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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 | Comments (58) | TrackBack