One of the worst parts of public speaking is often not the event, but the night before.

Losing sleep.

Wrestling with the PowerPoint.

And it’s followed closely by the first two minutes of your presentation.

Herding your scattered thoughts.

Trying to calm your breathing.

But what if there was a simple way to make a more confident start?

There is.

And it begins with distracting the audience.

Step 1: “Just before we get started…”

As soon as you take the stage, take the audience’s attention off yourself.

Yes, that’s right. Divert their attention elsewhere.

Sounds like a contradiction doesn’t it?

Let me explain.

In a recent media training session for Aged Care executives at their Newcastle headquarters, I arrived well prepared, but edgy. Yes, experienced presenters still get nervous!

So instead of getting tangled up in my notes or forgetting to breathe, I opened with a distraction: “Just before we get started, I’d like to introduce Brad Born, our cameraman. There he is at the back of the room, please give him a round of applause. And I’d also like to thank Olivia and Janelle in Marketing for their help in setting up the training space and all of their briefing preparation. Please thank Olivia and Janelle.”

In the critical first moments of my presentation, the audience’s attention was not on me. This allowed me to settle in and breathe, get used to the setting and check my notes while the audience looked around the room. It also gave the audience a little glimpse into my personality, and the knowledge that I value my team. Once the applause was over and the room quiet, I started to speak.

Along with giving you valuable seconds to relax and settle in, distracting the audience is the first step in taking control of the audience: having them begin by following your instructions helps establish you as an engaging authority figure (more about this in another blog).

Create a distraction technique that suits you, your setting and your audience. Another example that I use: “Before we begin, check out the seminar pack on your seat: on page seven, you’ll find a Quick Quiz. There’ll be a test at the end of this session, so feel free to jot down your answers as we go. Hands up please when you find page seven. OK great, looks like you have it.”

You could also take a more irreverent approach with something like: “Before we start, my commiserations to the Collingwood supporters in the room. Hands up if you’re a Collingwood supporter. You’re not getting much sympathy in the room. Anyway, it was a great game.”

Step 2: “Let me tell you a story…”

Once you’ve relaxed into the spotlight, take your audience on a journey using storytelling.

(choose a story to share that illustrates all the points you want to make in your presentation)

It’s much easier, and far more effective, to kick off your presentation with a story than a slide deck.

It also makes your presentation much more impactful: moving into serious points too early in your presentation can make you tighten up and disengage your audience.

Choose a story that you know backwards. By recounting something that you lived through and saw with your own eyes, it’s hard to go wrong. You won’t need a script or a PowerPoint. All you need to do is speak.

For example, if I was an Aged Care executive wanting to get older Australians interested in their health care options, I could share a story about an older family member and his struggles with mobility after a serious cancer scare. How he couldn’t cook for himself or get out to socialize, how he sank into depression and looked likely to be admitted into care until one of our case managers intervened. I would go on to explain that since our intervention, the prospect of hospitalization is now gone, he’s back at the bowls club and his physical and mental health has dramatically improved.

Don’t hold back on the emotional details of the picture that you’re painting. Emotion is a potent way to engage your audience.

Storytelling makes your service relatable, helping your audience understand how it applies to them, without the need for PowerPoint or notes. And as an added bonus, it helps to hold their attention, when you need it the most – at the start of your presentation.

Step 3: Engagement

As you take your audience through each of the key points in your presentation, bring them back to your story. Explain and illustrate how you achieved the point, then check in with them using questions like ‘Is anyone in a similar situation?’ It could be a rhetorical question, or hands could go up or you could send a mic to that person for them to share their story.

Getting the audience to apply your key points to their own lives is an essential part of engaging and influencing an audience. It can also give you another break. You could ask the audience to think about family and friends who are in, or at risk of a similar situation. You could ask the audience to turn to the person next to them and share how they would deal with a similar situation.

No matter what the subject of your talk, having these three techniques up your sleeve is a surefire way to ease the stress of public speaking and engage audiences. So next time you find yourself sweating over slides and counting sheep the night before a big presentation, just remember these three words: distraction, storytelling and engagement.

Tony Nicholls

Tony Nicholls

Founder and Director of Good Talent Media

Tony Nicholls is an accomplished journalist who has held roles for more than ten years with the ABC, SBS and Network Ten, covering thousands of news stories across Victoria, Australia and in the international media.

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