Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Grabbing the Audience's Attention: Myth or Method?

Photo by BG³Photo

Today, I was checking out one of my favorite public speaking coach's blog, and was intrigued as Olivia Mitchell shared her thoughts on these three speaking myths. It's a wonderful post, and on the first two 'myths', she and I completely agree.

Her final myth, "You must grab the audience's attention at the start", got me thinking a bit, however. Her primary arguments are that audiences are already ready and waiting for the performance, that leading with a dramatic statement or shocking statistic puts your presentation into performance mode, and that risks putting the best material up front, resulting in an anticlimactic speech body. Her conclusion is that we must spend the first few moments building rapport, instead.

Here's what got me thinking - what if you could do both, without falling into the traps mentioned above?

Consider these ideas:

1. Build Rapport in Your Introduction - In most, but not all, speaking situations, you will be introduced. By providing your own introduction to your introducer, you create an opportunity to build rapport and borrowed rapport (rapport the audience may have with the introducer) with the audience before you ever get on stage, allowing you to start in more dramatic fashion.

2. Dramatic Openings and Shocking Statistics Create Thought - the right statements made to the audience can put them in a particular state of mind, either by jolting them out of the one they are in, or by challenging their belief system. If your introduction has gained their attention and built rapport, this opening can be more effective as a thought builder than an attention getter.

3. Performance Mode is Useful, Powerful, and Controllable - when used as a tool, instead of a crutch, Performance mode can build momentum, create humor, and add power to statements designed to move the audience to a new state. As a tool, it can also be turned off by the self-aware speaker. Moving from one mode to another can build a rhythm that keeps audience attention throughout, and allow the speaker to both interact and impact at strategic moments in the presentation.

4. If Your Attention Getter is Your Best Material - Write Better Material! - opening with your main point is one of the most debated methods in speaking. Some believe you can lead with your main point and spend the rest of the speech supporting it, others think you should circuitously lead your audience to the conclusion for themselves, and others recommend endless variations in-between. But if your opening statement is the best part of your speech, its time to take a second look at the rest of your material. The longer the speech, the more ebb and flow will exist, and in longer speeches, you may need several 'openings' to keep folks involved from point to point. As strong as your opening is, your conclusion must be as strong or stronger, or your audience leaves without clear direction to use whatever valuable information you've given them.

5. Your Audience Dictates - depending on what your audience is expecting, the audience size, and your familiarity with the audience, you may or may not need to grab attention or build much rapport. It's tough to create a blanket strategy for speaking when the venues, audiences, and purposes of speaking vary so sharply. Get a strong handle on who you are speaking to before you determine exactly how you will begin. The evidence Olivia provides in this article comes from a college classroom environment - how well that translates to your situation is something for you to decide.

6. Combining Dramatic Statements and Shocking Statistics with Humor Kills Two Birds with One Anvil - grab their attention and then get them laughing. You can find several examples of this in Go Ahead and Laugh. By throwing in humor, it helps your audience to both remember the statement and feel good about you as a speaker, and, more importantly, as a human being.

In fairness to Olivia, she doesn't say NOT to do these things directly, as much as she says they are not necessarily necessary. I do believe these methods, when used with deliberation and careful thought, are still very useful to speakers.

Be sure to pick up Olivia's free guide about How to make an effective PowerPoint Presentation - it offers excellent ideas for speakers dealing with the challenges PowerPoint presents.

A final thought - there are a ton of speaking coaches out there, and not only are there two sides to every opinion, there are hundreds of shades of gray within each. Find the truth for yourself as a speaker, whether the advice comes from a free blogpost, or a $3000 coaching session. Once you're on stage, it's up to YOU to Speak....and Deliver.


  1. Thanks for this rebuttal. I couldn't agree more. As Patricia Fripp says, those first words out of your mouth set the stage for the entire presentation (like the opening scene of a movie). They better be good!

    Christine Clapp
    President, Spoken with Authority

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  3. Brilliant and fair rebuttal. I think that "hooking" the audience at the beginning is essential. It is my thought that most audiences are silently thinking "so what?" Give them a reason to listen to you.
    But I do agree if your "best" is upfront you need to fix the body and the end.
    Laurie Brown
    The Difference
    Author of the Teleprompter Manual



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