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The Two Most Important Sentences
by Chuck Reaves

The two most important sentences in any presentation are the first one and the last one.

Know how you will open and know how you will close your next presentation. In the opening paragraph it appeared the speaker sauntered out onto the stage in complete control. There are two critical elements at work here: the introduction and the opening sentence. Professional speakers control their introductions. They usually provide a written introduction and request that it be read as written in most situations. The reason is that it is difficult to overcome a lousy introduction.

Knowing what the opening line is going to be gives the speaker confidence. After all, the audience is sizing up the speaker and the speaker is sizing up the audience. It helps tremendously when the speaker has their opening on "auto pilot" and can begin their presentation immediately.

Opening Sentence
Since the opening sentence sets the tone for the entire presentation, what will you use? It depends on the purpose of the presentation. It is generally better to use an opening that has the same feel as the message. Upbeat messages can use an upbeat opening. Serious messages require a serious opening. Avoid an opening like, "Before we talk about the layoffs that are coming and our disappointing results for last quarter, let me tell you one I heard the other day. A priest and a rabbi go into..."

There are four basic openings, so choose the one that is most appropriate for each presentation.
  • Humor
    This is usually a good icebreaker and is effective when the energy in the room is low, such as after lunch, late in the day or any other time that the people in the audience may be mentally or physically tired. Use this only if you are normally a humorous person. The tension of being up front will make delivering a humorous opening more difficult.
  • Startling Statement
    The startling statement is used to draw people in and focus on the purpose of your message. An example of a startling statement is, "In twelve minutes you are going to know something that you don't know right now, something that will seriously affect your career."
  • Question
    The human mind cannot not respond to a question. When you open with a question, the minds of the individuals in the audience go to work on the question. Your presentation should answer the question, of course.
  • Anecdote
    A story that relates to the topic can be used as an opener as well. You can then pick out certain elements of the story to illustrate certain points. (This is the process used in this article.)
[Here's an inside secret you may not know: Professional speakers have opening stories that tell them the mood of the audience, whether or not they are welcome and who their "friends" are in the audience. They modify their presentation as they speak based on the reaction to the opening story.]

Your presentation needs to have a logical flow, one that the people in the audience can follow. You can actually explain this up front. One of the oldest adages in the speaking profession is:

Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

This process works well in helping the people in the audience remember your message. There are several effective ways of accomplishing this. One is to have a certain number of points and then tell the audience that you will be covering these five points. Visual aids can help here. You may also want to use acronyms: "What is power? Let's take the letters in the word "POWER" and let each letter serve as a memory jogger. The "P" represents..."

Have a wrap up, tell them what you told them. Do a quick review of the important points. [Here's an inside secret you may not know: professional speakers use this to make sure they didn't miss anything the first time through!]

Anecdotes, Jokes, Examples
Punctuating a presentation with stories and humor can not only emphasize important points, it can also make the time seem to go by faster. We live in a culture that likes to be entertained. Use these tools to keep the message flowing. You can also use them to give the people in the audience a moment to mentally relax. After a long series of complex statements or detailed information, interject a tension breaker.

[Here's an inside secret you may not know: Professional speakers have numerous stories and jokes they can use. They know the length of each one and will use them to insure that the presentation fits the time allotted.]

Nail it! Close your presentation with purpose. Even if you close your presentation with a question and answer session, you will still need a closing sentence or statement. There are several ways to close a presentation effectively:

Wrap Up For a basic, internal presentation, this is usually sufficient. Restate the key points and offer to answer questions later.

Humorous A quick, humorous story can put a light touch on a presentation. It will leave the people smiling and feeling good.

Question When you want people to continue thinking about what you have said, close with a question. An example would be, "Now that you know the situation, now that you understand the challenge, what will you do this week to make the goal happen?"

Anecdote Close with a story that will inspire the people in the audience or challenge them. The story does not necessarily have to relate to the topic but it must be relevant to the people. It is a good way to make a second major message in your presentation.

[Here's an inside secret you may not know: Professional speakers have a number of stories they use for different occasions. They know the length of each one and the expected reaction. Based on what is happening during their presentation, they may use any one of a number of stories to close their presentation. If the audience has been unreceptive, they can turn it around with the right story. If the meeting was running late and they have to cut their message short, they can change their closing story, finish right on time and go out in a blaze of glory.]

How well did you do? What will you do differently next time? The best way to find out is to audio tape or video tape your presentation. Whatever you see that you do not like, you will change. Whatever you see that you did like, you will do it next time and you will do it more confidently. Of course, it always helps to solicit the opinions of others who you trust. Just remember that every speaker is different and every member of the audience is different. What one person likes another may not, so solicit many opinions.

Of course, there are still times when you need a professional speaker...

Sometimes only a professional speaker can accomplish your objectives. Some messages are best delivered by someone from the outside. Your people often need new perspectives and new ideas. When considering using a professional speaker, look for these things:
  • Content Does the speaker specialize in the subject matter you need?
  • Delivery Will this speaker appeal to the people in your audience?
  • Tailoring Will this speaker take the time to understand your organization, your issues, your people and your objectives?
Copyright Chuck Reaves. All Rights Reserved.

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