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Better Beginnings: how to start a presentation, book, article...


You are in a dimly lit room. You are alone on a stage before an audience of 1,000. 10 minutes into your presentation, your hands no longer shake or sweat. This is going well, you think. But just then you notice a vaguely familiar sound--tap, tap, clickety-clack--which in one horrifying moment you recognize--it's your audience. IMing, checking email, live blogging ("wifi sucks at this hotel and OMFG this is the most boring speaker ever")

What went wrong? How did you lose them in the first 10 minutes? How can you get their attention?

Nobody knows more about the importance of beginnings than novelists and screenwriters, but too often we think their advice doesn't apply to us. After all, we give technical presentations. Lectures. Sermons. We cover professional topics, not fiction. Not entertainment.

Oh really? Regardless of your topic, the only way they'll read or listen to it is if you get them hooked from the beginning. And like your mother always said, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." (Or as one writer put it, "You can't be in the room with the reader to say, 'trust me...it gets better.')

So, we took some tips on making a good beginning from those whose work depends on it.

1) Do NOT start at the beginning!

Advice for first-time novelists is often, "Take the first chapter and throw it away. Chances are, chapter 2 is where it just starts to get interesting, so start THERE." Start where the action begins! What happens if you remove the first 10 minutes of your presentations? What happens if you remove the first chapter? Or the first page, paragraph, whatever?

Yes, this means dropping the user straight in to the fray without all the necessary context, but if the start is compelling enough, they won't care, at least not yet. They'll stick with you long enough to let the context emerge, just in time, as the "story" goes along. One of my biggest mistakes in books and talks is overestimating the amount of context the listener/reader really needs in advance.

2) Show, Don't Tell

If you have to TELL your audience that they should care, you're screwed. The motivation for why they should care should be an inherent part of the story, scenarios, examples, graphics, etc.

3) For the love of god, DO NOT start with history!

If I read just ONE more book about the web that starts with a history of the internet, I will have to take hostages. Seriously. Do any of us really need to know about DARPA and CERN and...? Do most web designers and programmers really care? No, and No. And it's not just web design books that suffer from this worst-thing-to-put-in-chapter-one syndrome. WHY DO AUTHORS KEEP PUTTING THE HISTORICAL OVERVIEW AT THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK?? If you feel driven or morally obligated to include the history of whatever, fine, but don't put it at the front. Stick it in an appendix or on a web page, where it'll do the least damage. (To be fair, there are plenty of topics where the history is interesting and useful, but rarely is the historical overview the grabby get-them-hooked thing you need up front.)

If you do have context that matters--including history (although I'd fight like a mother tiger to convince you it wasn't needed)--let it emerge during the talk or book, not before, when they're the least motivated to hear it. Think about all the things you've pursued where the history became interesting to you only AFTER you developed a strong interest in and knowledge of the subject.

4) DO NOT start with prereqs

Decide what is absolutely, positively, crucial and then... stick it in an appendix. If you write for an audience that you assume probably has those prereqs, then why ruin the first chapter for them? Why slow them down? Chances are, they won't just skip chapter 1 and start at chapter 2. Chances are, they'll just skip the whole book.

5) MYTH: you must establish credibility up front

How many talks do you see where the speaker has multiple bullet points and slides just on their background? I did it once because I thought it would help people understand the context of my talk, and it did NOT go over well because:

A) Nobody cares
B) Bullet points do not equal credibility
C) Nobody cares
D) You already HAVE credibility going in... you don't have to earn it, you just have to make sure you don't lose it.
E) Nobody cares

But I also see this in books, where it feels like the author is trying to prove to you how smart he is. A better approach might be to prove to the reader how smart HE is, by not dumbing it down. And by demonstrating to the reader/listener that he's capable of "getting" this really tough thing. I have no illusions about this--the reader/listener cares about himself waaaaaaay more than he cares about me.

Trying to establish credibility is backwards. Don't try to get the reader to respect YOU... the reader wants to know that you respect HIM!

Demonstrate that respect by caring about his time. By caring about the quality of time. Your audience should know right up front that you're grateful for the time they're giving you, and you show that by being entertaining, engaging, compelling, interesting, or at least useful. You demonstrate it by assuming they're smart. By recognizing what they already bring to the discussion. By not insulting their intelligence. By being prepared.

A few tricks of the novelists, screenwriters, and world's best teachers. Use one or more of the following to open with an impact:

Begin with a question. A question the listener wants to have answered

It doesn't have to be a literal question, just something they want to find out. In a good movie or novel, you find yourself thinking, "Who is this guy? Why is he in this situation? Will he get out of it? What's this secret thing they keep referring to?" Make them curious. Curiosity is seduction. I'm astonished by how often we suck the life out of technical topics, when they could be fascinating. Find the passion. If YOU don't care about the answer, why should they?

Be provocative

Challenge a belief. Even if they instantly disagree, they'll stick with it long enough to find out where you got that crazy idea. Start with your most dramatic and/or unpopular assertion.

Evoke empathy

Start with a story about real people, or about a fictional character they can identify with.

Do something surprising... VERY surprising

They'll want to stick around to see what strange thing you do next.

Start with something funny

Forget the advice to "open with a joke", unless you happen to be one of those rare funny people. But you don't have to start with a joke to get them laughing early. Sometimes a picture, story, or just a quote can get them to stick around because you entertained them... at least for a moment.

Promise there will be conflict

We would rarely read a novel or see a movie if not for the promise of conflict. Tension and suspense are compelling. How will this turn out? How will you ever scale that thing? How can you build this system in this ridiculous amount of time using only duct tape and a tin of Altoids?

Start with a dramatic key event or turning point

Mystery, suspense, intrigue

How many bad books and movies have you stuck with just because you had to find out who did it? Look at your topic and find a way to set up a little mystery. ANYTHING worth talking or writing about has potential for mystery (which leads to curiosity).

Deliver an emotional experience

Your job is to touch their emotions in some way. Not a "I laughed I cried I was moved" thing, but remember: people pay attention to that which they feel. Look at your first set of slides and your first few pages and ask yourself, "what feeling does this evoke?" Raise your hand if you've been to way too many talks and read way too many books where nobody asked that question.

"Always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, send your thumbs into his windpipe in the second, and hold him against the wall until the tagline." -- Paul O'Neil

That's the goal, but only the truly talented can actually do that. Me? I'll settle for getting the reader to give me just one more moment. Then another. Then another. And I value deeply (and feel lucky for) each moment y'all are willing to give me.

Posted by Kathy on October 22, 2006 | Permalink


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As a Geographic Information Systems Coordinator for a state transportation agency, GIS software training is one of my duties. My 12 years of experience tells me that GIS software, and the GIS data, systems, software, workflow and agency environment in general, is complicated, confusing and complex. I let this weigh me down when I develop and deliver training material. I want people to be thinking about spatial relationships and making maps, and I'm lucky if we get to the hands-on exercise by lunch time because I've blathered on too much about projections and coordinate systems. Maybe I should start at the end, or at least the middle, get their hands moving, make some nice maps, and just let them do it without giving them the entire history of GIS.

I am delivering another introductory class next month, and I hope I can apply these concepts, plus your other ideas about "getting past the suck" and all that. It can't be any worse than it is now!

Posted by: Dave MacEwan | Oct 22, 2006 9:44:02 PM

It just happens that tomorrow morning I'll be giving a presentation to a group of 7th/8th-graders about local food production (eg, eating within a 100-mile radius of where you live). I've done plenty of technical presentations, but never one to a group of kids.

Given your guidelines above, I've just completely rewritten my small stack of notecards. I think it will be much better! Thank you.

Posted by: John Labovitz | Oct 22, 2006 10:43:47 PM

Dynamite article!!!! I will use this for myself in my blog and article writing. I will Also use this with my clients who are working on executive presence and making an impact. I appreciated the author demonstrating the points by using them in the article! Thanks!

Posted by: Dave Schoof | Oct 23, 2006 12:30:38 AM

Tomorrow evening I will have a test in rhetorics, nothing too hard, I have three minutes to talk about a topic of choice. Since I will be talking about Bemani (dance mat) games, I asked a friend of mine to translate the greeting to Japanese. Even if my pronounciation will definately suck, I´m sure it will give me enough attention for three minutes. :D

Posted by: Michael Herzog | Oct 23, 2006 1:23:32 AM

Great advice!
I once got a piece of advice from someone who taught public speaking about the reason for starting with a joke.
Her belief was that it takes a period of time (albeit short) for people to gain familiarity with another person's accent and manner of speaking. Before they get that familiarity, the chances are that they won't be able to understand anything that you say.

Her suggestion was to start with a short ice-breaker (eg. a joke) just to allow the audience to get that familiarity on some material that didn't actually matter which lets them pay attention when you do start your presentation proper.

Posted by: omni | Oct 23, 2006 1:56:08 AM

As a writer, I agree with your advice -- and I can see where I've made the exact mistakes you've warned against.

I can only add:

- Cut to the chase.
- Start with the cliffhanger.
- Eliminate "Moving From Point A to B" transportation sequences. If something funny happened on the way to the podium, tell it. If nothing funny happened, DON'T tell it to the audience.
- Add explosions, car crashes and bikini girls with machine guns. (Metaphorically speaking.)

Posted by: A.R.Yngve | Oct 23, 2006 2:38:01 AM

I so like your point about history. When I started writing my book I wrote a couple of paragraphs about the history in the first chapter. When I was thinking about writing, it made sense - it helped me see where I was coming from.

But when I re-read it last week, it was just boring and irrelevant. I tossed the whole section...

Posted by: Donna Maurer | Oct 23, 2006 5:33:25 AM

Ah, this brings back so many memories. I was raised in a church where public speaking was almost a requirement--at age 8, for example, I gave a talk in front of 800 people filling an auditorium. Since then, public speaking has not been a very big deal. I use a lot of your tricks--for example, I recall the wide eyes of a congregation when I used an actual samurai sword to illustrate the concept of character-building through adversity. The one that really helped me the most is the whole credibility thing. I'm beginning to do a lot of presentations on podcasting, and always feel that I need to explain why I'm talking about what I'm talking about. Thanks for pointing out that: Nobody cares. It helps a LOT.

Posted by: Gray Miller | Oct 23, 2006 7:14:47 AM

@dave: I'm currently studying GIS/cartography as a major and I was really pleased with the way our profs made us get into spatial information in the first place: before anybody of us had any experience with GIS we had to present any town (as a team work). So everybody just gathered information and used photoshop to produce maps.
Actually we didn't start at the beginning, but in the middle.

Posted by: Christoph Fink | Oct 23, 2006 8:16:03 AM

"...see this in books, where it feels like the author is trying to prove to you how smart he is."

Grady Booch immediately leapt to mind. Author of the only computer book I have *ever* literally flung across the room in anger. Sir, you are a pompous windbag, and even if your ideas have merit, we will never know, because your writing is all about showing us how erudite Grady Booch is. Don't waste my time.

Posted by: Tom Biggs | Oct 23, 2006 11:04:36 AM

Thank you for yet another inspiring article. I am going to have to completely revamp my upcoming presentation on the Unified Process. I presented it a month ago and even I was bored.

Anyway, I once did a presentation to an adult college class on a property management system I was working on and started like this. Good evening, my name is fill-in-the-blank, and my presentation is on PMS.

Needless to say, I had their full attention for the rest of my presentation.

Posted by: Ed | Oct 23, 2006 12:36:58 PM

Before I get to the main point of my comment, let me share with you how I felt about your article. Just before arriving at your website, I had been lunching on a chicken soup with too much pasta with a chaser of baked beans from a can -- the kind that satisfy but give you gas. I thought Safari was opening a bit slowly due to my custom plugin that highlights all occurrences of the word 'lard' on the rendered page, but it turned out that my reflex rate was low. So I hit my knee a couple of times with a blunt object and -- pardon me, my comment has put me to sleep. Zzzzz.

Posted by: John | Oct 23, 2006 12:55:24 PM

WOW. GREAT ARTICLE.I have learnt so much in this one article, I am a better person because of it.
Thanks a million.Keep them coming as I will be returning.

Posted by: bridge | Oct 23, 2006 1:17:10 PM

"gnisirprus YREV ...gnisirprus gnihtemos oD"
Do you think this might be surprising enough?

I just want to tell you that your blog deserves several MORE moments of attention.
Thanks for sharing your smart thoughts.

Posted by: riccardo | Oct 23, 2006 5:55:44 PM

As usual, a goldmine of advice.
Your blog always gets my attention!

Big fan of the Head First books BTW; nothing out there comes close for content and lucidity.

Posted by: Mitch Wheat | Oct 23, 2006 8:31:39 PM

Although I now work in IT, I am also a preacher. Preaching has some of the dullest speakers ever. They believe that because of the subject matter they have a God given right to just talk at people. A book by a chap called W E Sangster entitled "The Craft of Sermon Illustration" opened my eyes. It's not just about illustration, and I have learned over the years much of what you have stated above, and it does work! I now always try to start with what the old preachers call a "gracious introduction" - one that gets attention/sympathy/curiosity.

Thanks for a great summary :)

Posted by: Peter Holloway | Oct 24, 2006 3:21:09 AM

It's a good point not to be boring from the start, but the history can be interesting also, as much as the present. For the history of hypertext, I find the story of Ted Nelsons ADD (hummingbird mind as he calls it) and his aspiration to write stuff without being able to focus on anything much more interesting than the physicists at CERN and their reports in the early WWW. Obviously almost anything can be made to be boring, I'm not sure of the opposite.

Posted by: Samuli Karevaara | Oct 24, 2006 5:58:18 AM

I really like the small pictures you add to your writings. These drowings help me to summarise what you write.

Posted by: Sandor Héder | Oct 24, 2006 7:33:08 AM

Good Lord! How many awesome posts can you turn out? I hate to come off sounding like a raving fanboy, but well, I guess I am, so maybe it's just the way it has to be.

I'll bet this is another post inspired by NaNoWriMo, right? ;)

Posted by: dave paisley | Oct 24, 2006 9:06:47 AM

It's hard to believe that I can read this great stuff for free!

...and you keep cranking it out week after week!

I am going to copy and save this article.



Posted by: Robert | Oct 24, 2006 2:11:43 PM

wonderful! this is just what I was looking for. I'm going to read everything you write. I am a techie who really needs to be FUNNY! not boring and instructive. I'm sick of boring and instructive. Here's my cure. thank you.

I make more more money cleaning cat boxes than writing and now I know why (and I haven't cleaned very many cat boxes... heh)

Posted by: Mary | Oct 24, 2006 5:37:19 PM

Quite long to read but it is really interesting, It's just that I feel it is too much for me to absorb in 1 sitting.

Posted by: Ben Uy | Oct 24, 2006 6:11:46 PM

Now teach bloggers to write decent Leads!

Posted by: DeanG | Oct 25, 2006 8:39:34 AM

Pretty good advice. I admit that I begin my books with a history chapter, however, I don't see it as a bad, boring thing. In novels, I completely agree, but novels are very different from technical books in one key way: people read novels from the beginning to the end; technical books are typically read looking for the answer to a specific problem (which often involves jumping from a later chapter to an earlier and back again, in no particular order). I've yet to meet someone who's told me that they've read my books from start to finish. For that reason, I feel secure in putting the first chapter as a history. To me, the beginning logically should be at the beginning, and knowing that my readers probably are skipping to the fifth chapter anyways, I don't feel that bad for having an "Introduction" chapter at the front.

Posted by: Nicholas C. Zakas | Oct 26, 2006 8:37:17 PM

Hi Kathy, another great post! Make sure to include this one in your book! I have already included your tips in some of my material after reading this yesterday! :)

A totally not-related question: does anyone knows whether (and how) it is possible to view posts of this blog from before August 06? Because that's the oldest link underneath 'archives' and I don't get the calendar to go earlier than October. I would really want to look up some older posts to re-read... HELP!! And can I search this blog?


Posted by: Jef | Oct 27, 2006 1:28:32 AM

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