Story Led Marketing Speaking

How to Open and Close Your Presentations with Maximum Impact

Oct 30, 2020

A good teacher, like a good entertainer first must hold his audience's attention, then he can teach his lesson. - John Henrik Clark

As a comedian, you learn to ensure that you open and close with your best jokes. If you have new material, it always goes in the middle. This is because you have to grab the audience’s attention at the outset. They will always be at their most receptive (and judgemental) when you step on stage, and they’ll decide within the first few sentences whether they are going to bother listening to you. This is also true when we listen to a presentation, talk or speech.

So how should speakers open and close their presentations?

In the first 30-60 seconds of your talk, you need to do, show, or say something that will shock the audience, that will intrigue them, and that will get them to focus on listening to what you have to tell them. This is why I call these open and close segments ‘lightning bolts’. The questions your lightning bolt generates should be answered by the rest of your talk, and encapsulated with the ‘Kernel’ sentence’ (the single sentence summary of your talk, incorporating the problem and solution you are offering).
Great speakers will often combine their hard-hitting lightning bolt opening with humour, and this is because it needs to be electrifying enough to spark the audience’s attention, but keep them on your side, and open to the rest of your message.

I did a talk on the difference between men and women for an event in Sweden… here is the opening I used:

“I’m here today to show you how to dramatically increase your effectiveness as a woman in business. But first I need to be honest… I think achieving parity with men in my lifetime is an impossible dream. In fact, I believe there’s less chance of us achieving gender equality than Donald Trump’s hair having its own TV show.”

This was followed by the slide below. (Btw… ‘Knullrufs’ is a Swedish word for post-coital hair, and SVT1 is one of their national TV channels.)

I had three objectives with this opening:

  1. Show them how listening to my talk will benefit them personally.
  2. Grab their attention with a lightning bolt statement, and create intrigue.
  3. Given that I had been asked to open the conference with some laughs, I also wanted to make them smile.

​I’m a big fan of TED talks, and if you want to see great lightning bolt opening and closing in action, then you have a rich source of material here. Let’s take a closer look at a few TED examples here:

Larry Smith - Why you’re going to fail to have a great career

Larry Smith is a Professor of Economics in Canada, who has very strong views on people who endure jobs they don’t like, because they’re too scared to do what they’re passionate about. In 2011, Larry opened his TED talk with this statement:

“I want to discuss with you this afternoon, why you’re going to fail to have a great career.”


In a room full of aspirational people that comment landed like a bombshell, and managed to get some laughs (albeit slightly nervous sounding ones). You can bet your life they sat up to listen after that opening. During his speech, Larry went on to tell those gathered about the only way they would achieve a great career. To close, he gave a brief summary of his key points and then finished with these words.

“…so those are the many reasons you are going to fail to have a great career… unless…unless.

The close is as crucial as the opening, as it’s likely that the last sentences are the ones most likely to stick in your audience’s mind. The closing lightning bolt should echo, rather than replicate, the start of your talk. Here Larry Smith offers a close that remains provocative, and yet offers hope, and a call to action. It is a great combination, and has resulted in over 5 million views of his talk.

If you are speaking for a long time, then you are likely to have broken your talk down into smaller segments with more than one Kernel sentence. If this is the case you will need to have lightning bolts at the start and end of each part of your speech.

Let’s look at a few other TED examples of effective lightning bolts.

Tom Thum - The orchestra in my mouth

Tom gave this TED Talk in 2013, and his opening words were:

“I’ve come here today to come clean about what I do for money. Basically, I use my mouth in strange ways in exchange for cash.”

Another great opening, which teases the audience, and yet perfectly frames his talk, which climaxed in Tom faithfully reproducing the sounds and atmosphere of a jazz club with just his voice and some loop machines.

Cameron Russell - Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model.

Cameron Russell is blessed with ticks in all the boxes that are associated with physical beauty in a woman. She chose to open her talk by changing her clothes on stage. She walked out in a little black dress and heels, and switched to a modestly long, wrap around skirt, cardigan, and flat shoes. By doing this she demonstrated that she could transform her image, the atmosphere, and the audience’s perception of her with little effort. This lightning bolt opening was stunning in terms of showing the superficiality of image, and yet the power it has over our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours.

Her closing comments:

“If there’s a take away to this talk, I hope it’s that we all feel more comfortable acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes, and our perceived failures.”

In comedy and public speaking, if you can ‘show’, through physical action, picture, anecdote or joke, the point you are making, rather than ‘tell’, it will be significantly more powerful.

Ken Robinson - Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Now to the great Ken Robinson, a man driven by the belief that creative pursuits are as valuable to society as academic and economic ones. As I’ve already mentioned, in his TED Talk, which has received over 40 million views, Ken successfully uses humour to enhance his message and engage his audience. Typically, his opening starts as he means to go on…

“Morning, how are you? It’s been great, hasn’t it? I’ve been blown away by the whole thing… in fact I’m leaving.

This generated a lot of laughs, immediately got the audience onside, and was a nice segue into the main part of his talk. In some ways, Ken Robinson breaks some of the rules I’ve advocated. He doesn’t so much sprint, as take the audience by the hand for a gentle walk to his Kernel message, which doesn’t land until 2.58 minutes in. The reason he is able to do this, and keep them engaged and attentive until he gets there, is down to his use of humour, story-telling, and delivery.

His close is a brilliant call back to the start of his talk, equally compelling, and delivered with authenticity, passion and an intensity that creates a very powerful call to action:

“What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now, that we use this gift wisely, and that we avert some of the scenarios we’ve talked about, and the only way we’ll do it, is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are, and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being to face this future. By the way we may not see this future, but they will, and our job is to help them make something of it.”


  • You need to create a lightning bolt opening that supports your Kernel, takes account of the audience starting position, and will jolt your audience out of their comfort zone.
  • Before your end lightning bolt, very, very briefly summarise the key points of your talk.
  • Your lightning bolts can be either action, image, sound or words.
  • If appropriate, use humour in your opening to keep the audience on side and receptive to your message.
  • Your last words need to be as electrifying as those at the beginning, and reinforce your Kernel message in a way that the audience will remember and share.