Can you judge a book by its cover?

Whenever a book has been issued, the first that meets the eye is the cover. The same counts for the title page of any presentation you deliver.

In one of my earlier posts I wrote about grabbing your audience’s attention by intriguing, surprising of provoking them. So let me try to intrigue and challenge you today. Based upon their titles and cover images, what topics would you imagine being addressed by the three presentations below?

ten_years_after_the_big_banghandpicked cherriesmaking_the_volcano

Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can also not always predict a presentation by its first slide. So here is what I actually introduced through the above visuals:

  • 10 (light) years after the “big bang”. From around 1995 onwards, traditional circuit switched telephony has been taken over by Voice over IP (VoIP) networks. Preparing a presentation to be delivered at the 2005 Voice on the Net conference in Stockholm, I decided to build my story around similarities between the evolution of the universe and the evolution of the internet. (view the full presentation on SlideShare)
  • Why do hand-picked cherries provide no guarantee for a tasty pie? If you’re a loyal reader of this blog, you may have seen that slide before. The subject of the presentation was a management tool for IMS networks. A rather technical topic that I introduced through a story about the challenges of baking a cherry pie… (view this presentation on SlideShare)
  • Making the volcano.  Inspired by a “volcano making kit” gadget I discovered while surfing the web, I once started a presentation skills workshop with a group discussion on “Why is a volcano a good metaphor for preparing and delivering a presentation?” Not an obvious exercise for the students in the room, but certainly a good starter for the seminar.

Begin the beginning

I am sure that many of you have already witnessed a public talk starting with an opening like:

“Good morning everybody. My name is John Doe, and I am VP product management at Acme Industries Inc. First, I would like to thank the organizers for giving me the opportunity to speak here.  I am really honored to deliver a keynote at this event. And I ‘m also delighted that so many of you have shown up to listen to my presentation…”

As most people decide within the first few seconds of a presentation whether a speaker is worth listening to, be sure that John had already lost the ears of his listeners before he had even projected his first slide! (other real life examples of terrible opening lines on Ethan Rotman’s iSpeakEASY blog…)

A better way to grab the audience’s attention is to intrigue, surprise or provoke them. Here are a few examples of openings that I have used in the past:

  • Intrigue: when I opened a lecture about corporate storytelling with a statement about the number of cooking programs on local TV, this was not at all relevant for my talk. But it helped me to puzzle the audience and to create a link to the nouvelle cuisine metaphor I wanted to use in the rest of my presentation (view my slides on SlideShare)


  • Surprise: using the popular “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” format, I once engaged my audience in an interactive quiz. A great way to wake up the room and to playfully introduce the topic of your talk. (view my presentation on SlideShare)


  • Provoke: speaking at a technology conference, I started with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about the Emperor’s New Clothes to pitch a new and hyped innovation. As the room was filled with supporters of the new technology it was certainly a provoking beginning (read my blog post about telling fairy tales)


As speaking coach Carmen Taran is saying in her book “Better Beginnings”:

“When you fill the first unforgiving 30 seconds with something that has impact, edge, and emotion, you earn the right to be heard.”

So, next time you’re delivering a talk, make sure you grab your audience’s attention from the first second onwards.