Winning presentations start before you even open your mouth, writes Ian Whitworth.

By Ian Whitworth

I’ve had my marketing hat on a lot lately, spending time out in stores recently, watching people buy my client’s product, and talking to sales reps. Marketing people always look down on sales people for their embroidered shirts and coarse treatment of brand values. Major mistake.

Because people who sell things all day long know an enormous amount about people and what makes them buy. It’s an understanding that goes way beyond the ‘Female 25-39 AB Family-Oriented Lifestyle Seeker’ stereotypes that infest office-bound thinking. Good sales people have near-psychic skills.
I’d stand with the store sales people and watch customers pull up in the carpark. The experienced reps would watch and predict exactly what the customer would be looking for, what they would say, and whether they would buy now or not.
All before the customer had said a single word. And 75% of the time, they were dead right. Their brains are finely calibrated by years of experience, subconsciously noting the non-verbal signals that lead to each sale. To get that last sentence expanded to an entire book, read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

Audiences Know What’s Coming

Presentation audiences work the same way. They’ve seen a lot of presenters. They know what you’re going to be like before you even open your mouth. They can just tell, from your first screen graphic, to the way you walk on stage, how you stand, how much eye contact you make, the expression on your face, the equipment you use, and lots more.
If they’re to be interested, they decide right then and there. Most presenters are still getting their head around their material when they walk on stage, so they start off nervous and twitchy from the stress. Presenters who work on their opening win, because a strong start creates momentum. Here are some tips:

1. Control The Intro

Being introduced by someone else allows them to say the cred-boosting stuff you can’t say yourself. Bring a precise, one paragraph script that talks your reputation up. Focus on actual achievements, not years of experience, which just make you look old.
Print it double spaced in 14-point type or larger, to minimise reading errors in the darkness. Make sure you hear them pronounce your name in advance. You have no idea what people can do with simple words under pressure: our waiter in a restaurant last night brought out a chocolate pudding, and he pronounced it to rhyme with ‘thudding’. Who on earth would do that? Don’t let it happen to your name.

2. Pre-Plan The Opening 30 Seconds

You need to get the opening down, cold. So you can do it from pure reflex.
Walk on like you own the place. Don’t shuffle papers. Pause for a moment to survey the audience, then deliver the killer opening line without breaking eye contact. Memorise and rehearse it until it’s tattooed into your brain. Don’t just do it at your desk. Practice words and movements together until your whole opening piece is tightly locked together.

3. Don’t Apologise

It’s amazing how many people use the dreadful Apologetic Opening. It goes something like this.
“Sorry, I’m not used to public speaking…”
“Sorry I’m a bit flustered, the traffic was terrible…”
“Sorry, I’ll try not to bore you TOO much…”
“I won’t waste too much of your time…”
The presenter figures if they present an apology in advance, for some factor beyond their control, then the audience will cut them some slack. Nasty cold? Up all night with a crying baby? Forget about it and focus on doing your best. Life is busy and nobody gives a damn about your problems.
Open with an apology and all the audience hears is: “Bad presentation coming up. Stop listening now.”

4. No Joke

They say you should open with a joke, and they are 100% wrong. A joke has a punchline, carrying with it the weighty expectation of laughs. Seasoned professional comedians crash and burn each year at the Oscars, so amateurs stand little chance. Most presenters lack comic timing, so they creak out something like:
“Do you know why I became an accountant? Because I didn’t have the charisma to be an undertaker.”
Expectant pause for chuckles.
The speaker is now staring at their shoes, and it’s hard to bounce back. Humour is great, but not set up as a joke. So if they don’t laugh, it’s just a statement, and nobody’s any the wiser.

5. Breathe

It’s really important. Air is tasty and free, even in five-star venues. Pause and suck lots of that stuff in. Lots of presenters don’t breathe until about five minutes in, so they start to sound like a deflating balloon. No oxygen, no energy. m

Ian Whitworth leads a double life as a co-owner of audio-visual group Scene Change, and principal of creative marketing consultancy, A Lizard Drinking. He can be contacted on email –