How to hook any audience and capture their attention

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

There’s lots of opinions about how to start a speech.

Some say start with a joke.

Some with a story.

Some with a confession.

Some even use video to break the ice.

All of those can work, but in this post I’m more talking about what comes next—how do you hook your audience and have them leaning in after the opening?

First, let’s agree on one thing:

Every audience is cold.

They don’t know you, they don’t necessarily trust you or care about your topic.

And they’re not all bought into your solutions.

That’s why you need to magnify the problem. But, I’m getting ahead of myself—first you need a template.

Start with a template

Unless you juggle or do comedy, every speech is built on a template. And I can’t overstate how important this is. Trying to “wing it” with mind maps, stick-notes or endless quotes from dead-white-guys will waste your time and result in a jumbled mess of a presentation.

You need to walk your audience through a process from attention to advice to action.

My 7-part template looks like this (note: I cover this template in more detail in this post – for now I’ll summarize):

  1. OPENING – get their attention—I almost always start with a story – (skip: “I’m so excited to be here”) that is relevant to my message.
  2. PROBLEM – nobody cares what you know, until they know you care – you need to describe a problem you know your audience has.
  3. STORY – if they don’t trust you yet, now they will. Tell them how you have been there, figured out a solution, and now will share that solution. Speaker coach, Craig Valentine calls this “Then, Now, How” – “Then” I was like you, “Now” I’m like this, and now I’ll show you “How.”
  4. PROMISE – declare you have a solution worth listening to – no specifics yet, this is a heads-up of the good stuff about to come.
  5. DELIVERY – audiences have the attention of gnats,  so keep their interest with relevant stories and examples of people successfully using your solutions.
  6. SUMMARY – bring it to a close with a quick summary and call to action.
  7. CLOSE – the best speeches finish with a short story of success demonstrating how your solutions worked.

Now that you’ve nailed the template it time to magnify the problem.

Magnify the problem

If you want your audience to listen, first you have to magnify their problem.

Nobody cares about your solutions until they’re reminded they need them. That’s why you need to scratch their itch.

Before I launch into my talk about productivity I’ll talk about overwhelm, email, procrastination, endless lists and taking work home. It only takes a few minutes before everyone is squirming in their seats.

If you jump to brilliant solutions before your audience feels some pain you’re just throwing mud on a wall hoping it sticks.

The trick here is to not to blame at them – that usually gets the opposite result.

Instead, describe situations, share some statistics, quote experts or tell a story that describes someone – just like them – who is caught up in the same problem they are. If I’m speaking about productivity I might act out a crazy-busy, distracted morning at work can look like.

Now that you have their attention, it’s time to drive the nail in with the IGAP score card.

The score-card

A few years back, I stumbled onto an exercise that is so simple, but so powerful that I’ve likely used it in 80% of my presentations since.

I call it the IGAP (I’ve Got A Problem) exercise. It’s based on the simple notion that when you quantify a problem – put a number to it – everything changes.

First, let me ask you a question:

When you ask a friend or coworker: “How’s it going?” What do you get?

Usually you get a vacuous reply like: “Okay” or “Not bad” – you’ve got nothing. There’s no start to a conversation.

But imagine you start a coaching conversation with “On a scale from 1 to 5, where ‘5’ is crazy-busy, how’s your workload?” whatever their answer is, you’ve got a foot-hold into what could be a really productive conversation.

That’s the goal of the IGAP exercise – I want to hook my audience and get them leaning in and hungry for a solution.

This self-rating technique is a simple rating from ‘1’ to ‘5’ where delegates rate themselves.

If I’m using handouts (for a seminar), I’ll ask them to fill-in the blanks, one word at a time and then to rank themselves on a scale from 1 to 5, where ‘5’ is consistently effective.

For example, for leaders, I might use: Planning, Productive, People and Personal.

For speakers: Preparation, Presenting, Planning, Proactive (they don’t have to all start with the same letter – I just got lucky).

If I’m focussing more on communications: Listening, Feedback, Praise, Difficult conversations.

If I’m not using handouts, I simply ask the audience to write down one word on the hotel notepad and then put a number beside it.

Now here’s the trick:

No one ever gives themselves a ‘5’. They’ve discovered their gap.

The first time I used this exercise, my audience were financial planners.

I’d been told they were the “best of the best.” But, when I interviewed some of them before my speech I got the impression maybe they weren’t the “best of the best” with their own personal planning.

Sure, they were brilliant with clients, but maybe not so much with their own financial planning. So, I added two more questions to the IGAP exercise:

  1. “My goal for net wealth in 3 years is $_____________.”
  2. “Based on current results, my chance of reaching my goal (1 to 5) in the next 3 years is ____.”

The average rating in the room for reaching their personal financial goals (remember these are financial planners) was “3.”

I had their attention.

If you start giving your audience solution before they’re ready to listen you’re wasting your breath.

Get a commitment

You got them leaning in, you delivered the goods, now it’s time to get a commitment.

There’s two reasons this is important:

  1. you’re there to serve and the best way to serve your audience is help them create a better result in their life.
  2. if you want to get hired again (or get a referral) you need to prove your worth. An audience full of inspired people ready to take action always beats “just inspired”.

You can read how I use peer-to-peer coaching to get a commitment in this post (see “Agree on what next”).

The IGAP exercise is perfect if you’ve ever been frustrated trying to connect with your audience or get them to take action.

It could be the most important 5 minutes of your speech.

Related articles

How To Design A Great Speech
The secret to making any meeting, speech or presentation outstanding
9 stupid things speakers do on stage
10 easy ways to make any PowerPoint presentation awesome