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"Before I start"... well, you've already started, so just get on with it!

Blog post   •   Oct 15, 2019 08:15 +08

Typical audience reaction when they hear "Before I start..."

Please can we retire "Before I start" from keynote presenters' vocabularies.

Fact is, when you say these words, by definition you've already started!

It is utterly redundant, it's tired, and it makes no sense, which means it also saps your credibility. It suggests there is a "presentation proper" (I've actually heard people use this clunky phrase), and you are going to slip in something improper before you get going. It suggests you are not there to communicate authentically with your audience, but to bestow some sort of cringy performance on us. You might as well say, "before I put on a pretentious presentation persona...".

Here are some of the most egregious abuses of the phrase.

  • "Before I start, can you hear me at the back?" - The answer, by definition, cannot be 'no'. If you had bothered to do a sound check, you wouldn't need to ask that question. Unless you think the guys on the AV desk aren't doing their jobs.
  • "Before I start, can I have a quick show of hands..." - If your straw poll is an integral part of the presentation, then make it an integral part, not a prefix to it. If it is not an integral part of it, do your straw poll in the foyer outside the plenary hall during the coffee break before you start (get my point?).
  • "Before I start, who here can tell me..." - I'm all in favour of audience interaction. In fact, I'm a huge fan of asking questions of your audience. But again, do so strategically, not because you didn't bother to interact with your audience before your presentation.
  • "Before I start, I would like to acknowledge..." - This is cringeworthy for both the person acknowledged and for the audience. VIP guests usually don't want to be spotlighted involuntarily in a crowd, and such phrases only marginalize the audience. If the people or sponsors you wish to acknowledge mean that much to you, involve them strategically (and don't get me started on the habitual but totally impersonal, detached and outdated read-out of the laundry list of special guests' names and titles, ending in the somewhat dismissive and borderline disgusted catch-all "...ladies and gentlemen". But I'll leave that for another day).
  • "Before I start, I'm not going to..." - If you're not going to say/do/talk about something, why bring attention to it? Focus on what you are saying/doing/talking about.
  • "Before I start, I'm sorry for..." - A double credibility killer. In general, there are very few things you should apologise for from the stage. A long delayed start is probably the only one. Everything else ("I'm sorry I'm jetlagged", "I'm sorry my slides aren't any good", "I'm sorry I'm not prepared", "I'm sorry it's raining outside", and my personal love-to-hate favourite, "I'm sorry I'm standing between you and lunch/drinks") ought to be banished together with "Before I start".

Some replacement options until you can think of a better way to launch into your presentation:

  1. Swap "Before I start..." with "To start with...".
  2. "Now, here is an important question..."
  3. If there really needs to be a preamble, get the emcee to say it.

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