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Writing Speeches That Grab Your Audience from the Opening Sentence

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This post is part of a series called Presentation Fundamentals.
Presentations 101: The Absolute Basics of Making a Presentation
How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking

How many times have you been in a presentation where you've been distracted, you've repeatedly checked the time, or you've wondered "When is this going to end?" Even when presentations are relatively engaging, you can find yourself reacting this way.

Why are presentations often so boring? Because in the traditional understanding of presentations, their aim is to convey information. The structure of traditional presentations reflects this aim. It's a three-part structure that you've probably come across many times.

  1. Introduction. Say what you're going to say.
  2. Main body. Make your key points.
  3. Conclusion Re-iterate what you said.

If your aim is to share information, this structure makes sense, at least at first glance. It's logical. Why wouldn't you simply list out the facts or ideas you want to share, one after another?

With this approach, the responsibility is on the audience to remain engaged, take notes, and remember what was shared. That's only fair isn't it, since you've gone through the trouble of giving a presentation?

The problem is, this is one of the least effective ways to share information if you want your audience to listen and remember what you've shared. By presenting raw facts in a logical, dispassionate fashion, you're encouraging your audience to tune out and not pay attention.

The human brain is wired to look for connections between what a person already knows and new information they're learning. When your presentation merely lists facts, your audience struggles to find these connections. They're left wondering "How is this relevant or helpful to me?"

If you fail to make your presentations interesting, it's not your audiences' fault that they don't remember what you shared. It's your responsibility for failing to write a presentation that engages the hearts and minds of your listeners. As memory researchers Roger Schank and Robert Abelson put it:

"A good teacher is not one who explains things correctly but one who couches his explanations in a memorable (i.e., an interesting) format."

How to Keep Your Audience Engaged

Earlier I asked you to think of the times you've been in a presentation and felt distracted. Now, think of the times you've been to the cinema. How often there have you been distracted, kept checking the time, or hoped the movie would hurry up and finish? There will be some movies that left you cold, but chances are that most movies have kept you interested. 

 If you've not a movie-goer, think of it this way. Many people are willing to spend money to see a movie, but not many are prepared to open their wallets to hear someone speak. That said, membership to attend TED conferences costs thousands of dollars per year. Get the right structure for your presentations, and you'll be in demand).

Here's the difference between a movie and a traditional presentation: storytelling. Movies tell a story. Everything that happens in a movie is meaningful because all the events in the movie are connected to one another.

Communications consultant Nancy Duarte has made it her life's work to discover what makes an engaging presentation. Duarte explains:

"The way that ideas are conveyed most effectively is through story. For thousands of years illiterate generations would pass on their values and their culture from generation to generation, and they would stay intact. There's something magical about a story structure that makes it so that when it's assembled it can be ingested and then recalled by the person who's receiving it."

Duarte's point is that when information is embedded in a story, we're more likely to remember it.

And here's Schank and Abelson again:

"People are not really logical at all... humans are not really set up to hear logic... People need a context to help them relate what they have heard to what they already know. We understand events in terms of other events we have already understood."

In other words, by telling stories in your presentation, you give your audience something they can relate to. This makes your presentation meaningful to your audience, so they're more likely to remember what you share.

Stories hold our attention and engage our brains. They also engage our bodies. When you're engrossed in a story, you react physically. If the story is tense, your heart rate rises and your stomach tightens. If the story is funny, you might smile or laugh. In this way, stories allow your audience to physically participate in your presentation.

On the surface, a presentation structured using storytelling techniques looks exactly the same as a traditional presentation. It still has an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. The difference is in the contents of these three sections:

  • Introduction. Open with a hook.
  • Main body. Tell a story or series of stories, each with a point or purpose.
  • Conclusion. Finish with a call to action, which could also be called a call to adventure.

Let's look in depth at each of these sections: the hook, the story series, and the call to action.

Writing a Hook  Find the Gap

Hooks are all around us. The internet has shortened people's attention spans, so web writers know they must grab a reader's attention with their opening sentence. This opening sentence is called the hook, because if you write effective hooks, you can reel your readers in and get them to finish your article or blog post.

When you're giving a speech, your audience is captive. Unlike online readers, they can't click themselves away if you don't grab their attention with your opening line. This gives you more time to build a satisfying hook. Still, you should keep it as short as you can.

A hook can be a

  • quote
  • question
  • anecdote
  • surprising fact or statistic

Or a mixture of any of the above.

The secret to finding a great hook that engages your audience is to find the gap. "The gap" is a concept created by Nancy Duarte. It's the difference between: where your audience is right now; and a better place where your audience could be.

Let's look in depth at this. With most business presentations, your aim is to encourage your audience to take an action. This action could be hiring you for your dream job, buying a product you're selling, or implementing a new skill that you're teaching.

To highlight the gap, you start with where your audience is at before they've listened to your presentation. (Which is why it's so important to know your audience before you write your presentation.) You don't need to explain their situation in depth. They know what their life is like. Instead, you need to explain the difficulties they encounter because of their current situation.

Once you've explained these difficulties, your next step is to show your audience how their lives could be better if they take the action you recommend.

Note: You can just do the second part of this process. By showing your audience how their lives could be different, you're implying that the gap is there. The important thing is to have researched your audience, so you know the gap exists.

Don't give into the temptation to summarize your solution here. If you explained your solution from the outset, that wouldn't be a hook. A hook creates a sense of mystery and a desire to continue listening. Explaining your solution would destroy that mystery.

Here's an example. Let's say you've been asked to give a talk in your workplace to help your team get more creative. You decide to focus your talk on curiosity, and you come up with some simple strategies your team could use to be more curious.

In the traditional talk structure, you'd open your talk by saying: "I'm going to teach you some methods for being more curious." Boring or what? Half your audience has already lost any curiosity they had about your talk.

Instead, use a hook. For example, you could quote Albert Einstein: "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

Or you could say: "Did you know that being curious is good for you? Research shows that curious people are more likely to be happy. And scientists have found that discovering new things helps develop your resilience to illnesses such as Alzheimer's and Dementia."

You could then explain that curious people tend to be more open-minded, persistent and creative. They're also more likely to notice opportunities.

Then, you could finish your hook by saying "I'm going to introduce you to three simple strategies that you can use to activate your curiosity."

In this example, I've linked curiosity to something that's relevant and important to my audience. In the first hook, I've linked curiosity to someone famous that my audience is likely to admire. In the second hook, I've shown the benefits curiosity can have on their health and happiness.

In doing this, I've highlighted the gap between where my audience is today and where they could be. As such, I've aroused their intrigue, so they'll want to hear me out.

To look at this from another point of view, you could think of your presentation as a mystery story. In your hook, you plant some clues for your audience about what the ending might be. But you should never give away the ending, otherwise the mystery loses all its tension.

Holding Attention  Telling Stories

With your hook done, what next? Launch straight into a story.

The bulk of your presentation should involve telling stories that lead up to the points you want to make. You can see this being done masterfully in our Steve Jobs case study.

As well as being engaging and memorable, telling stories has other advantages.

Stories encourage you to use vivid, precise language that activates the emotions of your audience. Additionally, by telling stories you'll avoid the risk of explaining yourself in a fuzzy way. Your stories allow your audience to connect what you're teaching them with their own lives.

On top of that, stories increase your audience's sense of anticipation. In your hook, you made a promise to your reader about what they'll learn from your presentation. You've whetted their appetite, and they're keen to find out what you'll teach them. By telling a story, you hold back from giving what you promised, at least for now.

To go back to the metaphor of your presentation as a mystery story, you're still refusing to give away the ending. This keeps your audience engaged. They're enjoying the story you're telling, and they're waiting for you to get where you promised you'd go.

To make this technique more powerful, you can insert extra hooks throughout your presentation. I call these internal hooks. A really easy to use internal hook that you can fit into almost any presentation is "We'll come to that in a moment." Another internal hook is to start a story, then before you reach the end of the story, start another story. Only reveal the ending of the first story later in your presentation.

Finally, try to limit your presentation to three learning points you want your audience to take away. The number three is traditionally associated with storytelling (think Goldilocks, The Three Little Pigs, and so on). It's also an easy number of points for your audience to remember. 

Most people can only hold seven pieces of information in their mind at any one time. No matter how effectively you engage your audience, they'll have other things they're thinking about on top of what you're teaching in your presentation.

The Call to Action  A Call to Adventure

Finishing your presentation with a call to action is based on the simple premise that people are more likely to do something if you ask them to do it. In giving a call to action, you're aiming to motivate your audience into acting on what you've taught them.

You can't force your audience to take action. But you can kindle their desire to take action. In fact, you've been kindling this desire throughout your talk, from the moment you shared your hook. Your aim now is to pump the bellows even harder and get that flame of desire burning as bright as possible. Here's how you do that:

  • Remind your audience of where they could be if they take action on what they've learned. In other words, re-state your hook.
  • Summarize how your audience can take action. In other words, re-state the three main points you gave in the body of your presentation.

You can also think of the call to action as a call to adventure. In the world of storytelling, the call to adventure is when the story's hero is given the opportunity to move out of the ordinary world into a new reality.

You're giving your audience the opportunity to move into a new reality. You've presented tools they can use to better tackle a challenge they face. All they've got to do now is take action. You're asking them to embed what they've learned into their lives.

So, the next time you're asked to give a presentation, why not embed what you've learned from this article? Model your talk on a storytelling structure. You'll find your audience responds in a completely different way.

Resources

Graphic Credit: Presentation designed by Alexander Bickov from the Noun ProjectWriting designed by Rediffusion from the Noun Project.

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