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Presentation Skills: Icebreakers: Putting Your Audience at Ease

Q. I would like to hear your suggestions about icebreakers. How do you put both yourself as the speaker, and your audience, at ease at the start of a presentation? I'm always impressed by speakers who can do this—with a joke, an anecdote, or a quote. Please let me have your ideas on this kind of interaction with the audience prior to the presentation.

A. You can be sure those speakers who impressed you put a lot of thought into just how to begin their remarks. They make it look effortless—like they're extemporizing. But don't be fooled. All good icebreakers have several things in common. They're well thought out. They tie in logically to your topic or to the remarks that immediately follow. And they're something your audience can relate to easily.

"Humor, used well, meets the test of a good icebreaker"

You mention jokes as one way to break the ice. We prefer to think in terms of humor. It was once common for speakers to think they had to begin with a joke in order to break the ice. That's changed. We teach, and speakers have learned, that humor instead works better.

What's the difference?

Jokes invite an on-demand response. A joke says, "I'm going to tell you something funny now." But if the joke's not funny or you're not good at telling a joke, it'll fall flat—and at the worst time—at the beginning of your presentation. Jokes also are tougher to connect to your presentation.

On the other hand, humor, used well, meets the test of a good icebreaker—especially in linking to your topic and elements of your presentation. You can more easily weave humor into the context of your presentation. And if it doesn't work, it won't matter, since you haven't invited a particular response from your audience.

If you decide to use humor, try to give it your own twist. Avoid lifting material verbatim from books or the Internet. If the humor comes from something in your own personal experience, it's more likely to be fresh and original. You'll also be able to deliver it more naturally. And by sharing something personal with your listeners, you'll establish a connection with them.

In some instances, you may decide to use something you've heard another speaker say at another time. That's okay—if you personalize it in a way that's natural to you and suitable to the occasion.

Don't be afraid to poke fun at yourself. Some of the best speakers do it all the time. Just do it in a way that doesn't detract from your credibility or your purpose.

In your question, you also mention anecdotes and quotes. These also are good ways to get started. But once again, the anecdote or the quote you select should have a purpose and should tie in to your remarks.

If you're using an anecdote, try first to come up with a personal anecdote—something based on a real experience. The personal anecdote, after all, is completely original and something your listeners can only hear from you. If that doesn't work, you have other options. You can use an anecdote from the experience of someone you know. Or, failing that, you can take your anecdote from something you've read or heard. Start collecting and filing anecdotes you think you may be able to use some time. These can come from articles, books, or the Internet—in fact, from just about any source. Do the same with quotes. Keep an eye out for anything you may able to use later. But keep in mind, for a borrowed anecdote to work, it must be something you can personally relate to.

In the end, you're the best judge of what is most likely to be helpful to you. But for safety's sake, always try your material out on someone who can give you constructive feedback.

Whether you decide to use humor, anecdotes, quotes, or some other type of icebreaker, ask yourself these questions:
  • Will this fit into my topic?
  • Is it appropriate for the occasion?
  • Will my listeners relate to it?
  • Is it short and to the point?
  • Is it likely to grab my listeners' attention?
  • Is it fresh, and not something my listeners are likely to have heard before?
  • Is it something I'll feel comfortable delivering?
Once you've selected your opening material, your next job is to fine-tune your delivery. You should rehearse your entire presentation, of course. But it's especially important to rehearse your opening remarks until you have internalized versus memorized what you're going to say.

When you're "breaking the ice," you need to convey a personal touch. You want your listeners to feel a certain way about you. So select your material carefully and rehearse until you're completely confident and comfortable. Be ready to deliver your icebreaker with ease and without the use of notes.

This question was answered by Peter Giuliano, chairman, Executive Communications Group. Our consultants are ready to answer any questions you may have about presenting in real-life situations. We answer all questions. Use our Tell Us form to submit your question.

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