It’s hard to argue with people who claim that the human attention span has shrunk to an all-time low. Depending on who you listen to, it now hovers somewhere between eight seconds and 21 minutes. And since we don’t like to cite statistics we can’t back up (even if they appear in the New York Times), what we can say is this: at a minimum, the attention of your audience is woefully short, and, you are in constant competition with their smart phone, tablet, or laptop. It’s downright depressing, isn’t it? And yet, as a speaker, your goal is get your key message to stick. So what can you do?
Allow us to provide the answer: Picture every member of your audience with a visible thought bubble over their heads that says, “Make me care – and do it fast.” From the moment you step on stage, that prime time clock is ticking. That’s why we advise all our clients to shorten their introduction.
Professional speechwriters have two guidelines they follow to craft a compelling introduction. The first is that an introduction should comprise no more than 10-15% of the total presentation. Here’s the problem: the guideline was established before the smart phone was invented. For today’s audience, your introduction should be under 10%. But how much under, you ask? Read on!
The second speechwriting guideline is to choose between a “slow open” or a “fast open.” For example, if the speaker is not well known to the audience, he or she might spend a little more time on hellos, thank yous, this is who I am, etc., and then move onto their first message point.
A fast open is used when the speaker and the audience are well-known to each other, like, say, Howard Schulz of Starbucks speaking to shareholders for the 27th time.
The problem with the slow open is that, well, you guessed it, no one will hang in there unless it is riveting. When you are nervous, or haven’t found your groove, what are the chances you can hook your audience with a slow open?
Comedian Roseanne Barr tells aspiring comics to get rid of the “happy to be here, where are you from” stuff and just get on with the first joke. She explains that most audience members don’t need the preamble because they came to laugh.
So, what do you want from your audience in the first two minutes? Curiosity? Interest? Alignment? Delight? Whatever it is, it pays to get on with it. And remember, no speaker has ever been criticized for ending early.
Full disclosure: we’re big on hooks in the introduction, which can take a little time to set up effectively, so we have created a slow/fast hybrid. For example, Barbara has had great success building up to her “Tom Brady is innocent” opener, and Charlotte always generates curiosity with the question, “Do you want to know how Goldilocks can empower your speaking experience?”
Go hook your next audience!