do you do that? Simple: you have to give them what they want: that is, what they will gain out of this experience. 

As we will say better later, every presentation is about giving something valuable to your audience, a prize that we will call: “transformation”.

Your audience wants to know in advance what the reward is, to be sure that you are worth listening to. 

So that is what you have to do: show them in advance the outcome of your presentation. 

If they take a bite of the transformation they will experience by listening to you, they will want to have more and automatically pay more attention. Because they want to fully experience the transformation you gave them a bite of.

But be careful, you have to show, not tell. Practically speaking, this means giving a little bit of the advantage of the transformation, not talking about that advantage.

2. The Goals of a Presentation

You managed to start your presentation effectively. But it’s not over yet. Now you have to go through with it! Planning out your presentation stresses you out? I have a few tips about this as well. The best way to plan your presentation is to know exactly what you want to achieve. And I can tell you that every good presentation has two objectives: bringing change and managing conflict. 

Read on to learn more about these concepts.

Presentations Always have One Goal: Change

As stated earlier in the article, the first and most important objective of a presentation is changing, transforming something. 

Transforming mostly the point of view of the audience and therefore giving them a gift. The gift of a new perspective, of a new concept in their mind, of seeing something unusually close. 

You may think, I don’t want to transform anybody, I just want to make my presentation, outline a topic!

But As Seth Godin (international bestselling author) effectively states: “no change, no point”. According to him the “real” presentation is only the one with the purpose of change. If there is no change, the presentation is not worth doing. It is just entertainment or a waste of time.

To better understand this concept try and think about this: if there isn’t anything special about your presentation, anything new or personal you want to say, why should your audience listen to you?

It needs to be the seed to a change. This change doesn’t have to be something big, but your presentation needs to be transformative: you may be shifting the point of view about a certain topic, introduce them to a new topic, or change the way they look at a problem.

As you plan everything out, pay attention to that. 

I find Seth Godin’s advice in this regard really helpful: before starting to work on your presentation, ask yourself: who will be changed by this and what kind of change am I looking for? 

Having these concepts very clear in your mind will help you plan out your presentation effectively. And If you don’t find any change, try and rethink your presentation. Why are you doing it?

You want to present in order to transform your audience. Otherwise you may need to prepare a memo or some other kind of document. 

So, try to focus on this concept to figure out the transformation you want to achieve.

Then, build up your presentation on top of your transformative moment. This way, you will be certain that your presentation is worth listening to.

Change is just around the corner.

Managing the Audience’s Reaction to your Presentation

You are finally delivering your presentation and your want your whole audience to like it.

It’s natural to desire that. But it is not what you are looking for! It’s literally impossible to please everyone. Why?

Simple: your audience is made of individuals and every one reacts in their own unique way at every step of the presentation. 

Instead, try and give something to everyone. What does this mean? You can’t make a presentation that pleases everyone in every single part of your presentation. That presentation doesn’t exist.

All you can do is divide your audience into categories, pleaseeach category in a given part of your speech, and then pass on to another category. What do I mean by “category”? 

In every presentation, there are members of the audience whose attitude follows a certain pattern

A few examples: there are the “Confused”. In their opinion, any information is too much information, and they will always be a little puzzled by what you are saying.

There are the “Fans”: to them, everything you say is just amazing. So you shouldn’t  judge your presentation on their reaction.

And there are all sorts of different types of audiences.

Here are a few steps to go through:

  1. do research about the members of your audience: by doing this you will be able to satisfy each type of person in your audience.
  2. try to give something to every category.

An effective way of explaining the second point might be the example of the politician

Politicians that give a speech have to address the needs of the many categories their electorate is made of. There are many categories: students, young voters, working-class people, etc…

They can’t leave anyone out, otherwise that category will not vote for them. But they also can’t address all these categories at the same time

So they divide their speech into sections. In the first section they may address the students, then in the second the persons with disabilities, and so on and so forth.

You have to do the same with your presentation.

If you make sure to address every category, every person in the audience, you will make sure that they listen and get involved, at least partially, in your speech. 

If all your audience gets involved in your speech and react in unison, they become a group.

And this is the secret goal of your presentation: to transform your audience into a group.

Here is the reason why: if they react in unison forming a group, this means that you have done your job correctly, because you managed to involve all the different categories your audience is made of, despite their high number and their different interests.

3. Engage your Audience from the First Slide to the Last

Now it is time for you to learn about a few tools and tricks that will make it easier for you to build your presentation. Everybody should know them because they represent the very essence of presentations. 

To engage your audience from the first slide to the last, you have a few tools.

The Most Important Storytelling Moment of any Presentation

Each presentation has a high point. You get to this high point by building up your argument as we described in the previous chapters: you explain the “context” of your presentation to set your speech’s ground. Ultimately you set up the transformation.

What you reach is a climax. And your audience expects it.

But what is the climax? Well, “climax” is a storytelling term that refers to the part of your speech thatis most transformative. It’s the “peak” of the transformation your talk is all about.

So it is pretty safe to say that it is the crucial moment of your presentation. 

The audience can “feel” it when you reach the climax and expect you to give the most insight on the topic you are covering, thus transforming them the most. 

Take advantage of this state of mind because, thanks to this excitement, your audience will better understand what you say and remember it more accurately.

Provide the most critical information, provide them the most data, make this moment special

Right after the climax, when the tension is at its highest, it is time for you to end your presentation and leave the stage.

If you make your exit right after a theatrical climax, your core transformation will be a lot more effective.

Presentation Ending Slides: Closing with a Summary

So, you just led your audience through the climax. 

Now, as stated before, you need to leave the stage effectively. That is, you need to accompany your audience back to their life gently, but you also want to make sure that they take with them the new knowledge given by the transformation.

How do you achieve both goals?

My advice is: provide a summary right after the climax. An overview of all the points covered during your speech. 

Why right after the climax?

The level of excitement provided by the climax will make them listen very carefully: what you say now will be remembered more efficiently and will also be understood more accurately.

A summary is the only moment when you are allowed to use bullet points. Recap the main points of your presentation, but be careful! It must be more than a simple bulleted list

Take your audience flying above your topic. Flying? 

When you fly, you feel powerful, happy, and exhilarated. You dominate the landscape. You feel like the master of the world. 

You want to give all these sensations to your public in regards to your speech. 

You want them to feel like they finally dominate the topic, like they are masters of the subject.

You want to show them how much you have covered and how much they have learned. You want to make them feel powerful

Moreover, seeing things with some distance is very helpful to understand the subject better.

Show how much ground you have covered. Give them a bird’s eye view of your presentation so that they will remember the very essence of your message

How to End a Presentation Assigning Actionable Tasks to your Audience

The final goal of your presentation is to make your audience truly remember your speech.

You spent a lot of time trying to explain something, outline a topic or show a new perspective. And maybe your audience will remember what you said. 

But you want more: you want the concepts you outline to change your audience’s behavior.

It would be fantastic, right? And what if I told you that there is something you can do about that? Something you can do to make sure to transform the life of your audience truly?

Well, here is my tip for you: at the end of your presentation, give your audience something they can actually do.

Practice reinforces the theory. Translate the wisdom from your presentation into something practical.

Sum-up all the wisdom from your presentation in a task: a rule they can follow, a new goal to reach, a new habit, a call-to-action. 

Ideally, your audience can apply it in their daily life: at work, at home, during their fitness routine. It is something that can and should become a habit. It is a gift from you to your audience. 

Doing something practical related to your presentation will help your public cement your speech’s concepts in their mind. 

Doing that every day will make your presentation and insight part of their everyday lives, thus truly transforming them.

You made it! I am so proud! You just learned how to build up a successful presentation. Thank you, I appreciate you reading this far! So… What’s next? How about having a presentation coach by your side the next time you need to craft a presentation?

The best way for me to understand your needs and provide the best solutions is to have a 30 minutes informal call. Book your slot here.

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Who is Matteo Cassese?

Hi! I’m a marketing consultant and an enthusiastic entrepreneur with experience working for multinational companies (Warner Bros.), teaching at a university (Link Campus University), and consulting for entertainment companies (Netflix). I’m a scholar of storytelling and have dug deep into screenwriting techniques, mythology, and trans-media narratives. This passion is translated in the simple structure template that you get in all my courses. In my free time I enjoy driving cars (fast).

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