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You’re about to present your big idea in a Zoom meeting.

Or you’re on MS Teams telling a potential client why they should choose your firm for the project.

Or maybe your professional association’s holding its first virtual conference—you hope your breakout session will net you enough customers to start 2021 right.

What are the first words you say?

Maybe you’re thinking something along the lines of, “Thanks for being here. It’s really great that we could get together like this. My name is _____ and I’m going to talk about _____. And you’ll get a copy of the slides later …”

Please think again.

I have listened to dozens of speakers lately, easing their way into a presentation in similar fashion. And I understand it. It feels safer, easier, to tiptoe into it rather than to just start talking.

And it’s the convention in many organizations for speakers to begin their presentations with “Today I’m going to talk about …” The fact that this is what people do here doesn’t make it a good idea.

When you need to engage an audience, you can’t afford to waste those first precious seconds palavering. (And if you don’t need to engage an audience, it’s fair to ask, why are you speaking?)

The typical ease-into-it start is deadly in person. It’s even worse on virtual platforms where it’s more challenging to engage your audience and much easier to lose them, fast. They have dozens of distractions right there at their desks. Why would they listen to someone saying nothing of consequence?

Chances are, they wouldn’t. So, instead of that soft, easing-into-it thing that can help a speaker feel more comfortable, start your talk with something that gets attention and keeps it.

Begin your talk with a Cold Open.

Think about the last time you watched Saturday Night Live. Notice that Kate McKinnon or Kenan Thompson did not wander out on the stage and say, “Um, hi everybody. Really glad you’re here tonight. It’s Saturday … 11:30pm Eastern. And you know, well, we’re doing the show in New York and it’s not taped in advance.”

No. The SNL cast comes out to the set and does something funny. Or at least they hope it’s funny. (We could have a whole conversation about whether the show is as entertaining as it used to be, couldn’t we?)

Then, after they’ve captured our attention, drawn us in, and made us laugh … then they look straight at the camera and say in no uncertain terms, “Live. From New York. It’s Saturday Night!”

There’s no easing into it or waffling about it. When they start the show, they start the show.

As speakers, we can take a cue from the Saturday Night Live producers.

And when we’re virtual speakers, it becomes even more important to capture attention from the beginning, use every minute well, and stop talking when we’ve said what we needed to say.

Why is that so challenging?

It takes a fair amount of confidence to dive right into your ideas and recommendations without the runway blahblah. And maybe even more confidence to come to a crisp, clear ending and become quiet.

Maybe you have background information to offer …

How to use the chat feature in Zoom or GoToMeeting.

What to do if they have a question during your talk.

How long the presentation will last.

You know, the sort of thing that speakers often call “housekeeping.”

Has anybody ever been really excited about housekeeping? No! Our hearts sink—and our attention falters—when we hear a speaker say, “I want to begin with some housekeeping.”

Do your Cold Open first.

Then tell your audience the logistics and timing and what they can expect from your presentation. You’ll find that you have a much more engaged audience.

And as it turns out, people will actually absorb more of the background info if you’ve already captured their attention before you give it to them. If you just launch into the directions and agenda, you’ll often find the first question someone asks is about something you already said!

You may be wondering how to give your Cold Open real impact. I have some suggestions – I’d be happy to send them to you. Drop me an email and let me know you’d like the list.

And by all means post a comment here about your own experience starting a virtual presentation.