The adage, “There’s no second chance for a first impression,” is nowhere more pertinent than in business presentations, and particularly in sales presentations.

In the publishing industry, which presents one of the most extreme cases, salespeople have an average of eighteen seconds to convince chain bookstore buyers of the merits of a particular book. In other business settings, that span can increase, but usually not by much. If you do not capture your audience’s interest and attention in the first minute, they will never fully join you. Depending on how you present yourself in those first few gestures, phrases and messages, your audience is either with you—or they’re gone.

A variation of the previous adage, “First impressions last,” is especially true in the ultimate sales setting, a job interview, otherwise known as selling yourself. An applicant can fail at the moment of the handshake. The canon of advice in Human Resources and presentation training abounds with reminders of eye contact, tone of voice and proper attire—but of equal importance to what you do is what you say.

Will you sell your product, service or business opportunity in the first minute? Of course not. But what you will sell is your presentation: is what you say worth listening to, or not? That’s your biggest sales job. And happily, there are steps you can take that will reliably and consistently hold and keep your audience’s attention. Here are a few tips that focus on the Seven Classic Opening Gambits to effectively capture the attention of any audience.

1. The Question.

Directing a question to the members of your audience can be an excellent ice-breaker because it invites them immediately into the presentation. However, the question can backfire in one of two ways: Your audience may find your question invasive. Or, you may get a completely unexpected response that can derail your message and send the conversation off on an unnecessary tangent.

An effective variation on the question that avoids these dangers is to ask your audience a rhetorical question that is meaningful and relevant to them, and then to promptly provide an answer. For example, “If I were to ask you whether you use a mobile device, most of you would probably say, ‘Yes.’ “

2. Factoid.

Use a simple, striking statistic or factual statement: a market growth figure, or a detail about an economic, demographic or social trend with which your audience may not already be familiar.

3. Retrospective/Prospective.

This is the, “That was then, this is now,” approach. A retrospective or prospective look allows you to grab your audience’s attention by moving them in one direction or another, away from their present, immediate concerns. Refer to the way things used to be done, the way they are done now, and the way you project them being done in the future.

4. Anecdote.

An anecdote is a very short story, usually one with a human-interest angle. An anecdote is not a joke; leave the jokes to the comedians!

The effectiveness of anecdotes lies in our natural tendency to be interested in and care about other people. It creates immediate identity and empathy with your audience. Ronald Reagan, often called “The Great Communicator,” never spoke for more than a couple of minutes without using an anecdote to personalize his subject. As a way of illustrating his ideas, he was always ready with a brief tale about the brave soldier, the benevolent nurse, or the dignified grandfather.

5. Quotation.

Cite a relevant endorsement or positive comment about you, your company, your products or your services from a satisfied customer or from the industry press. An endorsing quotation at the outset of your presentation can capture your audience’s interest and give you credibility.

6. Aphorism.

Use an adage or a familiar saying that the audience recognizes. Two great examples: a company that designs and manufactures graphic display screens used the phrase, “Seeing is believing” to express the clarity and fidelity of their products; a company that develops speech recognition technology used, “Easier said than done.”

7. Analogy.

Make a comparison between two seemingly unrelated items that help to illuminate a complex, arcane or obscure topic. The telecommunications industry often uses the highway analogy.

A recent hire at Microsoft told me that he got his job by using the Retrospective/

Prospective Opening Gambit for his intake interview. He began by saying, “Remember when ‘Yahoo!’ was what you said when you were happy? Remember when a web was something a spider spun? Remember when a net was used to catch fish? That was then, this is now. Yahoo! is a successful Internet company, the web connects the world through computers, and .Net is Microsoft’s set of software technologies for connecting information, people, systems and devices.”

He continued on, and they were attentive. He had hooked them. At some point, one of the managers interviewing the man jumped in and said, “Wait a minute! We’re supposed to be questioning him! Why are we sitting here quietly listening?!”

Shortly afterwards, they hired him.

JERRY WEISSMAN is a corporate presentations
coach and author of
Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story.
His expertise has helped top executives and management
at companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo!,
Compaq, Cisco Systems, Intel, and Intuit.