Imagine that you have decided to watch a movie on television. How quickly will you determine whether to keep watching it, or switch to another program? Chances are good that within the first five minutes you are likely to say “Looks interesting, well worth watching,” or mumble the opposite viewpoint: “Already I can tell this flick isn’t worth my time.”
Now notice that audiences make up their minds just that quickly about speakers. The window of opportunity for winning and keeping attention doesn’t last long. Every audience member is holding a mental remote control. Before five minutes pass, you must convince listeners that you are worth sticking around for, or in their minds they will switch to some other thoughts.
Fortunately, captivating your audience at the outset isn’t complicated. Here are 5 ways to win attention and allegiance.
First, start on time regardless of who has not arrived.
How often have you put aside an important project, rushed through heavy traffic, and arrived at a session ten minutes early, only to hear the speaker—or the person who will introduce her—announce, “Glad you’re here. Thanks for getting here on time. However, we’re going to wait a few extra minutes before our presentation starts, because two of our senior staff members are winding up an important meeting in the next building. So just relax, get to know the people seated near you, and we promise you your wait will be worthwhile.”
Unfortunately, that announcement will foster resentment. “Oh” the early arrivers conclude, “I could have used the ten or fifteen minutes we’re going to waste by waiting. Looks like the big shots control everything around here.”
Even when you’re the guest speaker, you’ll gain credibility when you ask your host to make this announcement instead: “You honored us by taking your seats promptly. We’re going to honor our commitment to start at 10:00 a.m. A few others may drift in later, yet I’m sure you won’t find that too distracting.”
Second, mention your authentic common ties with the group.
A remarkable example happened when Bobby Kennedy spoke to a group in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1968, at what was supposed to be a routine stop during his presidential campaign. On his way to the event, Kennedy learned about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis—and decided he must tell the crowd, because news of the civil rights leader’s murder had not reached them. Immediately after sharing the shocking news, Bobby referred to the 1963 assassination of his brother, President Jack Kennedy: "For those of you who are black and are tempted to ... be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man."
Kennedy’s words enthralled his audience. While riots erupted around the nation, Indianapolis remained calm. Undoubtedly, Kennedy’s personal identification with the situation was persuasive.
Although your audience connection will not be anywhere near that dramatic, your authentic affiliation will establish bonds. Example: “I’m so pleased to be with you Rotarians. During the ten years I lived in Dallas, I was an active member of the downtown Rotary club, and I still treasure the associations I formed there.”
Third, briefly thank your audience for the privilege of speaking to them.
Occasionally you’ll hear speakers who choose not to express their gratitude. They reason: “If I thank them, they’ll think I’m just following an expected pattern, and that I don’t really mean it. Bet they’ll be glad that I’ll jump into my speech without any delay.” As you can guess, that impersonal approach becomes even more damaging when the introducer has devoted considerable time to welcoming the speaker and lauding his credentials.
Fourth, avoid corny comments that make you sound totally amateurish.
Put this one at the top of your list as one of the most disastrous opening sentences you could use: “Of all the introductions I have had, that’s definitely the most recent one.”
Or equally as corny and overused, “Gosh, Elizabeth, thanks for that glowing introduction. I wish my wife and my mother were here. However, they might be surprised that I’m the person you were describing.”
Again, “Your chairman suggested that I spend twenty minutes on this topic, but I’m going to give you more than you requested, because it will take me at least two hours to cover what you need to hear on this topic.”
Fifth, tell—quite specifically-- how your audience will benefit from your presentation.
Remember at the outset of this article how we observed what keeps people riveted to a TV movie. They think there’s something in it for them—humor, drama, mystery, biography, a hotly contested sports event, or something else they want to experience.
Just as rapidly, your audience wants to know “What’s in it for me?” Consider this example: “When you leave here today, you will have learned how to create your Facebook business page, how to attract hundreds of people to it who will click that they like the page, and how to turn those viewers into long-term customers.” Wouldn’t that concise forecast put you on alert?
Next time you’re slated to speak, maximize your first five minutes as we have described: be punctual, mention your meaningful ties with the group, say how grateful you are for the opportunity to share your ideas, stay away from corny comments your audience didn’t like even the first time a would-be-comic said them, and list the benefits awaiting your listeners.