How You Start Matters

An introduction is an important part of any presentation. The speaker must capture the attention of the audience or risk having audience members be unengaged. A speaker who doesn’t establish their credibility might face an audience who is less receptive to the message. The speaker who doesn’t make an effort to orient the audience at the start might confuse their listeners. First impressions matter.


Classical rhetoricians suggest introductions fulfill three functions:

  1. Attentum: Gain the attention and willingness of the audience for the subject.

  2. Benevolum: Make the audience favorably disposed, or sympathetic, toward the speech/speaker.

  3. Docilem: Increase the ability to listen/understand.

But do real-world presentations really follow classical advice? And can the advice be applied across cultures?


Analyses of large numbers’ of presentations are rare. A group of Dutch scholars have been the main contributors to introduction research. They developed an introduction model grounded in classic and modern rhetoric and analyzed 40 engineering presentations and 16 conference presentations by communication researchers.


Our Research

We analyzed the introductions of 100 presentations. We identified the 50 most watched TED Talks and 50 most watched Zaojui Talks. Zaojui Talk is a Chinese version of TED. The 100 videos we analyzed had almost 1.5 billions views as of August of 2018 when we completed our initial analysis. The videos included almost 300,000 words/characters.


Key Findings


The introductions, on average, accounted for 13% of the presentation length.

Speakers attempted to gain the attention of the audience more than the other functions.



Speakers, on average, used between four and five techniques in their introductions.


Using humor was the most used attention getting technique in the TED Talks and the 11th most used in the Zaojui Talks.


TED and Zaojiu speakers used the same benevolum techniques.

Both groups "presented the core of the speech" the most to clarify what the speech was about, but used some different approaches overall.


Here's where we saw the greatest cultural differences:


How to cite this research: Quagliata, A. B., Lui, L., Dia, X. (October 2019). How you start matters: A cross-cultural analysis of the introductions of the most viewed TED and Zaojiu Talks. Presented at the 84th Annual International Conference of the Association for Business Communication, Detroit, Michigan.