Audience Delivery Presentations

Why (And How) to Care About the First 30 Seconds of Your Talk

In 2010, researchers at The Catholic University in Washington D.C. conducted a study about the attention span of lecture attendees. They found that most people stopped paying attention to a speaker only 30 seconds into the speech. That means a lecturer has half a minute to grab the audience’s attention—and try to hold it.

When preparing a presentation, you may be tempted to gloss over the beginning of your delivery and instead focus on the meaty data and narrative that you think will motivate your listeners. In reality, skimping on the start of your talk can mean failure in the long run. If you don’t draw people in within 30 seconds, there’s a chance their attention may be immediately diverted and they won’t hear your genius ideas.

If you want to pull people in right away and keep them engaged, craft a compelling first 30 seconds. By nailing the start of your presentation, you’ll set the tone for a talk that engages, entertains, and ultimately convinces your audience to believe in your ideas.

Here are some concrete tips for landing the first 30 seconds of your talk.

Spend 5x Longer Familiarizing Yourself with the First 30 Seconds

There are two reasons why you should spend more time familiarizing yourself with the first 30 seconds of your speech. First, it shows you have worked hard and done your homework. To make a good impression, speakers need to look the part and be prepared from the get-go. Second, starting your presentation off strong helps you get over the beginning jitters you may experience in front of a live audience.

Helpful Tip: Rather than simply memorizing the words of your speech, aim to know your material inside and out. Your presentation will feel more like a conversation than a scripted talk. To do that, deliver the beginning of your presentation to a seasoned presenter who can offer honest feedback. Then use that feedback to improve your delivery. Next, become familiar with your slides. Click through them as you deliver your content over and over to become more deeply familiar with the narrative. Finally, rehearse multiple times in slideshow mode to visualize the flow of your presentation. Practice on camera to assess not only your content, but your stage presence, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and vocal tone.

If you feel more comfortable memorizing the beginning of your presentation to avoid lack of recall in the moment, use the following helpful memorization tips:

  • Write out (don’t type out) your presentation. Research shows that writing helps you retain information more than typing.
  • Rehearse your presentation out loud, multiple times. Research shows that saying things out loud helps boost retention.
  • Practice before bed. Sleep helps consolidate memories and improves recall.
  • Visualize yourself delivering the opening of your speech, or visualize the content of your opening—like a movie. Visualization ensures retention.

Say Something Real and Relevant

One way to connect is to segment your audience into categories before you present, i.e. the finance people, or the tech folks, or the East coast team. Frame your opening in a way that resonates with the segment most likely to adopt your perspective and they will remain on your side for the rest of the talk.

There are other ways to resonate with your audience in addition to segmenting. Sir Ken Robinson created a genuine connection with his audience during his 2006 TED talk by opening with praises for the speakers who presented before him at the conference. He strategically identified three themes amongst the previous speeches, which helped set the platform for his premise on the importance of creativity.

“There have been three themes running through the conference which are relevant to what I want to talk about. One, is the extraordinary evidence of human creativity in all of the presentations that we’ve had and in all the people here.”

By reflecting on a shared experience between himself and the audience in real time, Robinson’s audience became more engaged in the conversation.

Form a Bond with Your Audience

To get your audience on board, interact with them right off the bat. Tell a joke and make them laugh. Or ask a “raise your hand if…” question. Use a call-and-respond technique between you and the audience. When you say “revenue,” they say “growth.” It’s important that in your first 30 seconds, you establish a connection—we’re all on the same team. We’re in this together. If you get your audience involved from the beginning, you can move them by the end.

Sheryl Sandberg exemplifies this in her TED talk:

Sandberg launches her speech by toggling back and forth between two comparative situations. She contrasts how lucky the women in the audience are for having the rights they do today, with less fortunate women, who don’t have the same rights. She then brings it back to her audience’s world. She exclaims that the battle for gender equality in the workforce is ongoing. This establishes a team-oriented call to action, thus forming a connection with everyone in the room.

You may have the most interesting content in the world to deliver, but you won’t get a chance to do that unless you capture your listeners’ attention within the first 30 seconds. Try one of the above methods for engaging your audience at the start. Not only will they be ready to listen when you offer those life-changing ideas, they’ll also find you likable, engaging, and trustworthy.

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Illustrated by Ash Oat

Nicole Lowenbraun

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