Become a Public Speaking Genius: Where to Begin
by David Norelius
First impressions are unavoidable. The first impression is important when giving a speech, especially in this day and age. In our pop-culture society, if something is not interesting on television in the first few seconds, we just flip the channel. The same is true of the audience of a public speaker; if the speaker does not immediately interest us, we will mentally change channels. If it is not exciting, interesting, or something new, we as a culture do not want to watch. You may have spent all the time in the world putting your speech together, documenting facts, cross referencing sources, writing script, practicing, and worrying about making the presentation, but if you do not have a good attention getter, everything is lost. It is essential to be innovative and demonstrate your creativity in the beginning to show the audience that it is in their best interest to listen. This is your chance to be provocative, to force the audience into listening to you or resort to possibly giving in to something they would not otherwise believe in. I will show you four attention getting techniques which will enhance the relationship between you and the audience. These include telling a story, a question, using comparisons, or telling a joke.
To begin with, I will discuss the first technique of telling a story as your attention getter. The content of a story can be endless. You could talk about a past trip, a funny experience, or last year's Christmas dinner at home; it can be anything. The only requirement is for the topic to be relevant to your presentation. The key here is to make sure the connection between your story and the beginning is clear and flows like water. Now, this story will have the audience listening, because they will be interested to learn about a new concept. Most likely, your introduction will only last a minute or less, and if it does last any longer your speech will suffer because you will be losing time to defend your thesis. This means the story needs to be very dense in content to get your point across in a short amount of time, while at the same time you should keep it simple and not sacrifice audience understanding. A friend of mine began a policy speech with a personal story about encounters with constituents while he was working in a congressional office. Personal stories are great, because they allow the audience to see you as a person. Also, great stories provide imagery to make the audience feel like they are actually in the story. Furthermore, the key for stories is that you have to be able to tell it well. Telling stories is a talent in itself, and if you do not have the innate ability to be effective using this technique, you would be best advised to select a different attention getter. There is nothing worse than a story told poorly, it can hurt your presentation more than a good story could help it. Also, make sure you practice your attention getter in front of other people and see what their response is to your story, so you can clear up any parts which people may have difficulty understanding clearly.
Another effective approach which can be used is to ask the audience a question. When posing a question to an audience, you should think about your goal and what kind of audience response would promote the goal. It can be good to ask a question that questions the audience's core beliefs or rights. In my persuasive speech, I used the question, "How would you feel if your rights were taken away?" This question created an inquisitiveness in the audience, because most people are concerned about having their rights violated. This approach is quite effective in that the audience will pay attention to the speech. When asking a question of any nature it is essential to allow the audience enough time to think and respond. If you ask a question such as, "How many of you eat meat?," it would be necessary to wait for people to respond. People know whether or not they eat meat or not, and usually would not be ashamed to answer such a question publicly. The responses most likely would be fast, and this can be planned on during speech preparation. It is necessary to respond to the audience's answers to the question as a form of interaction with the audience. When asking a question like, "Have you ever lost a loved one?," you would need to wait, to allow the audience members to think about it to themselves. When it comes to touchy, emotional subjects it is better to let the audience keep their answers to themselves. Then you can continue on to the higher point you were seeking to reach. How is this higher point helped by asking "rhetorical questions?" It helps get the audience in the right frame of mind to listen to what you have to say. The point of asking a question is usually a way to seek out information readily, and it involves the audience easily. Asking a question can also be a way of providing humor. You could ask some kind of question to make people in the audience laugh, making them ease in to the speech smoothly. One way of doing this is asking, "Have you ever pictured the speaker naked?" after you set it up correctly. As with telling stories, telling jokes is a talent. You either have it or you do not. Another type of question technique is to ask a question where you know a majority of the audience will answer a certain way. Such as, in my informative speech, I asked, "Do you want to know how to make a lot of money, fast, easily, and legally in your own home?" I could assume that a majority of the audience would be attentive, and want to listen for new ways to make money. Right after asking this question, I had immediate contact with the audience. They were listening, hanging on my next words to see how they really can make a lot of money easily. When you are there in the moment, asking a question is a great way to gain the audience's attention and interest immediately.
Also using a comparison between two things, a simile, or a metaphor that relates something the audience already knows to your topic can be effective. When I did my policy speech on capital gains, I related the buying and selling of books in the student union building to the buying and selling of real estate, stocks, and bonds. I began by stating the circumstances surrounding the facts that when you buy your books, and then decide to sell them back at the end of the semester, you have lost money. Then I explained the capital gains tax you may have to pay on your home, and correlated the two as similar principles. The usage of the bookstore as a simile to capital gains tax made things easier for the audience to relate to. It also helped to get them on my side because most people are furious about the money they lose to the bookstore and they can associate this anger in the same way with the government and capital gains tax. Thus, my job in persuading the audience to reduce capital gains was ultimately made easier. The perimeters were set fast, smoothly, and everyone understood the scenario which had been created. To get the audience on the same page, when using a simile, it helps to explain what your topic is about by saying it is like something the audience already knows. The same is true with the usage of a metaphor. The figurative language which may be used in these cases can provide interest to the audience causing them to listen intently.
In addition to the other techniques, a straight up joke can always be an excellent attention getter. Humor helps lighten the atmosphere, and allows you to make your next points after becoming more personal with your audience. How do you become more personal through humor? One key is to not be too humorous if your speech is to be of a serious nature, because they may not take you seriously. Also avoid making fun of your audience in your humor. If you choose to make fun of someone, it is better to make fun of yourself. The audience will laugh with you, and will feel like they are closer to you on the personal level. Places to find jokes can be books like 'An Executive's Guide to Humor' where you can find quotations, and or a similar scenario to set up a joke. These jokes get the audience in the right mood for your speech when played off correctly will definitely relax your audience.
Another key to success of all attention getters is enthusiasm. Just like in all public speaking, your voice must be clear, but the attention getter places more emphasis on this than any other part of the speech. You need to use your voice as a tool, placing proper emphasis at the proper points in order to make things as interesting and smooth as possible. Using your shear energy to pull you through will at the same time elevate the audience to a whole new level. The audience will listen, because they will be thinking, why the heck is this guy so excited? This is good, because once you have attention in the beginning you should be able to maintain it. The audience may think if the speaker really thinks this is an important issue, maybe they should consider listening. Once you gain that first initial glimpse of attention, you need to run with it. Do not just let it drop out of our your hands.
Let's finish by looking at how to deliver the attention getter. Now that you have come up with the best attention getter, this is only half of the preparation process. You need remember a few keys in order to master the presentation of your brilliant attention getter. The keys are that you must show a genuine interest in the topic, or the audience will not be compelled to listen. Think about it, if the speaker does not have an interest in their topic than why should you? The attitude of the speaker needs to be of an upbeat, out-going nature so as to create a positive atmosphere. It must be spontaneous. You should have rehearsed the speech so many times that you are confident about it and able to give the presentation naturally. You must make sure that you have not become reliant on memorization though, because the attention getter must be given in a conversational way with the audience. You need to reach out to the audience. One key thing to remember is to smile, this way the audience will be more receptive to your speech. If you are nervous, use the nervous energy to your advantage, look out to the audience, by making eye contact and getting a connection. Now you need to decide which angle will work best for you. With any of these attention getters, they must be delivered as if it is the first time it is coming out of your mouth. The freshness of the delivery will allow you and the audience to be there 'in the moment spontaneously.'