You’re sitting in the audience when a speaker takes the stage. Which of the following scenarios is more enticing?
A: “My talk will cover the latest tax code updates in order of importance and relevance...”
B: “I need a volunteer who wants me to read their mind.”
Having seen thousands of pitches, talks, and lectures over the years, one thing is clear—the most compelling always include elements of mystery and intrigue—sometimes even straight-up magic (but not the Criss Angel type of magic. “Dude, put a shirt on. It’s magic, not Magic Mike!”)
Note: Our era of magicians is Doug Henning (just look at that ‘stache!):
To radically increase audience engagement you MUST bring the magic.
These tested ideas will help you go from BOO! to WOO! (and rivet the audience with your Doug Henning-like powers):
1) Parachute in!
This one’s straight out of Chip and Dan Heath’s phenomenal book (and accompanying workbook), Made to Stick. Grab your audience by the head, heart, and gut by sharing a quick, dramatic soundbite.
Example: “Dangling two hundred feet above the ocean, holding onto to a rope for dear life, I could feel my grip loosening with each passing breath...”
Do you want to hear what happened next?
But what if your story lacks drama? Find it! Your job is to uncover moments from your life (or business journey) that have conflict, tension, or adventure, and then use these moments to focus our attention on you, your story, and product. If you can’t think of any stories that align with your talk, try tip number 2...
2) Show, don’t YELL
Daniela Galindo founded Hablando con Julis—a tech company based in Colombia. Daniela’s software helps people like her sister, Julis, use computer-based tools to communicate.
To demonstrate just how difficult someone’s life is when they’re unable to communicate, Daniela masterfully starts her pitch with ten seconds of silence. This approach provokes a myriad of reactions including “Why isn’t she speaking? Is something wrong?” and has even generated confused applause breaks.
Immediately following her silence, Daniela solves the mystery by explaining “I wanted you to know what it feels like to lack the ability to communicate. Now, imagine if you’ve never been able to communicate with a single soul for your entire lifetime. Hablando con Julis is here to change that.”
It’s one of the most effective opening lines we’ve ever (not) heard.
3) Bring in a toothy brain teaser
“What’s more lethal: A great white shark... or a swimming pool?”
By posing a provocative question at the start of your pitch, you force us to consider the options and work to understand it. It’s an easy tool to reel ‘em in and puts you on the path to win.
BTW: Correct answer? The swimming pool.
4) Build intrigue with a “Magic Box”
Walk onstage with a brightly wrapped gift box, old wooden box, tiny metal box, or a giant cardboard box—it doesn’t matter. As long as the audience can see it, it will work. The key? Don’t talk about it! You’ve already created a question mark in the audience’s head. Now, we’re desperate to know what’s inside.
JJ Abrams used this technique in the hit show, Lost. Remember the hatch that Boone & Locke found buried in the middle of the jungle? It took multiple episodes before we, as an audience, ever got to see what lay beyond that grungy steel door. As a viewer, it drove us nuts wondering “What in the double hockey sticks is behind that thing?”
Use the box and, better yet, pay it off somewhere during your presentation by revealing what’s inside: a new product, a gift for an audience member, an object that ties-in to a personal story you shared during your talk.
Or take it a step further: invite the entire audience to visit you later at your conference booth where you’ll reveal the secret contents!*
*It better not be Doug Henning's handlebar mustache.
5) Be contrarian/controversial
● “This is why exercise is killing you.”
● “Let me tell you why you should sleep less.”
● “Here’s why pollution can be good for the planet.”
Ok, so maybe none of these statements are true, but they incite us to consider the proposition. We’re curious, even if our inner monologue is screaming, “WRONG!” And a critical mind is a captivated mind.
How: Find an element of your idea that goes against the grain, or can be spun around to feel like it defies logic or commonly held beliefs.
6) Throw out the script (but not really)
This recent talk took us by surprise.
The speaker walked out from the wings, stood firmly behind the podium, and shredded every single one of his note cards. “I was going to come up with my speaking points and tell you about all the great things our company does,” he said. “But instead, I want to speak from the heart and tell you a story...”
He continued on in a conversational tone, sharing tidbits on growing up, getting picked on, how these experiences shaped his life path, and about the company he founded. It wasn’t a perfect pitch, but we’re still thinking about it weeks later because it was unexpected, and felt sincere and off-the-cuff. In short, it worked.
You can employ the same technique. Just know this: this is not an invitation to wing it.
In all likelihood, the presenter had crafted and rehearsed his talk with the intention of pretending he was throwing away his notes. It created the illusion of spontaneity (real or rehearsed), which was infinitely more interesting…and memorable.
Tip: If you throw your notes (or anything else) onto the stage, make sure to pick them up after your talk. It’s good manners. :)
7) Let tech fail
Wha? Huh? Yep, let your technology FAIL! This one is a slight twist on tip #6.
Somewhere in your slide deck, insert a video file or some rogue element that “crashes” your presentation (“Whoops. I included the wrong file.”). Or actually leave your laptop somewhere where you can’t easily get back to it (“Damn! I left it in my hotel room.”). The idea is that your “planned talk” is out the window and you have to “make it up on the fly.”
This makes your “improvised” pitch (the one you actually intended to do all along) feel fresh, daring, and maybe even a little dangerous. As an audience member, we’re thrilled to join you on this adventure: “How is he/she going to pull this off now?”
Remember: If you’re going to use this magic trick, make sure you’ve rehearsed every second of your talk—from your open to the disastrous moment/realization that your original presentation isn’t going to happen—along with the presentation itself. Otherwise, you will end up winging it, and there's a good chance you'll actually tank.
Plan how you will “fail,” and then plan how you will gloriously recover with your “I’m just talkin’ off the top of my head” talk.
8) Pump down the volume
Building on Daniela’s silent opener, you can draw people in by lowering your speaking volume. Or, refrain from speaking for a few seconds and watch as people stop whatever they’re doing and look your way. Why not whisper, which will force the crowd to strain and/or shush one another? Either way, you want the impetus to come from the audience, not you. Make them want to hear you.
Tip: Unless you’re Danny McBride’s character in Vice Principals, don’t go all substitute teacher and shout, “PIPE DOWN!” or ask the audience to “please be quiet." A leader has a constant command of the room and demonstrates his/her leadership skills by deploying smart, thoughtful tactics.
9) Don’t "pitch"
You’re reading the Pitch DNA Insider because of public speaking, presenting ideas, or pitching to investors plays a major role in your career. However, when you are pitching, boycott saying “Ok. I’m about to pitch you on X.” Nothing raises someone’s anti-listening forcefield more than when someone announces they’re about to sell us on something!
Instead, focus on sharing and connecting with the audience. At the end of the day, the people who support/invest/buy from you are doing so because they like you. They trust you. And they believe in you.
Great ideas are everywhere. But great ideas in the hands of a great speakercan make the difference between a “LET’S GO!” or a “NO GO!”
And we both know, you’re in the LET’S GO business.
So go forth, test out a couple of these concepts during your next presentation, and let us know which of them inspired someone to say, “LET’S GO!”
WHAT’S YOUR BEST OPENER?
Email or Tweet us your tried-and-true opening tip(s). One lucky Insider will get a limited run Pitch DNA t-shirt (S, M, L, or XL) as a fun holiday gift.
See you in the new year!
Stuart & auGi
@StuartPitch / @auGiGarred
PS. We’re both grateful to all you for an amazing year. Thank you for sharing your insights, your ideas for new stories, and for making Insider a reality. Happy holidays!