Want to grab your audience's attention immediately? Here's how to come up with a great "speech hook" to start out strongly!
"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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What Is a Speech Hook and How Does It Work?
A hook or grabber is the part of your speech 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 presentation or remarks. They might, in fact, be attending a number of presentations that day or that week. So you need to let them know right away that you're going to be interesting.
Once engaged, listeners will stay with you—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. Here are 12 foolproof ways to answer the question, "How do I start a speech?"
Compare the following two openings, for instance. They're both from TED talks given by scientists. Which one grabs your attention?
"We're going to go on a dive to the deep sea."[ii]
"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? It's nice on the other hand that biologist Deborah Gordon studies ants. 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 when like every speech it needs to get airborne fast.
You Can Be Creative, Can't You?
How can you make that happen in your own speeches and presentations? Here are the four key elements of a successful speech hook that will make it so:
(1) It needs to resonate with the audience.
If everyone can relate to your topic or the speaking situation, this aspect of your speech should be easy. Sir Ken Robinson, for instance, pulls it off in just nine seconds in his TED talk "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" with the opening: "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 can be an opening that has particular relevance to your listeners. This should be simple for you, given your knowledge of your industry, product, idea or mission.
(2) It should surprise them.
We've all groaned silently because a presenter begins, "My topic today is . . . " How differently we react when the speaker sneaks up on us from an unexpected direction! Rather than a grim determination to appear to stay awake at all costs, such a hook can engender delight. Here for instance is Gavin Pretor-Pinney in his own TED Talk: "Clouds ... have you ever noticed how much people moan about them?"[v] If I mention that this speaker's talk is titled "Cloudy with a Chance of Joy," you'll understand his surprising yet logical choice of an opening.
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(3) It must be 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 beginning, "I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather."[vi] (I bet it surprised his listeners, too.)
(4) It should tap into something larger than your topic.
Remember, your topic is only the specific item(s) you discuss on the way to a larger truth. Yes, we present to give audiences information, but our content should be in service of a deeper understanding or awareness. In other words, we should do everything in our power to change the world when we speak. 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 speech on women's rights, "Ain't I a Woman":
"Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter."[viii]
Now it's your turn to change your world—one speech, and one speech hook, at a time.
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