"When you advertise fire-extinguishers, open with the fire," says advertising executive David Ogilvy. You have only 30 seconds in a TV commercial to grab viewers' attention. The same applies to a presentation. Knowing how to hook your audience in the first 30 seconds of your talk is crucial. This is the time your listeners form an impression of you and of what's to follow. The success of your talk depends upon grabbing your listeners’ attention and keeping them engaged.
What is a speech hook and how does it work?
A hook is a presentation-opening tactic that immediately captures your audience’s imagination. As the word implies, it’s like a worm on a fishing hook that attracts a fish. A hook instantly engages your audience so that they want to listen to what you have to say.
Your hook must come at the start of your talk. First impressions count. Like a fine thoroughbred, you need to start strong out of the gate. Instead, many presenters are more like old, tired workhorses—they start weak by wasting those first precious seconds with platitudes and pleasantries. Brain research shows that we don't pay attention to boring things. Surprise your listeners with some creative speech attention grabbers.
How do you make a good hook?
Coming up with hook ideas is not difficult if you follow some basic guidelines on how to make a good hook.
A good hook is brief, catchy, well-rehearsed and pertinent to your topic. In brainstorming examples of hooks, avoid the dry and conventional.
For example, let's say you are delivering a presentation on investments. Instead of an obvious and trite question such as "How many of you would be unhappy to hear that your house is worth less than you paid for it?" consider using a catchy or thought-provoking question such as "How many of you thought that your home would be your safest investment?"
12 Killer Hooks to Grab Your Audience's Attention
If you're stuck for ideas on how to start with a hook, check out these 12 examples of hooks that will help you grab your audience's attention—and keep it.
1. Use a contrarian approach.
One of the best attention grabber examples is to make a statement of a universally accepted concept, then go against conventional wisdom by contradicting the statement. For example, a market trader starts by contradicting the commonly held advice of buying low and selling high. He says: "It's wrong. Why? Because buying low typically entails a stock that's going in the opposite direction—down—from the most desired direction—up." This tactic is a provocative attention grabber for speeches and it can help engage the audience right away.
2. Ask a series of rhetorical questions.
One of the most common hook ideas is to start with a rhetorical question. Better still, start with a series of rhetorical questions. An excellent example of this tactic is Simon Sinek's TED presentation on how great leaders can inspire action. He begins with: "How do you explain when things don't go as we assumed? Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all of the assumptions? For example, why is Apple so innovative? . . . Why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is it that Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement?" A series of rhetorical questions stimulate the audience's mind as they ponder the answers.
3. Deliver a compelling sound bite.
Top hook ideas include using a catchy phrase or sound bite that perks up the audience. To create your sound bite, consider your message and package it in a brief and compelling statement. Then explain how it fits into your overall topic or message.
Take inspiration from speakers such as innovation expert Jeremy Gutsche who once used this sound bite in a keynote: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast. This is a sign that is on Ford's strategy War Room. And the lesson from it is not how good your PowerPoint slide deck is; what it really boils down to at the end of the day is how ready and willing your organization is to embrace change, try new things and focus on when you find an opportunity."
4. Make a startling assertion.
When you're stumped for ideas on how to make a hook, use a surprising or amazing fact. That's an easy and sure-fire way to gain people's attention. Take the time to research startling statistics that illustrate the seriousness of what you're going to talk about. For example, a presentation about conservancy can start with: "Every second, a slice of rainforest the size of a football field is mowed down. That's over 31 million football fields of rainforest each year."
5. Provide a reference to a historical event.
Good attention getters for speeches include mentioning a historical event. There are times when the day you present may have some significance in history that can be tied to the subject of your presentation as an opening gambit. You can quickly look up what happened on any day in Today In Sport or a more general site such as This Day In History. You never know what pertinence the day might have that will add some pizzazz to your presentation. It's worth a look.
6. Use the word imagine.
Another effective attention grabber for speeches is the word “imagine.” It invites the audience to create a mental image of something. Ever since John Lennon's famous song, it has become a powerful word with emotional appeal. A good example is Jane Chen's TED talk. She speaks about a low-cost incubator that can save many lives in underdeveloped countries. Chen opens by saying: “Please close your eyes and open your hands. Now imagine what you could place in your hands, an apple, maybe your wallet. Now open your eyes. What about a life?” She displays a slide with Anne Geddes' image of a tiny baby held in an adult's hands as she says this. Combining a hook with a visual is one of the most engaging speech attention grabbers.
There is power in asking the audience to conjure up their imagination, to play along. You can easily adapt this tactic to any topic where you want the audience to imagine a positive outcome or a vision of a better tomorrow. You can also use this opening gambit to ask the audience to imagine being in someone else's shoes.
7. Add a little show business.
If you’re looking for ideas on how to make a hook that's entertaining, consider the world of movies. Movies occupy a central place in most people's lives and a well-placed, pertinent movie quote at the start of a presentation can perk up your audience. Perhaps you have your own inspirational quote from a favorite film. You can also find some classics here: The Best Business Wisdom Hidden In Classic Movie Quotes.
8. Arouse curiosity.
Powerful attention grabbers spark people's curiosity. To do this, you can start with a statement designed to arouse interest and make the audience look up and listen to you attentively. Bestselling author Dan Pink does this masterfully in one of his talks. He says: "I need to make a confession, at the outset. A little over 20 years ago, I did something that I regret. Something that I am not particularly proud of, something that in many ways I wished no one would ever know, but that here I feel kind of obliged to reveal. In the late 1980s, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, I went to law school." The hook here leads to some self-deprecating humor, which makes it even more effective.
9. Use quotations differently.
Often-used hook ideas involve the use of quotes. While many speakers start with an apt quotation, you can differentiate by stating the quote and adding a twist. For example, "We've all heard that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. But we need to remember that a journey to nowhere also starts with a single step." You can also use a quotation from your own life. For example, in a presentation on price versus quality, I have often used a quote from my grandfather, who used to say: "I am not rich enough to buy cheap."
There are numerous sources for quotations, such as The Library of Congress, but you might also consider The Yale Book of Quotations, which brings together over 13,000 quotes. You can also find such resources in app form, including Famous Quotes and Brilliant Quotes.
10. Quote a foreign proverb.
A novel attention grabber for speeches is quoting a proverb from a culture your audience might not be familiar with. There is a wealth of fresh material to be culled from around the world. Chances are your listeners have never heard them, so they have novelty appeal. Here are some examples: "Our last garment is made without pockets" (Italy); "You'll never plow a field by turning it over in your mind" (Ireland); "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down" (Japan), and "Paper can't wrap up a fire" (China). Whatever phrase you select, take the time to read and understand any important context around it, so as to make sure it's appropriate for your talk.
11. Take them through a "what if" scenario.
A compelling way to start your presentation is with a "what if" scenario. For example, asking "What if you were debt-free?" at the start of a money management presentation might grab your listeners' attention as it asks them to look forward to a positive future and it can intensify their desire for your product or service. Exploring hook ideas that use a "what if" scenario may be fruitful as the "what if" concept is easily adaptable to almost any presentation.
12. Tell them a story.
The most engaging and widespread examples of hooks, without a doubt, are stories. Nothing will compel listeners to lean in more than a well-told story. Science tells us that our brains are hardwired for storytelling. But the story needs to be brief, with just the right amount of detail to bring it to life. It must be authentic and have a "message," or lesson, to support your viewpoint. Above all, it must be kind.
A version of this article was originally published on April 11, 2013.
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