How to Hook Your Audience in Seconds

How to capture attention quickly when speaking, pitching or networking

Whether you are pitching for new business, updating a client on their project or doing some face-to-face business networking, you need to act fast.

As Lyn Roseaman of Toastmasters International explains, you have less than 10 seconds to grab your audience’s attention, and show them you’re going to talk about something they’ll value or that you are someone they’ll want to work with.

So, how will you make the most of your opening moments?

I find that the best way to make an impact is, above all, to be authentic, showing your belief in, and enthusiasm for, your subject. You are inviting your audience to join you and when you are being true to yourself, they are much more likely to warm to you as a fellow human being.

If you are pitching for some new business, there’s a good chance that your audience will already have listened to a number of other presentations. If you’re presenting results, you may be slotted in between other pressing meetings.

If you’re networking, you need to move fast before someone else moves in. This means you are always in competition for someone’s attention – what they’ve already heard, other work issues, personal issues, and the big question: what are they missing on Instagram?

With the distraction of smart phones and short attention spans, your audience may not be quite as focused as you’d like.

You need to stand out. This starts before you’ve even uttered your first word. Expectations shape reality. Be yourself, dress the part, appear confident, smile and you will be well on the way to making a positive impact.

1. Make an immediate connection with a story

The opening of your speech needs to provide listeners with a compelling reason to give you their full attention. Avoid taking up the opening seconds with thank you for inviting me, what an honour, or other platitudes. This may be friendly and self-deprecating but it is also pretty boring and unremarkable.

Dive right in with a short story or anecdote. Going all the way back to caveman days, we are, as humans, hard-wired to relate to stories.

Choose an anecdote that your audience can relate to and is directly relevant to the message you want them to remember. This will quickly create a connection with your listeners, as well as building trust and interest in what lies ahead. Carefully structured, you can use your story to generate curiosity and anticipation.

Keep your language ‘you’ focused to strengthen the connection:

  • Picking the kind of words you’d say if you were speaking one-to-one gives a personal, conversational feel. Your listeners will have a sense of: ‘she’s speaking-just-to-me’.
  • ‘You’ speaks to one, but includes everyone, eg How are current industry trends affecting you?

2. Create an immediate impact before you attempt to inform, persuade or inspire

As part of your opening, there are other devices you can consider to add impact to your story. For instance:

A rhetorical or a survey question

Use, ‘Have you ever …?’ questions to achieve an emotional connection. Try to avoid, ‘How many …?’ questions. These require people to scan their brain for information which is a distraction.

A quotation from a respected expert

The expert lends additional credibility and, if it’s recent and from the audience’s industry, it will reflect well on you.

Current developments

Reference to a very recent news item that relates to your listener’s business shows you are current and thinking about them outside of specific meetings

Startling stat

A surprising fact or statistic or making a bold claim can provide effective start for an informational presentation. “Were you aware that …”

Paint a picture

You could start your presentation by saying something like: “It was 6am on a chilly Tuesday …”. You will be encouraging your audience to visualise a scene in their mind’s eye. Keep it broad-brush. This allows your audience members to add details from their own experiencs and memories. It will make the impact more powerful as it taps into their emotions.

Sensory appeal

What people see, hear, feel, smell, taste. This will deepen the connection you make by bringing a stronger emotional appeal to your opening remarks:

If you are announcing new marketing platforms, invite the audience to “Imagine your messages being supported by eyecatching images and recordings that you can feel proud of when you share them with potential new clients …”

Then continue with your story: “I don’t feel like that when I use our existing marketing materials. Do you?” With this approach, you tap into the audience’s imagination. They’ll recognise the situation and see themselves in the picture you’ve evoked for them.

3. Be active

Use the active voice when you speak. For example, instead of using the impersonal wording: “It is believed that networking is a powerful new business development tool …”, use more personal wording.

This might be: “In our experience, networking really does create business growth. These are the next steps … who will … by when …, etc.” This form of words is direct and engaging, and also clarifies who will be responsible for doing what.

When you use active voice your sentences will be shorter. Overall your word will be more energetic and direct. Because of this your message will have a sense of urgency and immediacy which is what you need to grab people’s attention.

4. Introduce a memorable ‘anchor phrase’ early on

Experienced speakers use anchor phrases. A good anchor phrase is a few words that capture your message and make you memorable. No one can forget the speaker who said: “I have a dream”.

When your phrase pops into their head, they’ll remember what else you said. Making your phrase rhythmic is an added bonus.

In a sales presentation, for instance, you might use the phrase “Trust is a must”. And if you can connect an anchor phrase to a story, you will be almost unforgettable.

5. Practice your opening delivery

Practice your opening until it flows naturally and effortlessly. Try it in front of a mirror – you’ll soon see if anything isn’t quite right for you.

On the day, stand tall and relaxed. This will help you feel confident and allow you to breathe naturally so that you feel calm and your voice is strong. Good posture makes you look confident and helps your audience relax as they feel they are in safe hands.

Don’t rush. Look at your audience for a few seconds before you speak. This gives you an air of authority and gives your audience a moment to settle down and pique their curiosity about what you’re going to say.

Deliver your opening clearly and authentically and your audience will be open to listening. Rather than thinking “so what?” they’ll sit up, pay attention and be with you as you take them on the journey of your speech or presentation.

Now you’re talking.

About the author

This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Lyn Roseaman of Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. With 400+ clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland, find your local club at

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