The most important moment in any presentation is the first one.
Where is an old saying that says that you never get a second chance to make a first impression so you need to do it right or you may as well not do it at all. Which raises the first question – how do you make a good first impression?
Well let’s start by dong a little exercise. You are just about to speak, and for the purpose of this exercise it could be any presentation (a sales pitch, a lecture, a sermon). Put yourself there now. OK, what is the first thing you are going to do or say? Now imagine the following happens...
You have just started speaking after an appalling introduction. The audience are unsettled and the previous speaker was booooriiing. Just as you get everyone looking in the right direction someone walks noisily into the back of the room and steals the attention that you have been working so hard to get. You start your presentation and about 30 seconds later you hear a strange voice over the PA because the MC still has his radio mike on and is now taking a telephone call. The wind has been pulled from your sales and you feel deflated.
There is another old saying that tells us that anything that can go wrong will go wrong and if this was you, your have just totally blown your chance of a good first impression, or more accurately someone else blew it for you.
Now I know this scenario is pretty extreme but I am prepared to bet that it has all happened to someone, somewhere and fairly recently to boot. And if something similar has happened to you then I would love to hear about it. Send me an email and I will exaggerate the story (for comedy purposes) and use it in a future article.
So what do you do when your first impression has been shot to pieces? (apart from the obvious one of considering a new career) Well, it is at times like this that you have to learn to improvise.
Back to our little exercise and I would like to ask you a question. How many different opening lines or opening gambits do you have? If you always say or do the same thing at the start of every presentation then sooner or later you are going to run into trouble. Sooner or later someone or something is going to throw you a curve ball (a baseball reference from a Brit… you’re right I have never faced a curve ball and wouldn’t know one if it hit me in the face, which it probably would!)
If you have seen me speak or perform you will know that I like to improvise and play with the audience. I do have many set pieces and set routines but I also have large spaces where I have no idea exactly what is going to happen next. Problems like those listed above are a lot worse at the beginning of a show but they can happen at anytime and if you want to learn to handle them then you have to learn to let go of your set routine and go with the flow.
‘I can’t improvise‘ I hear you cry. Yes you can says I, you do it all the time, you just don’t realize you are doing it. In any conversation you have no idea what you are going to say until you say it. You don’t rehearse daily life, you just respond to the situation as it unfolds, and that is all improvising is. reacting to whatever someone else has said or done. Learning the skill of letting go will make you a better performer.
It will also pay dividends in other ways. By being prepared to step away from your normal way of doing something you will find a new way of doing it. Many of the most brilliant lines I have ever used have come about from a moment of improvisation followed by a flash of inspiration (I would say genius but I am to humble).
So next time you are about to launch into a presentation, dare to do something different. Go with the flow and see what happens. You never know you might just have a moment of genius.