May 17, 2017
No one in the audience spoke Japanese. But that didn’t stop the speaker. His non-English opening lasted several minutes and stole the show.
The U.S. audience (senior leaders at a global company) looked spellbound. “I experienced,” the person next to me said later, “what it feels like to work outside our U.S. headquarters.”
True, the speaker also used slides, in English, to translate. For the audience, it was like reading subtitles in a foreign film. But many people avoid foreign films precisely because they dislike subtitles.
So what made this opening work? Well, it was different.
When you stand up and speak, your audience experiences you like a movie. Their first thought: is this movie interesting? And they may only give you 8 seconds to find out.
These openings are before you say hello, good morning, or anything else. And each one would be followed by a compelling purpose statement, which says what you’re going to talk about and, more importantly, why. (Note: The openings can overlap.)
1. Question. Questions are hard to resist, they engage our curiosity.
Keep your opening question short and simple, but prepare it in advance.
Example (from my workshop, Your Point): “Do you think attention spans are increasing or decreasing? That’s an easy one, they’re decreasing. The challenge, then, is how to capture and hold attention. Today we’ll learn how to focus your message—how to say less, so they remember more.”
Decide whether your question is real (you expect an answer) or rhetorical (you don’t), so you’ll know whether to take a long or short pause.
2. Quiz. If you have a lot of learning points, try opening with a short, true-false quiz. Distribute the quiz, let participants complete it, then discuss.
Example: If you were giving a talk on energy, your quiz might have 10–15 questions in total on nutrition, exercise, stress, etc. Each question would relate to a key point and preview your presentation.
3. “You’re probably thinking” (or feeling or wondering). The word “you” gets attention.
Suppose I’m sitting in your audience. There I am, thinking about me. That’s human nature. But then you announce that you’re also thinking about me. That makes me curious: “What are you thinking about what I’m thinking?”
Reading this, you’re probably thinking, “How do I know what my audience is thinking? Half the time, I don’t even know what I’m thinking.” But it’s not that difficult, especially if you suspect your audience is not thrilled to be there. Name their objection right away. Then solve it with your purpose statement.
Example (from my workshop, Bulletproof Feedback): “You’re probably thinking that feedback is dangerous. What if it backfires? What if the other person reacts emotionally? What if, later, his performance gets even worse? Our purpose today is to discover how to get the best results, without anyone getting hurt.”
4. “Imagine.” You can ask your audience to imagine something positive (e.g., imagine hiking along a mountain trail), or negative (imagine being pursued by mountain lions). “Imagine . . .” gets your audience visually absorbed.
Example (from my workshop, 10-Speed Thinking): “Imagine that you and I are in a bicycle race. I’ve got a one-speed, black Schwinn bike—the one I grew up with—but you’ve got a 10-speed bike. You’ll leave me in the dust.”
When I use the above opening, it turns into an analogy: “10-Speed Thinking is like a 10-speed bike. You may never use all the speeds, but when you get stuck, shift gears. Our purpose today is to increase your brainpower by adding new speeds.”
5. Analogy. Like imagine, the visual is key.
Example (from my workshop, Smart Questions): “Asking smart questions is like cracking open a safe. You never know what you’ll discover, but it’s probably something valuable.”
Notice that while “smart questions” is abstract, “cracking open a safe” is concrete and visual.
What do these five openings have in common? They capture attention, right away.
Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from You’ve Got 8 Seconds: Communication Secrets for a Distracted World by Paul Hellman. Copyright 2017, Paul Hellman. Published by AMACOM.