First Impressions Last

In his international bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, author Malcom Gladwell writes about how people make snap judgments based on first impressions. While Gladwell’s time frame for a first impression is just two seconds, I’ll give you a bit more leeway for your presentations: you have a maximum of 90 seconds to engage your audience.

Picture your audience at the start of your presentation: a small group of potential customers entering an executive briefing center to hear you introduce your company’s latest product; a busy VC rushing into a sleek modern conference room to hear you pitch for a round of financing; a large group of institutional investors and analysts sitting in a hotel banquet room ready to hear your IPO roadshow; or your company’s senior management, concerned about rising costs, convened to hear your request for an increase in head count.

Where are their minds? Chances are, not on you. More likely, they are thinking about an urgent message on their mobile phone, a triple-digit swing in the NASDAQ, their next appointment, an overdue report, or the tiff they just had with their significant other.

If you were to launch into a deep dive of your presentation, describing your product, service, or technology, you would vault ahead of your audience, and they would be forced into catch-up mode.

You can capture your audience immediately with an Opening Gambit, a short statement that seizes their attention. That statement must relate to your product or service; it should also establish a need that your product or service solves. Only when you’ve done that are you ready to move on to the description.

Here are seven options:

  1. Rhetorical Question. A question that makes the audience think. Example: “If I were to ask you whether you could function without your mobile phone for a full week, I’m sure you’d say, ‘Absolutely not!’” Then you can move on to describe your vital product or service that has fail safe uptime.
  2. Factoid. A striking statistic or little-known fact. Example: “A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that high vacancy rates in office space are causing building owners to convert to residential. The virtual world is here to stay.” Then you can move on to describe your virtual solution.
  3. Retrospective/Prospective. A look backward and/or forward. Example: “In the past, you had to stop at a toll booth and pull out your wallet to reach for cash. In the future, you may be able to pay your toll before you even start your car.” Then you can move on to describe your modern product or service that replaces a legacy solution.
  4. Anecdote. A brief human-interest story. Example: “Cindy Palermo had an exciting job as a web designer, spending hours doing what she loved—until she developed severe back pain.” Then you can move on to describe your orthopedic solution.
  5. Quotation. An endorsement from a respected source. Example: “Consumer Reports rated our espresso machine above all the established brands.” Then you can move on to describe your espresso machine.
  6. Aphorism. A well-known saying, maxim, or idiom. Example: “In the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.’ Our company has built the twenty-first century mousetrap.” Then you can move on to describe your mousetrap.
  7. Analogy. A comparison between two seemingly unrelated subjects to illustrate a complex or obscure topic. Example: “Imagine trying to mow your lawn with a pair of cuticle scissors.” Then you can move on to describe your highly efficient product or service.

You never have a second chance to make that first impression.