Presentations – don’t start with why! Simon sinek was sort of wrong!

This post comes in two parts. Part one is about not starting with any “why” at all and the second part is about not starting your presentation with your “why”.

The start of your presentation isn’t the right time to tell people ‘why’ they should be interested

venn diagram of comic skills

There’s a whole lot of tosh online about starting your presentation with this, that or the other. Some claim you should start with a story. Others say presentations should start with a joke (God help us! See my Venn Diagram of comic skills! 🙂 ) Some suggest a startling fact … or something else which “grabs your audience’s attention”.

But here’s The Big Thing about your presentation. At the start of almost any presentation you have, by definition, already got the audience’s attention. You don’t have to grab it, you have to not lose it. If the weren’t at least a little bit interested in your presentation’s topic, they’d not be there!

 a cup of coffee - do all presenters run on coffee

Okay, don’t take that too literally. Some people will be there just for the free coffee, but we can ignore them in any serious conversation anyway, because nothing about your presentation will impact on them! They’re not really an audience in any meaningful definition.

And one sure-fire way of losing that starting-point-attention is wasting the precious initial minutes of a presentation by explaining to your audience why you’re making the presentation. But if your audience has turned up, they:

  • already know why you’re making the presentation
  • have decided beforehand that they’re interested in your content
  • and haven’t been put off by the fact that it’s you that’s presenting.
a woman bored by your presentation?

In other words, your audience is primed for content. Telling them why you’re making the presentation is telling them something they’ve already heard and processed. You’re burning your audience’s good will, but with no gain in their knowledge or understanding of what you’re hoping your presentation will achieve.

A better idea is to put the ‘why’ of your presentation in the pre-reading material. That could be a lot of things but it will certainly include marketing stuff and/or emails from the boss about attending your presentation etc! If you can’t figure out what sort of things to include in that stuff you need to have a long talk with yourself about why you’re making a presentation in the first place… 🙂

By the way, in the ‘why‘ of your presentation I’m including a whole bunch of stuff that often gets included, without thinking, by mediocre presenters…

  • your name and qualifications – if your audience doesn’t know who you are when you stand up, things have gone wrong in your preparation
  • how pleased you are to be there – of course you are, now get on with it
  • how lovely the venue is etc. – serious I just had to sit through a conference where people started their presentations by talking about how they’d chosen their walk on music and how nice it was to have walk-on music.  FFS – why do I care?!?
  • who paid for things – well sometimes this is an absolute necessity but get it done with elegance and quickly
  • apologies for not being an expert and/or prepared – firstly, no one cares and secondly it undermines your credibility! Just because you’ve apologised for making a bad presentation before you start doesn’t mean anyone will forgive you for making a bad presentation, so why draw attention to it?!

Nobody cares about YOUR why in a presentation anyway!

As far as I know, Simon Sinek’s TEDx “Start with why” is the most viewed of TED videos. It’s an absolute cracker and if you’ve not seen it, it’s worth a few minutes of your time. I’ve slipped it in below, so you can find it easily enough.

And I know it’s a bit of a twist, but I’m going to say that as far as presentations are concerned, Sinek was only half right. (Yeah, I know, he wasn’t talking about presentations, I’m cheating, for fun!) You shouldn’t start with your why – you need to start with your audience’s.  Pretty obviously this grows naturally out of the first half of this blog – people are interested in (and almost only in!) “what’s in it for me?”

Let’s be honest, no one comes to hear you speak unless you’re uber-famous. Only half a dozen times in my ten year career has anyone come along to me and said “I came because Dr Raybould is speaking, even though I’m not interested in the topic”. They’re in your presentation for your content because they feel/hope/expect it will be of value to them.

So your why isn’t important. Star with their ‘why’ instead.

Start with what they’re going to get out of it. That way you’ve got a fighting chance of them not turning off once you get out of the honeymoon period at the start of your presentation… you know, the one when they’re interested by default 😉

By the way, to do this, you might consider using a modified version of the Colon Technique that you can download in PDF format (no signup required, ‘cos I’m lovely!) just here.


  1. Laura

    Great blog as usual! Wonder what Sinek thinks

    • Simon says...

      I don’t suppose he’d worry about me! 🙂

  2. I’m tired of copywriting clients who tell me I must include their ‘why’ on their website. It *might* inspire candidates to apply for jobs there, but it’s rarely the reason customers choose their products/services.

    • Simon Raybould

      Yeah – I can see that… no time pressure on a website etc. (Well okay, there is, but you know what I mean! 🙂 )

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