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Audience Grabbers: Start With a Bang

The key to an effective presentation? You have to capture your audience in the first few seconds. Here are six ways to get off to a strong start.

Hares and tortoises aside, slow and steady does not always win the race; this truth I discovered literally the hard way. A lightning roundhouse kick to the ribs, launched a millisecond after the referee's bark of "Hajime! (Begin!)," had left me flattened, breathless, and endowed with fresh insights into the importance of seizing the initiative and thus control of a situation.

Modern karate, the records tell us, was founded by an Okinawan gentleman, Funakoshi, who stood an unassuming five feet tall and whose sensibilities were so courtly he could not bear, well into the twentieth century, ever to utter the word for socks, considering such a reference beneath his dignity.

Yet Funakoshi had a deep understanding of what fate awaited his warrior ancestors who failed to grasp the first opening in a contest: "Then, quick as a flash, with one stroke it was over" (Vince Morris, Zanshin, 1992).

While the stakes are mercifully different for the average public speaker or writer today, the wisdom of the samurai swordsmen's fast and dramatic approach will still pay dividends to all writers who keep it in mind: to grab—and keep—your audience's attention, it is critical to make a powerful connection at the very outset.

If you fail to hook your readers or listeners with your first few sentences, it won't matter how brilliant the rest of your business plan or analysis or speech might be because nobody is going to be paying much attention. Conversely, if you succeed in engaging your audience at the very beginning, you will increase their receptivity to the whole of what you are trying to communicate. Here are six quick and easy formulas to hit the ground running:

1. Make it personal
There is no faster way to tune readers or listeners into your message than to package that message in the form of a story. Personal accounts—whether they focus on adversity, nostalgia, or triumph—can establish an instant rapport with your audience.

One of the more gripping openings I have ever witnessed was authored by a man at the peak of his career. Confounding the audience's expectation of a dry analysis heavy on statistics, he began his assessment of the evolution of his profession with a compelling description of his own inner-city origins: "We ended up moving to…a typical tenement—rats, roaches, sirens, gangs, murders. Our heroes were the drug dealers because they gave candy to the kids."

On another occasion, I listened to a forensics expert deliver some fairly dense remarks on DNA testing to a mixed audience consisting both of colleagues who "spoke his language" as well as laypeople, most of whom (myself included) wouldn't recognize an electron microscope if one hit them over the head.

But it didn't matter. The expert began with an anecdote about how grateful he had been to be flying home to the United States from a country where he had been engaged in the sad and gruesome task of using the latest genetic technology to identify civilian war casualties buried in mass graves: "As I reflected on the human tragedies I had witnessed…the deep blue Adriatic swelled below [my plane]. The local time was 2:30 p.m.—that's 8:30 a.m. Eastern time in the United States. The date was September 11, 2001."

Personal accounts can establish an instant rapport with your audience.
—Beverly Ballaro

The audience let out a collective gasp and stayed riveted through the scientific explanations that followed.

2. Throw out a quirky fact
The revelation of an offbeat statistic or the debunking of a common myth can ease the introduction to a difficult topic or even woo skeptics.

For example, an author who is pitching his trend-bucking proposal for a streamlined, rather than gourmet, cookbook to a publisher points out that, according to a recent survey, the average American currently spends fifteen minutes preparing dinner.

An artist writing a background of how he got into the business of crafting funeral urns starts his spiel with the following sentence: "When the average adult is cremated, the volume of ashes is about three quarts, or enough to fill a shoebox."

With this memorable fact, he engaged his readers' attention for an analysis of some of the more technical aspects of his craft.

3. Put them on the edge of their seats
If you manage to pique your readers' curiosity in the beginning, chances are they'll stick around for the answer to the question you raised.

The head of an institution writes a progress report and maps out challenges that lie ahead. He begins his appeal with a quiz, asking his audience to ponder the related significance of the years 1866, 1953, and 2040: "In 1953 Crick and Watson first described the double helix of DNA. Any guesses about 1866? Does anybody recognize Gregor Mendel, who published his milestone paper on inheritance in peas that year? If the next big milestone happens according to this pace, that discovery will occur in 2040."

By creating suspense as to what lies ahead, the author invites his audience's participation and anticipation at the same time.

By creating suspense as to what lies ahead, the author invites his audience's participation and anticipation.
—Beverly Ballaro

4. Draw a hypothetical scenario
This approach can focus on either the past or the future and provide either a positive or negative contrast.

A company that manufactures "smart" technology tries to create excitement in potential investors or consumers with a positive angle: "Imagine a world in which a building senses earthquake vibrations and adjusts the resistance of its walls to withstand the tremors. Self-navigating cars travel the nation's highways, slowing down, changing lanes, and 'choosing' the fastest route, as appropriate. These might sound like ideas straight out of a Star Trek script, but they will become realities sooner than most people think."

A Web site designed to raise awareness of the issues related to deafness establishes empathy between the target audience and the cause it promotes through negative imaging: "Imagine a world without sound. A remote, silent landscape void of normal conversation and music.…Imagine not being able to hear the birds singing early in the morning or a favorite song on the radio. For an estimated twenty-eight million Americans afflicted with hearing loss, this silence can be overwhelming."

5. Create a series of vignettes
To draw your readers into the big-picture point you are trying to get across to them, it can be helpful to orient them with a series of connected "reality snapshots" written in the dramatic present tense:

"In New York City, a doctor notifies the health department after seeing two cases of encephalitis with unusual features.

"In Washington, D.C., an emergency room physician's suspicions are raised after a patient suffering from mild, flu-like symptoms reveals that he is a postal worker in a facility near the nation's capital.

"In New Jersey, a pediatrician takes a hard look at what appears to be a spider bite on a child's arm, after learning that the infant had recently been brought to her mother's New York news office."

Vignettes such as the three above can then linked together with an opening punch line—like this sentence:

"Thanks to the efforts of alert clinicians, Americans have quickly come to understand that we are living in a new era in which the symptoms of common threats—encephalitis, the flu, or spider bites—are mimicked, as in the New York, Washington, and New Jersey cases, by lethal, unexpected foes such as the West Nile virus or anthrax."

6. Use a pertinent quote
Although quotations generally do not make for as compelling openings as statements offered in the author's own voice, they can, particularly if they manage to invoke irony or humor, set the stage effectively for what is to follow.

A document presenting an innovative communications product, for example, can rely on quotes that illustrate the historical evolution of that industry:

"This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
—Western Union internal memo, 1876

"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
—H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
—Ken Olson, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

The author thus quickly puts into perspective for his readers the benefits of risk taking and the importance of entrepreneurial vision.

Regardless of which approach you choose, the bottom line remains the same: don't cast your line without first baiting your hook.

Reprinted with permission from "Six Ways to Grab Your Audience Right From the Start," Harvard Management Communication Letter, June 2003.

See the latest issue of Harvard Management Communication Letter.

Beverly Ballaro is associate director of the alumni magazine of the Harvard Medical School.