Dayton Ohio, July 4th in 1862: Independence Day. Frederic Douglass, a self taught fugitive slave, lifelong abolitionist, acquaintance and future friend to the President of the United States Abraham Lincoln is scheduled to speak to the large crowd gathered for a 4th of July party. The smell of food cooking fills the air and everyone is getting restless with the prospect of a little baseball and beer.The Epitome Of An Opening Statement
Lincoln's North has yet to declare the Emancipation Proclamation, which would, at least on paper, free all the current slaves. This proclamation is not widely accepted yet and while Lincoln personally approves abolition he has yet to convince his advisors and enough of the American people. Both he and Douglass know this. While many in the 4th of July crowd honestly believe in the idea of emancipating the slaves, just as many hope the day's presentations will be mercifully short so that the festivities can begin.
When it is time for Douglass to speak he walks slowly to the podium…places his hands on each side…and stands silently looking into the crowd. Seconds pass, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and with each passing second the crowd grows quieter and bit-by-bit the attention turns to Douglass. Finally, he speaks;
"Why me...why invite me... when I and so many of my people are not free on this Independence Day?"
Now THAT is how you open a presentation! Think about it. Douglass knew the crowd was preoccupied. He knew that in order to have any chance of breaking through to them with all of the distractions of the day that he had to open his speech well. He had to be memorable, to gain, and then hold, their attention. He knew he had one chance to get to them.A History Lesson In Public Speaking Tips
In this case, a commanding presence created by his silence, joined with an unforgettable opening statement, was masterful and effective in grabbing the hearts and minds of the crowd and getting them willing to hear what he had to say.
Come to think of it, Douglass' situation is similar to us trying to hold the attention of a prospective customer, client or any engagement where we speak or present. Much like this crowd in 1852, your client is busy and distracted. Each minute you speak her emails are piling up, his phone is buzzing, or her eyes are glazing over from presentation fatigue as you are the 3rd, 8th, or 11th vendor or idea they are considering. Is it any wonder that when we choose to open with the usual process of thanking the client for their time, running down your list of questions, or worse yet launching right into your presentation, that everyone's, smart phone or laptop is suddenly more important than hearing you?
Unlike my last blog where the "Surfer Dude" simply said, "dude, you like to hike, I love to hike!" Your "typical" or common opening, no matter how polished, has a familiar ring to it -- A "heard it before" quality that is an attention killer. A savvy presenter and public speaker understands this in his bones.Presentation Tips From The Experts
What if, instead of thanking them for being there, you rehearsed a quick, relevant and powerful story? What if, instead of the usual greetings and banalities, you used a startling fact or statistic? Or, perhaps a quote from a great person? Or, an anecdote or parable?
Case in point: Not long ago we were presenting to a prestigious aerospace firm that had a small but critical division that was struggling. Our initial research suggested that team building, followed by some specific training would serve this client well. In fact, we had just completed a successful and similar engagement and had a ton of hard proof that we could genuinely help this firm.
Even though I had we had the DATA to prove it, I knew the client wasn't yet sold on this path to fix their issues AND we had some stiff competition for their attention.
When I got my chance, I opened my presentation by standing in silence for a bit…pulled out a 3 x 5 card out and deliberately and slowly put on my glasses… tapped the card with my finger and said: "This morning I was thinking of this meeting... I was looking for a way to say I want your business. I remembered a quote from Abe Lincoln: "If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four sharpening the ax." I waited for a few seconds to let Mr. Lincoln's simple words sink in and then added, "The type of training we are talking about is very much like sharpening an ax before chopping a tree." Only then did I thank my hosts and begin my presentation. Like Douglass, I was convinced that if I did not at least intrigue these busy people with something out of the ordinary, I would not get a chance to really present why we were their best choice.
We got the client.
The bottom line is that in a world of mental clutter, whether you're in front of 1 person or 1000, make the opening count. Make it soar! Be memorable!
Let me know how it goes and if I can help.
~ With sincere gratitude and thanks to James Hume, author of the finest book on speaking and presenting ever written. "Stand Like Lincoln, Speak Like Churchill"