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Want your audience's attention? Learn to capture it!

Updated: Jan 8, 2020

This activity was submitted by Lisa Leopold at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. You can submit class activities like this here.

Goals: To help students learn how to capture the attention of their audience at the beginning of their speech

Rationale: Public speaking textbooks present several techniques for capturing the attention of the audience, including posing a question, citing a statistic or an interesting fact, telling a story, and using a quotation. Students in public speaking classes may implement these techniques, but they typically have little insight as to how professional speakers use them successfully. For example, an informational question, such as, “Who knows what euthanasia is?” will not be as successful at gaining the audience’s attention as a more provocative one, “How many of you have watched a loved one suffer from physical or emotional pain near the end of their life?” However, students often start their presentations with simple informational questions because they believe that any type of question will suffice. Because little attention is paid in textbooks as to how to differentiate among the quality of attention-getting techniques, and students are rarely presented with authentic professional examples in textbooks, I decided to collect excerpts of opening gambits from TED talks and present them to my students as models for critique. Then, students apply the lessons learned from this critique to create an original attention-getting opening.

Materials: Access to the TED website; handout presented below (with suggested points for discussion)


1. Ask students the techniques they can use to capture the attention of the audience at the beginning of their speech. Brainstorm a list on the board – provocative questions, shocking statistics, interesting facts, memorable quotations, humorous anecdotes, etc.

2. Tell them they are going to watch the openings from various TED talks and observe the technique(s) the speakers use to grab the attention of their audience, as well as the qualities that make the openings successful or “sticky” (a term borrowed from Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick).

3. Play each excerpt for students and elicit their observations of attention-getting techniques. For example, perhaps a story was memorable because the speaker used dialogue and role-played the characters; perhaps a question was memorable because it piqued the audience’s curiosity about a common problem and few people would know the answer to it.

4. After students have critiqued each example, return to the original list on the board. Ask students what makes a question provocative, a statistic shocking, a fact interesting, a quotation memorable, or an anecdote humorous. Explain that the goal is to create that type of opening for their audience.

5. Assign students to groups of two or three. Each group gets a different technique – question, statistic, fact, quotation, anecdote, etc. Instruct students to develop the most creative and attention-getting opening they can, about any speech topic of their choice. Every student must participate in the delivery of the opening.

6. Invite students to deliver their opening statement in front of the class and solicit feedback from their peers. Was their opening attention-getting? Why or why not? What could have made it more attention-getting? Instructors may even turn this into a competition for the “most” attention-getting opening (as voted by their peer groups). The winning team may be awarded a prize.

Connection to skills and typical results: Students love watching TED talks because they are truly engaging, and they learn from the speakers what makes an opening compelling. When the activities are scaffolded from awareness-raising to performance-based tasks in the manner described above, students are able to apply what they have learned to create a memorable opening statement. Ultimately, they become more audience-centered presenters as they think carefully about the techniques that will engage their audience.

Attention-Getting Openings

As you listen to these attention-getting openings, take notes on the strategy the speaker uses to capture the audience’s attention (i.e., story, statistics, facts, etc.) and the qualities which make the attention-getter memorable or “sticky” for the audience (i.e., unexpectedness, emotional content, etc.).

#1 Who was General Tso? And other mysteries of Chinese food

(until 1:19)

Strategy: Statistics, facts, question, visual images

“Stickiness”: The speaker puts the statistics in terms the audience is familiar with (e.g., more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King combined). She conveys little-known and surprising facts as to how Chinese restaurants have played a role in American history. She challenges a common assumption the audience holds and gets the audience to question their belief system. She uses bright, colorful images and keeps the text on her slides to a minimum.

#2 Why are we happy? Why aren’t we happy?

(until 1:20)

Strategy: Facts, question

“Stickiness”: The speaker appeals to what Chip and Dan Heath call the “gap theory” by posing questions that elicit the audience’s curiosity because they do not have an obvious answer. These questions set up a mystery for the audience – one that they feel compelled to solve. The presenter also calls the brain “a three- pound meatloaf,” so he uses descriptive language which helps the audience form a visual image in their minds.

#3 Sliced bread and other marketing delights

(until 1:39)

Strategy: Examples, anecdote, analogy

“Stickiness”: The anecdote astonishes us – who would have thought that sliced bread was a total failure and now is a total success? As humans, we like to be surprised by success because it renews our hope that anything is possible. The examples at the beginning are intriguing because they make us wonder “how?” or “why?” Then we are primed to listen for the answer. The analogy uses a concept the audience is familiar with (sliced bread) to illustrate an abstract point.

#4 My stroke of insight

(until 3:40)

Strategy: Personal story, demonstration, questions

“Stickiness”: The story conveys her “ethos” – she has both personal and professional credibility to speak on this topic. Surprise and unexpectedness are two qualities that make her opening engaging. The audience may have wondered, how could this person survive what had happened? Few audience members have probably seen a real human brain, and this shocking demonstration was sure to pique their curiosity. She connects science to people’s everyday lives, thus making it relevant and interesting for them.

#5 Classical music with shining eyes

(until 2:40)

Strategy: Story, demonstration

“Stickiness”: The story and demonstration are humorous and the presenter shows, rather than tells, us what a piano player at a certain age sounds like. This makes the opening much more vivid for the audience. The moral of the story connects to the theme of the speaker’s presentation.


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