Focus at Start is Key to Impactful Speaking

Watching a speaker competition recently I noticed that even competent and confident presenters sometimes make a mistake that looks minor, but actually impacts negatively the first impression that they make on the audience.

What they do is to mention something essentially irrelevant just before they start speaking, which is a both a distraction and can give people a negative feeling even before you start. This usually takes one of three forms, but the advice in every case is the same: don't do it.

Dissing the equipment, venue or audience. One of my favorite TED talk videos begins with an irritating comment from the speaker that he dislikes head microphones. That may well be true but the audience is not interested, and focusing on that detail makes us think about other things and not the topic of his talk. Frankly we don't care if you don't like the equipment or any other practical detail of the event; that is between you and the organizers. In fact if you didn't mention the problems we would be happy to focus our attention on what you say.

Telling us how stressed you are. We get that many speakers are nervous and to be honest few speakers are completely calm on stage. But we came to hear your story, and unless your presentation is about stage fright there is no need to tell us about it. Plus many people in the audience will be wondering if you bothered to prepare. Nerves are often the consequence of poor preparation so you are setting the stage for a poor reception.

Ad libbing an irrelevant joke. Humans are never perfect and it can be hard to resist the temptation to ad lib an unscripted joke as you walk onto the stage. This is actually very risky because people can and do interpret jokes negatively much more often than you think. What you might intend as just a fun remark could be heard as something ironic, sarcastic or otherwise negative. The problem is that you give people another topic to think about just when you want their attention.

In all of these cases the best plan is simply to focus on the talk you planned to give, especially at the beginning. Just start talking and minimize the distractions. We don't need to hear about the technical problems, we don't need to hear that we are a lovely audience -- we are well aware of that -- and we don't need any last-minute jokes that might reveal a side of you that we are better off not knowing. Part of the secret of being impactful is to make a strong impression in the first few seconds, so this is not the time for side topics. Be focused, stay in your lane and deliver the talk you planned.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

If you would like lectures, interactive workshops or one-to-one coaching about speaking, presenting and pitching you can contact Andrew Hennigan by email at or by phone on +46 73 089 44 75.


Popular posts from this blog

Dear Best Regards: How to Start and End Your Emails

Reverting to Emails: Confusion and the Indian English Language

TED’s Magical Red Carpet