Consider your next presentation. Even if you’re not running for President, the opening seconds matter.

Let’s look at the U.S. presidential debates, last time around, for some different ways to capture attention.

#1:  Personal info.

Example (all examples are from the 2016 early debates, verbatim):  “I’m from Florida. My wife Jeanette and I are the proud — we’ve been married 17 years, and we’re the proud parents of four children.”

Comment:  Opening with personal info. connects you with others, and reassures them, in this case, that although you’re running for President, you still might be normal.  Safe, but bland.   

#2My unusual career.

Example:  “Good evening, everyone. I’m an eye surgeon from Bowling Green, Kentucky. My wife, Kelly, and I have been married for nearly 25 years and I spend my days defending the Constitution.”

Comment:  You’ll get attention with something surprising or different.  Defending the Constitution all day, if you’re an eye surgeon, is definitely different, albeit confusing for patients.  (And who, exactly, is attacking?  Sort of sounds like the wife, Kelly.)

#3:  A fast story.

Example:  “Good evening. My story, from secretary to CEO, is only possible in this nation, and proves that everyone of us has potential. My husband, Frank, of 30 years, started out driving a tow truck for a family owned auto body shop.”

Comment:  Stories are good, and this one, secretary-to-CEO, makes a fast point.  Tow truck also good—but delete “family owned body shop.”  Too much detail. 

Maybe the tow truck motif could be used later: “Ever feel like taking the entire Washington establishment, and towing them someplace else?  Talk to my husband Frank.”

#4:  Things are bad.

Example:  “You know, people are disgusted with the way that money has corrupted our political process, intimidating incumbents and empowering Wall Street every day, the turnstile government that we see, and also the power of the financial sector in both parties.”

Comment:  Starting with a problem and then, later, moving to a solution is classic.  But this version is complicated and disorganized.

Let’s simplify. Try repetition: “People are fed up with corrupt money, they’re fed up with the political process, they’re fed up with this, and they’re fed up with that.  In other words, they’re really fed up.”

#5:  Things are good.

Example:  “I believe America’s on the verge of its greatest century, and I’m ready to lead.”

Comment:  The opposite of #4, here we begin with hope.  Optimism is a plus, unless everyone has heard this line a zillion times.  Which we have.

#6:  The other team is much worse.

Example:  “I’m delighted to be on this stage with some remarkable fellow Republicans.  None of us are a self-professed socialist. None of us on this stage are under investigation by the FBI, and none of us have ever served more than a year or two in a federal prison . . .

Comment:  Ok, I made the prison thing up.  But still, if you’re going to talk about “remarkable,” let’s set the bar high.  On the plus side, the shift to “us” is distinctive.

#7:  Misc. advice.

Example:  “Not only will Americans be electing a new president next year, we also will be electing a world leader.  Voters should assess the candidate’s experience, character and vision for the future as they make this important decision.”

Comment:  The speaker tries to frame the conversation by telling you what to listen for.  But will anyone remember?

If you’re wedded to a list like this, try a question, and then some numbers:  “How would  you recognize a good presidential candidate if you fell over one?  Three things: #1, experience; #2, character; #3, vision.” 

#8:  Forget about me, let’s talk about you.

Example:  “Hi, I’d like you to take the camera off me and put it on the audience because I’d like to ask all of you, how many of you, raise your hand, believe that in today’s America your children will have a better life than you’ve had?”

Comment:  My favorite.  It’s focused on the audience, and it’s focused on a single question (echoes Reagan’s famous debate line: “Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?”).

Tip:  Good openings take work.  Experiment.

P.S.  These critiques are about form, not political preference.  I quoted, in order: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Jim Webb, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Lincoln Chafee, Chris Christie. 

P.P.S. For more speaking advice: You’ve Got 8 Seconds, the #1 Amazon Best Seller in business communication, Kindle edition (as of 5/22/19). Also available in print and audio.

© Copyright 2019 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

Click here to get these fast tips.

PAUL HELLMAN consults & speaks internationally on how to make your point—fast, focused, powerful. For more info: please call 508-879-0934 or email