5 Ways to Start a Presentation

Who is the first person you look for when you look at a group photo?  Yourself, of course.  You want to see if your hair looks right.  You want to be sure you’re not blinking, there’s nothing in your teeth and that you’re not a victim of red-eye.  If it’s an old photo, you want to be sure you have an excuse for the clothes you were wearing.

Even though my Indian colleagues' clothing is so much more colorful, my eyes still search for myself first in this photo before I look at anything else. It's similar for learners in a training session - they will ask: where am I and how does this training session apply to me?

Even though my Indian colleagues’ clothing is so much more colorful, my eyes still search for myself first in this photo before I look at anything else. It’s similar for learners in a training session, they will ask: where am I in this content and how does this training session apply to me?

Similarly, as soon as you start a presentation, learners try to find themselves in the presentation.  How does this information relate to them?  How will they be able to use this information tomorrow?  While the answers to these questions may seem self-evident to a presenter, the answers are not always that self-evident to the learners.

This is why the start of a presentation should be an attempt to anchor your content to the learners’ own experiences.

You may also find it helpful to do a messy start icebreaker.

How to Start a Presentation

Before you design your next presentation or webinar, here are five ideas to anchor your brilliant ideas, thoughts, and knowledge to your learners’ experiences:

1. Start a Presentation with a Question

Before launching into Malcolm Knowles’ theories on adult learning, it could be helpful to ask your learners to share some of their own best and worst learning experiences.  When a participant volunteers that he appreciated high school science class because he could do lab experiments and it made the learning “real”, it becomes a lot easier for everyone to relate to Knowles’ insistence on ensuring the content is relevant.

2. Lead Your Audience in Guided Imagery or Tell a Brief Story

Several months ago a colleague was asked to deliver a 20-minute presentation to 200 medical professionals in a large conference room on “applying lean management principles to the labeling of vials”.  Instead of immediately starting with the concepts of kaizen and muda, she began by telling about one instance in which vials were mislabeled and the inefficiency and waste that resulted.  Everyone in the room could relate to this brief story, and then my colleague proceeded to explain how lean principles saved time and money in a real-world context.

3. Surprise Participants with a Pop Quiz!

Here is a question I posed to my audience as I began a recent webinar:

Pop Quiz to start a presentation

This quick initial activity helped:

  • break the ice
  • get learners familiar with using some of the web conference tools we’d be using
  • tune each learner into why the presentation that followed would be applicable to each of them, despite the fact that each learner had different development goals

4. Start a Presentation with a Movie Clip

Several years ago I had the opportunity to present at the ASTD TechKnowledge conference with two colleagues.  In order to introduce our topic (“blended learning”), we had prepared a short video.  Throughout the rest of the presentation, we were able to refer back to the video in order to illustrate our points.  Short video or music clips can be an entertaining way to help your learners relate to new, complex or dry material.  Two warnings here: be sure the material is culturally appropriate and be careful about using copyrighted material.

5. Share a Brief Case Study

Jason and Noreece answered the door.  It was their social worker, Kim.  She wasn’t smiling.  “I need to begin by saying you haven’t done anything wrong.  It’s not your fault.  It’s actually my fault, an oversight on my part.  But the fact is that you won’t be able to adopt Charlene after all.  I know you’ve been caring for her for a year and a half and are really the only family she’s ever known.  But there’s something called the Indian Child Welfare Act, and there are some requirements in there that, in this particular case, my department didn’t follow.”  Do you want to know more about this Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) now?  This format is a little more intriguing than starting immediately with the facts about ICWA when it became law and what the various provisions mean in the abstract.  This type of beginning makes the law real.

What techniques are you using to start you presentations? Have any of these techniques to start a presentation worked for you?

8 thoughts on “5 Ways to Start a Presentation

  1. Brian,
    I found your blog interesting this week because I just finished reading some material on the brain and the various ways learners process information. Effective learning, especially for adult learners, tends to take place when the learner can access existing schema (past knowledge stored in long-term memory) and relate it to the new material they are learning. If learners can answer “what’s in it for me” and tie it to experiences they have gone through in their life, then they are more apt to learn and retain new material with ease. The suggested ways you wrote about in your blog are excellent ways to open presentations and to help the learner answer the questions as you presented in the beginning of your blog. I found a great article that explains the Schema Theory (http://metablog.borntothink.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/1932-Bartlett-Schema-Theory.pdf). The article offers suggestions to instructional designers and educators on how to create programs and lessons that help relate the learner’s past experiences and present knowledge and to help create more effective learning environments. As facilitators, we have to find fun and fresh ways to engage our audience and help them to see that attending training workshops or presentations are investment opportunities for new skills, and not just another wasted block of time on their to-do list.

    • Thanks for the very thoughtful observations, Cheryl, and for the article. You’re spot on – being able to answer the learner’s question “what’s in it for me” is key. My guess is that presenters too often lose sight of the learner when putting together a presentation, and think too much about themselves – how can I get up in front of the audience and just get through this presentation, just give them the information they need to know without any of this “touchy feely” stuff. Too often it seems presenters lose sight of the fact (or just don’t think about the fact) that the presentation really isn’t supposed to be about the presenter, it’s really supposed to be about the learner.

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