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Quick and Easy Ways to Get Attention

All this leeway means the criteria for a good opening consist of one question: Does it grab the audience's attention? It's like the tree falling in the forest: Does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it? You may be up on a platform, ready to speak, but without your audience's attention, the speech will reach deaf ears.

Although a lot of your opening success comes down to your delivery style, and the passion you bring to your subject, the following 14 devices can be especially effective when incorporated into your opening:

  • Audience Compliment. Don't use sheer flattery with no relevant purpose, but insert a sincere comment on some positive quality of the people before you. You want them to like you; show you already like them. An example: "I'm especially pleased to be here today, because I totally agree with the 5-foot, 6-inch Kansas City shortstop who said, 'I'd rather be the shortest player in the majors than the tallest one in the minors.'"

  • Audience Response.Direct questions are a powerful way to get your audience involved—the key to a good opening. Staff and motivational speakers often use them because people will pay more attention to things they think of rather than to what you put forth. Asking the audience is a good technique if you have the style to get a response—it is distressing, and you lose credibility, if you ask a question and no one answers. You must let them know with your tone that you expect a response—and pause just long enough to get it. Always have an alternate plan, or answer the question yourself, quickly enough to give the message that you are not upset about not getting answer. Any questions you ask should be interesting but not too difficult.

    Starting your speech with a question is good way to get the audience involved right from the beginning. When starting talks on how to present, we have started by asking, "How many of you have heard the expression 'step outside the box'?" Almost everyone has raised a hand, and with just one sentence, you have got the whole audience participating.

  • Audience Surveys. Another related way to get the audience involved is to take a survey. It's often a good technique to use after lunch or dinner because it gets people moving a bit; they all look around to see who's raising a hand. We have alternatively asked audiences: "How many of you give formal presentations?" "How many speak up at meetings?" "How many leave voice mail?" "How many of you wouldn't answer no matter what I asked?" Taking a verbal survey is one excellent opening, because it provides good information and gets the audience involved.

    If you think carefully about your questions, this technique can give you valuable information. If you were speaking to an audience of doctors, you might ask: "How many of you treat diabetic patients?" "How many of you feel the majority of your patients' diabetes is controlled?" "How many of you believe we should treat diabetes more aggressively?" The answers you get can help you focus your speech so that it meets the needs of each specific audience.

  • Rhetorical Questions. By asking a rhetorical question (one that doesn't require an answer), you can restate your point in a dramatic way. Rhetorical questions make people think. A solid effective tack we have taken is asking the question "If questions are so powerful, why don't we use them more?" This type of question can involve your audience and get people to think about the answer in their own minds. You focus their attention without engaging in the give-and-take of a true question-and-answer session.

    Before you incorporate a question, analyze it for rhetorical effect: Will it make your audience think? Will it get them mentally—and even physically—involved.

  • Startling Statement. "My mother is the oldest living person on the face of the Earth." Use that at the beginning of a speech about health care for the aging and you're bound to get the audience's attention. You could follow it up by saying, "At least that's the way she feels most of the time." Anything that takes the audience by surprise will have them hanging on your every word until they get an explanation or further details from you.

  • Startling Statistic. Combine brevity with a degree of shock—two powerful qualities for any opening—by leading off with a startling statistic. If your topic was about the high cost of healthcare, you might open with, "Did you know that back pain alone costs society $20 billion a year?" Be careful not to use too many statistics at once, because people only remember one or two at a time.

  • Joke. Many people feel they have to start with a joke, perhaps because they have heard so many other speakers do so. By using this technique though, you must be careful about setting up expectations of more jokes to come. The best time to use a joke is if it fits in with your topic just beautifully and you can tell it well, or if you intend to intersperse jokes throughout the speech.

    Even with the risks, jokes can be a very good way to begin. We once attended a presentation on tunnel vision—a topic that can easily slip into predictable admonishments. The speaker began by telling a joke about two ostriches running away from two other ostriches. They couldn't run fast enough, so they decided to hide. She then looked at the audience and said, "Do you know how ostriches hide? Do you know how vulnerable you are in that position?" The audience chuckled, and she had made her point—that tunnel vision can be disastrous—effectively.

  • Visual Aid. Visual aids can get attention quickly. We once saw a presentation on the advantages of nuclear power where the speaker held up a picture of a smiling Arab holding oil and U.S. dollars in his hands. Instantly, the speaker had made his point about nuclear power freeing us from some of the expense of importing. (More about visual aids in this section.)

  • Personal Experience. Starting with a relevant story about yourself establishes empathy and rapport, and also confirms your qualifications to address the topic.

  • Reference to an Occasion. If you are addressing the 100th anniversary of an association, work it into your opening. Your speech will instantly seem tailor-made for the members of the group, and they will sense what's coming up will also focus on them.

  • Reference to a Current Event. Few speeches are given in a void; show off the links between your topic and the world at large. Doing so gives the audience a larger context in which to listen and to remember your words. Try to avoid being overly controversial, because you never know the current mind-set of your audience.

  • Quotation. Quotations are popular, and with reason: The hard-earned wisdom of renowned people tends to be succinct, witty, and memorable. And a quotation can focus the attention of your audience much faster than traditional exposition. A quote from your grandmother, "When all is said and done, more is usually said than done," can be just as effective as a quote from someone famous, as long as it is relevant and helps make your point.

  • Citing an Authority. You can often gain attention if you align yourself with a higher authority, whether it's a prize-winning scientist or the head of your department. An educator, as an example, might do well to quote legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, "Children must be taught how to think, not what to think."

  • Audience Challenge. Don't be afraid to startle people; conflict is at the center of every successful play, and it can work equally well in a talk. You involve people even if they don't agree with you. Just make sure your challenge to the audience relates to the subject of the speech; otherwise, it will seem inappropriate or irrelevant, ... and weaken the presentation.

  • Story. Make your opening come alive by telling a story; stories tend to be things audiences remember with ease. John F. Kennedy told a story about a taxi ride before his election. He got out and was about to tip lavishly and tell the cabbie to vote Democratic. Then he remembered some advice from his father. He got out of the cab, didn't tip at all, and told the cab driver to vote Republican.

  • Comparison. Comparisons are especially vivid if they relate to some daily aspect of your audience's life. I have heard cost-of-living expenses used to point out disparities between different parts of the country. They also help people have a visual image, which helps make your point. In a New York Times, article entitled "With a Little Help from Friends, Pandas Hang On", author Jane Brody wrote that a newborn panda is a "half-developed creature" of 4 or 5 ounces, cared for "by a 200-pound momma, who, if she is not extraordinarily gentle and devoted, can easily crush her newborn. If human mothers and babies had the same weight ratio, a 120-pound woman would give birth to a 2.5-ounce baby. Or, put another way, the mother of a 7.5-pound baby would weigh about 6,000 pounds." These comparisons make it easy for us to understand the enormous difference in size between momma panda and her baby.

  • An Unusual Definition. These definitions are everywhere, and you can find the best ones in anthologies and quotation books. An example: "Men are like cellophane: hard to get rid of once you get wrapped in them." The more vivid the definition is, the more your audience will remember it.

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