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As the Cookie Crumbles…So Can Your Warm-up

Reprinted from SemiNews and Views, a newsletter published by National Speakers Association, April 1997.

Imagine you’ve just attended a wedding. You’ve come alone. Now you find yourself at the cocktail reception before dinner, chatting with the stranger standing next to you. You both agree that it was a lovely wedding. The bride was beautiful. The groom was appropriately nervous. You spend the next 45 minutes being as interesting and as charming as it is humanly possible for you to be. You have pulled out your business card and all the stops. Finally, there is nothing left for you to say.

Suddenly, the doors to the dining room open, and you both reach into your pockets for your table assignment cards. Surprise! You are both at TABLE 19. Summoning your energy, you realize that the conversational evening has just begun.

Facing the opening of a full-day seminar is similar in many ways. You need to be personable, yet also build a lasting platform for the day. There are three essentials to a successful start that I call an “Oreo approach” because you need all three to achieve the correct “flavor.” They are:

  • Warm up the participants to you
  • Warm up the participants to each other
  • Warm up the participants to the topic

Warm up the participants to you.
Aristotle talked about achieving ethos with an audience. Ethos is accomplished through a presenter’s dynamism, competence, and trustworthiness. Dynamism is easy for most speakers who are also seminar leaders. Achieving immediate credibility can often be more challenging.

An idea for quickly establishing competence is to creatively reference your research in your opening remarks. For example, for a workshop on “Effective Employee Orientations,” you could ask the group to think of you as Jane (or Joe) Newcomer, a new person in their department, adding, “I’m one of 80,000 Americans for whom today is the first day on the job.” Continuing with workforce statistics from the viewpoint of J. Newcomer stimulates audience interest.

One way to achieve trustworthiness early on is to sincerely relate to the learners’ situation. When participants feel you are one of them, you achieve “an assimilation effect.”  Once when I was in traffic school (illegal right on red) the presenter, as a part of her opening, said, “I’m not a policeman; I’ve taught driver’s education for 25 years, and I’m an ordinary driver just like you.” She endeared me to her with that comment.

Warm up the participants to each other.
Have you ever been to a seminar where you weren’t warmed up at the beginning? Most likely, it got off to a slow start. My traffic school presenter’s first warm-up was, “We’ll go around the room, and will everyone please say your first name and why you’re here?” You can imagine my reluctance, but the people in the front row played along and by the time it was my turn, I clearly declared, “Right on Red!”

Perhaps you have agonized over what warm-up to select, since they make such an important first impression. Partner or self-introductions with an expectation or challenge related to the topic are not necessarily the most creative, but they always work. These choices are a bit more risky: (1) Share three things about yourself—one being false. (2) Share an accomplishment you’re proud of. (3) Share something very few people know about you.

Warm up participants to the topic.
You can creatively reference the topic by asking participants to share a recent occurrence with respect to the topic, a recent success with respect to the topic or how they would prioritize the topic in their work lives on a scale of 1-10 and why.

It’s important to include all three warm-up types in your opening moments. Remember the Oreo. It’s been a cookie for over 75 years, with variations from regular to “Double Stuff” to “Big Stuff,” but the three essentials are always there.