Want to grab listeners' attention and engagement immediately? Here's how to hook your audience with a great opener!
"I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country, of our empire, of our allies, and, above all, of the cause of Freedom."
That's Winston Churchill, in his first broadcast speech as Prime Minister on May 19, 1940. Most of us don't have a topic as momentous as the "tremendous battle raging in France and Flanders"[i]to speak about—or a talent as great as Churchill's. But we have just as much need to hook our audiences at the start of our speeches and presentations.
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So how are you doing in this department? It's not going too far to say that the success of your talk depends upon your getting listeners to get engaged and stay that way. That's what a speech "hook" or "grabber" is designed to do.
What Is a Speech Hook and How Does It Work?
A hook or grabber is the part of your presentation that compels an audience to sit up and pay attention. It should come at the beginning of your talk, where it can do the most good. Audiences have a lot on their minds as they prepare to listen to your remarks. They might in fact be attending a number of presentations that week. So you need to let them know right away that you're the speaker who is going to be interesting.
Once engaged, listeners will stay with you. That is, as long as the body of your speech doesn't fail to live up to expectations. But it's that hook that gets everything started.
Doesn't that sound like a formula for speaking success? To get there, see my 12 foolproof ways to grab an audience. It's all about knowing how to start a speech.
An Effective vs. Ineffective Opening
To grasp the difference between an opening that hooks and one that lets your listeners slip away, consider the following two speech openings. They're both from TED talks, and both are delivered by scientists. Which one grabs your attention?
(A) "We're going to go on a dive to the deep sea."[ii]
(B) "I study ants . . . in the desert, in the tropical forest, in my kitchen, and in the hills around Silicon Valley, where I live."[iii]
I'll bet it's the first one. Who wouldn't want to go on a virtual dive with oceanographer David Gallo to explore the ocean depths (choice A)? It's nice that biologist Deborah Gordon studies ants (choice B). But it doesn't sound compelling.
In fact her topic—the link between ants, the human brain, and cancer—is fascinating. But her opening keeps her speech firmly tied to the earth. Like every speech, however, it needs to get airborne right off the launch pad.
You Can Be Creative, Can't You?
So how can you make that happen in your own speeches and presentations? Here are what I believe are the four key elements of a successful speech hook, along with speech introduction examples. Keep in mind, they should occur as early in your speech as possible, so you tap into the critical first 60 seconds of a speech. What then does a good speech hook do?
(1) It resonates with the audience.
If your topic happens to be of general interest to everyone, this requirement should be easy. Sir Ken Robinson, for instance, pulls it off in just nine seconds in his TED talk, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" Here's his opening, referring to the previous speakers at the event: "It's been great, hasn't it? I've been blown away by the whole thing. In fact . . . I'm leaving."[iv] Humor done well is always a winner. Equally successful is an opening that has special relevance to listeners (rather than being a topic that anyone can relate to). If you know your industry and your audience, you should be able to come up with a hook that absolutely resonates in this way.
(2) It surprises them.
Have you ever sighed resignedly because a speaker began, "My topic today is . . . " How differently we react when he or she approaches us from an unexpected direction! That speaker may elicit delight rather than heavy eyelids. Here is someone who does that: Gavin Pretor-Pinney in his TED Talk. He starts out: "Clouds ... have you ever noticed how much people moan about them?"[v] If I mention the talk is titled "Cloudy with a Chance of Joy," you'll understand his surprising yet logical choice of an opening.
(3) It's concise.
You want impact. You may tell a great story, but its effect will evaporate if it goes on too long. Always consider the total time you have and craft an opening that helps balance the talk as a whole. Mark Twain once began a speech following a toast to the New England weather by saying, "I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather."[vi] (I bet that opening surprised his listeners, too.)
(4) It taps into something larger than your topic.
Remember, your topic is only your doorway to a place where you help change the world of your listeners. No speaker understood this better than President John F. Kennedy in 1961, when he said in the opening of his inaugural speech: "We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom."[vii]
And here's the unmatched simplicity and understatement (and mischief) of Sojourner Truth's opening in her 1851 speech on women's rights, "Ain't I a Woman," which reflects on that issue as well as the other great one of the day: slavery.
"Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter."[viii]
Resonant, surprising, concise, and connected with a much larger issue. Take away that lesson to help change your own world—one speech, and one speech hook, at a time.
This article was originally published in 2016. It is updated here.
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