Hari Patience-Davies explains two techniques to hook your audience’s attention from the start of any speech or presentation.

The first two minutes of any speech or presentation you give are the most critical – that’s the advice from John Medina’s book, Brain RulesĀ where he calls it the “cognitive hallowed ground.” But how can we take control of the first two minutes of an in-person or virtual meeting when the first five minutes and more are generally marked by people turning up late or exchanging casual small talk?

First of all you have to remember that the “first two minutes” is not always literal. It doesn’t have to be the first two minutes you are in the room – it refers instead to the first two minutes after you start speaking, and there are several approaches you can take content-wise to take advantage of it.

Find a killer statistic

Jamie Oliver’s 2010 TED talk opens with an incredible line. “Sadly, In the next 18 minutes while we have our chat, four Americans who are alive, will be dead, because of the food that they eat.”

That’s a striking statistic. It’s one that makes you stand up and pay attention. Four Americans who are alive will die? How? Why? It’s grabs you, and makes you listen.

There’s two numbers in that sentence – “18 minutes” and “4 Americans.” It’s the juxtaposition that creates such a shock – how can 4 people die in the next 18 minutes? It feels like both too many and too short a time. It feels more real and tangible than just saying how many people die each month or each year – bringing the death period down to 18 minutes (the average length of a TED talk) makes the duration familiar to TED watchers (18 minutes is not a length of time they have to work hard to imagine) and highlights the scale of the problem.

Does your speech or presentation have a killer statistic? Can you find the number which defines the problem or the statistic which shows the scale of impact?

And how do you make it real to your audience? Remember that numbers without context lack meaning – so rather than saying 90,000 people, does it show the impact of the scale better by saying “enough people to fill Wembley stadium” or “192 fully loaded jumbo jets of people?”

But be sure to choose a relevant number – people who start a speech with a big impactful number that then has nothing else to do with the rest of what they say risk alienating an audience who feel manipulated.

Tell a story

I’m a big fan of the Carousel scene from Mad Men. Don Draper delivers an amazing pitch for a Kodak slide projector account by starting by defining the word “nostalgia” as told to him by “an old pro copywriter, Teddy,” who he worked with at his first job. It’s the definition of a “soft opening,” as Don uses the (presumably happy) memory of the conversation to start his audience on a journey to their own happy memories of “a place where we know we are loved.”

If you haven’t watched the scene I highly recommend it – it’s a brilliant piece of acting and writing, and all around good television.

Brene Brown in her TED talk takes a similar approach, saying how an event planner said she wouldn’t describe Brown as a researcher because in that case “no one will come because they’ll think you’re boring and irrelevant”. In a TED talk aimed at talking about the power of vulnerability, Brown’s honest admonition makes her immediately likeable, and prompts the audience to empathy.

Opening your speech and presentation by delivering a short story – so long as the story is relevant and adds insight to the rest of your speech – is a great way of winning the audience over to your side. You can make it funny, wry or even self deprecating, but the power of a story is mostly about connecting with an audience over shared experiences, be it fond recollections of happy memories or the familiar refrain of someone not quite getting what it is you have to offer.

What’s interesting about these two approaches is that while both are equally strong, they are somewhat contradictory – engage your audience with numbers! Win them over with a story! If you try to do both you run into the risk of them potentially cancelling each other out.

Be selective in your choices and consider your content and audience. What do you think they will respond to best? Are they analytical numbers driven people – then start with the statistic. If you think they are experience driven, try a story.

But do remember – while the first two minutes is the most critical for capturing the attention of your audience, it’s not the only two minutes you’ll be speaking. It’s worth planning a speech that doesn’t give up trying to capture an audience’s attention after this time – we should strive to engage throughout. And if doing so means that you start with a statistic and bring a story in later, or start with a story and then back it up with numbers, that’s fine too.

Just don’t waste those first two minutes introducing yourself – you can always do that at the end.


Photo by swabdesign on Unsplash

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