Start Your Presentations With a Bang Instead of a Whimper

In my writing classes at the Second City Training Center, we were assigned to come in each week with a 5-to-7-page sketch to present for the class and instructor’s dissection. (That was every week for nearly a year-and-a-half, by the way.)

One day the instructor had us take the first two pages of our sketches in our hands, tear them off, and toss them aside. “That’s your new starting point,” he said. “Start in the middle.”

Why did he do this? Because most amateur writers gum up the opening of their sketches and stories with tiresome, needless exposition. We see this all the time in bad sitcoms. Playwright David Mamet hammered this point home in an awesome memo to screenwriters that I quote all the time. (It’s a must-read for any serious writer or anyone interested in how television and movies work, or should work).

The memo is insightful, witty, profane and IN ALL CAPS. Among his many excellent lessons, here’s what he has to say about bad exposition:

HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SH*T.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SH*T.

The equivalent in corporate presentationland is the long introduction telling the audience who you are and listing your stellar credentials (even though they have your bio right there in the program and you’ve just been introduced), and then explaining the many vital topics you intend to cover over the next hour or so.

Lots of presentations also begin with the situation analysis — telling the audience tons of stuff about themselves that they already know, as proof, I suppose, that the speaker has googled them.

Who wants to listen to that crap? Certainly not David Mamet, and not me either.

That’s why I begin my presentations either with a story or with the exercise in the video up there. It gets the audience right into the action. I cover the agenda later on, once I’ve made sure they’re awake and paying attention.

What’s really important about this way of starting a presentation is that it is 100% relevant to my content — applying lessons from show business to your business. Most speakers, desperate for some “catchy” opening, recite some tired joke or story that has no relevance at all to the subject matter.

And while that may serve to get the audience’s attention, it does nothing at all to reinforce your message and drive your narrative forward.

And that is a wasted opportunity. Going back to Mamet, he said:

ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STAND ALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.

That’s what the introduction to your presentation is: it’s the opening scene in your drama. To put it like Mamet would, DON’T WASTE IT!

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