hook your audience

How to hook the audience

by Elizabeth Toohig
in Blog
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The two most important sentences in a talk?

The first and the last!


How many times have you, as you listen to the speaker thank everyone for coming, give a weather report for the day, a travel update for their journey and launch into their life history… found your attention wandering away from the talk? Or have you ever been surprised by an abrupt end, left suddenly with the final words, “I’m sorry I’ve run out of time,” or “That’s about all I’ve got to say,” or an equally unremarkable finale? If the speaker neglects the first and last sentences, they will fail to hook the audience, and leave them with no memorable sound bite.

The speech sandwich

The first and last sentences are like the bread holding a sandwich together. If the bread is not there, the filling – the main part of your talk – will be hard to hold onto. It’s exactly the same for your talk. Create and learn memorable first and last sentences and you will hook the audience and give them the key to remembering your talk.

Hook the audience

If you fail to hook your audience with your first sentence, you may find people tuning out before you even start. Try using one of the following techniques to create an opening sentence that will hook your audience more successfully:

An eye catching image or action

Amanda Palmer starts her talk ‘The art of asking’ (TED 2013) by striking a pose from her days as a street performer (drop a dollar in the box for the Eight-Foot Bride). The visual spectacle is sufficient to intrigue the audience and begin to build a connection. In her opening sentences, Amanda quickly builds on this through the use of self-deprecation, referring to herself as a ‘freak.’ She also suggests that the audience will discover the answer to questions most people are too embarrassed to ask.

So, I didn’t always make my living from music. For about five years after graduating from an upstanding liberal arts university, this was my day job. I was a self-employed statue called the Eight-Foot Bride, and I love telling people I did this for a job, because everybody always wants to know, who are the freaks in real life.

A dramatic statement

In his talk The Gleaning Revolution, Martin Bowman (TEDxYouth Bath November 2016) hooks his audience with his bizarre first sentence:

One year ago I had a quarter of a ton of parsnips in my room.

This is reinforced by a suitably ludicrous photo of the ton of parsnips in his bedroom! My immediate reaction: ‘why would someone have a ton of parsnips in their room?’ Getting the audience to ask ‘why’ from an early stage in your talk helps create that crucial connection and increases their desire to listen until they have an answer.

A thought-provoking question or statement

Most conversations in life begin with a question. It’s the easiest way to draw someone into conversation, giving them a clear indication about what you want to discuss. The same thing works in a talk. The only difference is that the audience will not respond verbally, but by thinking about and reflecting on your words. Sometimes speakers achieve this just as effectively with a thought-provoking statement:

Just over a year ago I watched a child die.

Aimee Ansai Language Matters TEDxYouth Bath November 2016

This technique is most effective when, after posing the question or challenging statement, the speaker pauses to give the audience time to reflect on the statement or question. This pause needs to reach the point where you, the speaker, almost feel that it is too long – but, trust me, for many members of your audience it will not be long enough.

 Avoid a rambling life history

If you want to hook your audience, these methods are far more effective than a rambling opening giving the audience your life history. Also, they will make it much easier to deliver your message during the main part of your talk. In my next blog, I look at three more ways to hook your audience.

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