Basics of the Law of Primacy for Innovative Presentations

By Ray Anthony, Barbara Boyd

How you begin your innovative presentation makes a difference. Think about your first romantic kiss, your first car, your first job, or the first time you achieved something you were so proud of. Now, think about a negative first occurrence, a painful or embarrassing memory. Positive or negative, you remember meaningful firsts of any kind quite vividly, often for a lifetime.

Here, is how you leverage the Law of Primacy — of firsts — in an advantageous way: Start your presentation with a B-A-N-G! to wake people up and perk them up.

The Law of Primacy, first conceived by Frank Hansen around 1925, was initially and primarily focused on advertising. This law states that information or impressions first in sequence have a greater impact on people than anything that occurs later on.

Whether it is advertising or a sermon, this psychological principle says that people are impacted emotionally, intellectually, and behaviorally more by the very first things they see, hear, smell, touch, taste or otherwise experience than things they encounter later on.

Imagine seeing a good friend for the first time in a decade, and the very first thing she says to you with a big, welcoming smile is, “You look terrific … WOW!” That statement warms your heart and sets the stage and tone for your reunion.

The nature of the Law of Primacy means that you get one chance only to make a first impression. If a speaker delivers a captivating, riveting, and attention-grabbing introduction, it has more influence than anything he says later in his talk.

People typically remember the middle part of a presentation the least. A presenter must work harder to maintain, or recapture, a group’s naturally fluctuating attention and interest after a strong presentation beginning.

The old adage rings true: You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.

First impressions create a strong, often unshakeable opinion of someone. Even before you begin your presentation, you send signals: Your clothes and grooming, your gait, the manner in which you interact with team members or people in the audience, and your overall bearing and body language contribute to the impression others have of you. You make your first impression before you even step up to the mic.

That’s why skilled presenters spend a disproportionate amount of time crafting a structured introduction that’s interesting, stimulating, and appealing to the audience. The great movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn said that a great movie “starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.” That’s great advice for a presentation, too!

A strong introduction does several vital things: sets the tone, mood, quality, purpose, intent, and oftentimes the urgency of your presentation. It encourages people to pay serious note to the rest of your talk.

If you can find a way to evoke the audience’s curiosity, add suspense or intrigue, ignite their imaginations, add a depth of anticipation — maybe even tantalize them — you will have them firmly in the palm of your hand, with their eyes fixed on you, sitting up straight, and ears perked to eagerly hear what comes next.

But, if you have a slow or lackluster beginning that comes across as lifeless, rambling, or anxious, the audience will tune out in a heartbeat. Although you can overcome a negative first impression, it takes a great deal of effort to recapture the interest of your audience.

The first two minutes of your presentation or speech say so much about your credibility, image, speaking style, personality, and your topic. Done well, the introduction conveys that you are prepared, enthusiastic, poised, confident, and a consummate professional with competent leadership abilities.

Spending extra time preparing, rehearsing, and fine-tuning your introduction pays great dividends. Consider memorizing the first two sentences of your beginning and then continue smoothly in a natural, conversational way.

How you start determines how you finish!