Attention-Getting Strategies

Now that we have discussed the four basic functions of the introduction, let’s look at ten potential attention-getting strategies. This is not an exhaustive list, and many of these attention getters can be combined or adapted to fit the needs of the speaker, the occasion and the audience. Regardless of the specific strategy used for the introduction, all introductions still need to meet the four basic functions of an introduction.

You will get good attention and people will be more inclined to listen to you if you can make a statement whereby their response is… “No kidding!” ~ Gael Boardman

Tell a Story

Human beings love stories. In all cultures, stories are used to communicate and share values, traditions and knowledge. Rhetorician Walter Fisher[1] argues that human beings are best understood as homo narrans, as people who tell stories. As an introductory device, stories (and anecdotes and illustrations) are very effective attention getters.

First, stories have a built-in structure that everyone recognizes and expects. Stories have a beginning, middle and end, and this built-in structure allows the audience and the speaker to immediately share this experience.

Secondly, because this built-in structure, stories as attention getters lend themselves readily to a well- structured speech. You as speaker can start the story, get right to the climax, and then stop. You have the attention of the audience; you have shared experiences with them; and now you also have the conclusion of the speech all set to go—the end of the story.

Speakers who talk about what life has taught them never fail to keep the attention of their listeners. ~ Dale Carnegie

Refer to the Occasion

You are presenting this speech for a reason. The audience is present at this speech for a reason. These reasons can provide you with an effective attention getter. Referring to the occasion is often used as an introduction to tribute speeches, toasts, dedication ceremonies and historical events. Speech scholar Lloyd Bitzer[2] argues that all speeches are made at least in part in response to specific occasions, so referring to the occasion seems a good idea.

Bono, lead singer of the rock group U2 and an activist for a number of humanitarian issues, addressed the 54th annual National Prayer Breakfast, and started his speech with these words:

Well, thank you. Thank you Mr. President, First Lady, King Abdullah of Jordan, Norm [Coleman], distinguished guests. Please join me in praying that I don’t say something we’ll all regret.[3]

Bono speaking at National Prayer Breakfast

“National Prayer Breakfast” by Paul Morse. Public domain.

Refer to Recent or Historical Events

In addition to referring to the occasion, another effective attention- getting device is to refer to current events or to historical events. This style of reference again helps to create a shared experience for the speaker and the audience, as the speaker reminds all present that they have these events in common. Additionally, referring to current or historical events can also help establish goodwill and personal credibility by demonstrating that the speaker is aware of the relationship between this particular speech and what is going on in the world at that time, or what has occurred in the past.

Abraham Lincoln

“Abraham Lincoln” by Alexander Gardner. Public domain.

Abraham Lincoln (1863), in one of the most well-known speeches in American history, refers both to historical events and current events in the beginning of the Gettysburg Address:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

 

 

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. ~ Maya Angelou

 

Refer to Previous Speeches

Most of you reading this material are doing so because you are in a public speaking or introductory communication class of some kind. And that means that most of you will be presenting your speeches right after someone else has presented his or her speech. Even if you are not in a classroom situation, many other speaking situations (such as presenting at a city council or other government meeting, or taking part in a forum or lecture series) result in speakers presenting right after another person has spoken.

Ted Kennedy

“Ted Kennedy, Senator from Massachusetts” by United States Senate. Public domain.

In these situations, speakers before you may have already addressed some of the information you were planning to discuss, or perhaps have given a speech on the same topic you are now planning to address. By referring to the previous speeches, you enhance your credibility by showing your knowledge of the previous speech, and you have the opportunity to either compare or contrast your speech to the previous speeches.

Edward Kennedy, at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, began his speech with a short tribute and acknowledgement to the previous speaker, member of Congress Barbara Mikulski:

Thanks very much, Barbara Mikulski, for your very eloquent, your eloquent introduction. Distinguished legislator, great spokeswoman for economic democracy and social justice in this country, I thank you for your eloquent introduction.

 

Refer to Personal Interest

One of the key considerations in choosing an appropriate topic for your speech is that you have a personal interest in that topic. An effective attention getter then, can be your description of that personal interest. By noting your personal interest, you will demonstrate your credibility by showing your knowledge and experience with this topic, and because you have a personal interest, you are more likely to present this information in a lively and clear manner—again, enhancing your credibility. Referring to your personal interest in this topic in the introduction also helps you set the stage for additional anecdotes or examples from your personal experience later in the speech.

In speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Elizabeth Glaser began her speech by acknowledging her very personal interest in the topic:

I’m Elizabeth Glaser. Eleven years ago, while giving birth to my first child, I hemorrhaged and was transfused with seven pints of blood. Four years later, I found out that I had been infected with the AIDS virus and had unknowingly passed it to my daughter, Ariel, through my breast milk, and my son, Jake, in utero.[4]

Use Startling Statistics

Chart showing the first 69 digits of pi.

“Happy Pi Day” by Mykl Roventine. CC-BY-NC-SA.

Startling statistics startle an audience and catch its attention, and encourage that audience to listen further as you present the context of the surprising statistic. Long-time radio announcer Paul Harvey is well known for the catch phrase “And now, the rest of the story.” The same function should be at work here. When you startle the audience, you set them up to want to hear the “rest of the story.”

Be careful, though. Use of startling statistics requires that you do a number of things. First, make sure the statistic is accurate. Second, make sure the statistic is relevant to the topic of the speech. Startling an audience with an irrelevant statistic diminishes the speech and decreases your credibility. Third, make sure you then present “the rest of the story.” You need to place this startling statistic in the context of your speech so that everything fits together.

One speaker used an effective startling statistic to help introduce a speech on the dangers of heart disease:

According to the Center for Disease Control, in the United States 26.6 million adults have heart disease. This would be about 12% of adults, or three people in this room.

Use an Analogy

Analogies compare something that your audience knows and understands with something new and different. For your speech, then, you can use an analogy to show a connection between your speech topic (something new and different for the audience) and something that is known by your audience.

Analogies can be effective because they use ideas, information and values of the audience to draw a connection to your speech topic—and to you as a speaker. Analogies create connections between you and the audience.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes” by National Photo Company. Public domain.

One very common (and often misquoted) analogy comes from the 1919 Supreme Court case of Schenck v United States. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used this analogy to support his reasoning that some forms of expression can be suppressed because they present a “clear and present danger.” Holmes noted that “[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”[5]

One good analogy is worth three hours discussion. ~ Dudley Field Malone

 

Use a Quotation

Using a quotation from a well- known figure, or using a quotation from a lesser-known figure if the quotation is particularly suitable for your speech topic, is a common attention-getting technique. When you quote that well-known figure, you are in a sense, borrowing some of that person’s credibility for your speech, enhancing your credibility with the audience. Even when you use a less than well-known figure, the quotation can be effective if it nicely sets up your speech topic and is something to which your audience can relate.

Be careful with quotations, however. First, just using the quotation is not sufficient. You need to place the quotation in the context of your speech (as well as meet the other required functions of an introduction, of course). Second, it is easy to fall into a bad (and somewhat lazy) habit of simply finding a quotation and using it to start every speech. Third, simply using a quotation is no guarantee that your audience will find that quotation interesting or apt for the speech, and may also find the author of the quotation to be lacking in credibility—or your audience may simply not like the author of the quotation. Finally, beware of overly- long quotations (three or more sentences): Remember, this is just part of the introduction, not a main point of the speech.

Ronald Reagan saluting by a plane

“Reagan farewell salute” by White House Photographic Office. Public domain.

In his farewell address, former President Ronald Reagan (1989) utilized a very short quotation to emphasize his feelings upon leaving office.

People ask how I feel about leaving. And the fact is, “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The sweet part is California and the ranch and freedom. The sorrow — the goodbyes, of course, and leaving this beautiful place.

 

Using rhetorical questions in speeches is a great way to keep the audience involved. Don’t you think those kinds of questions would keep your attention? ~ Bo Bennett

Ask a Question

The use of questions can be a very effective way to get attention, whether those questions are rhetorical in nature, and are only meant to be considered and pondered by the audience, or are meant to be answered by the audience (generally a good technique to get audience involvement and interest).

Rhetorical questions are designed to allow you as speaker to get the audience to think about your topic without actually speaking the answer to the question. Rhetorical questions allow you as speaker to maintain the most control over a speech situation, and allow you to guard against an inappropriate or even offensive response.

Using questions that ask for real responses, however, has additional benefits, if a speaker feels comfortable with his or her audience, and is able to handle some impromptu situations. Getting the audience to physically and verbally involve themselves in your topic guarantees that they’re paying attention. Using questions that lead to positive answers can also enhance your connection to and credibility with the audience.

Starting a speech with a question whether rhetorical or actual does require thought and practice on your part. You need to carefully consider the question and possible answers. Remember—even if you think the question is rhetorical, your audience may not know this and may answer the question. You also need to carefully deliver the question. Too often, speakers will use a question as an introduction—but then give the audience no time to either think about the answer or answer the question. You need to use timing and pause when starting with a question. You also need to be careful to use eye contact in asking questions, since you are above all asking for audience involvement, and your eye contact requests that involvement.

It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for? ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel

In 1992, Ross Perot selected a little-known retired military figure, Admiral James Stockdale, as his Vice Presidential running mate. In the fall debates, Stockdale began his opening statement with two questions: “Who am I? Why am I here?” (Stockdale, 1992). The questions received applause and also laughter, though the later reaction to these questions was mixed at best. Some saw this as confusion on the part of Stockdale.[6] Stockdale considered these two questions to illustrate his difference from the other two “mainstream” candidates, Al Gore and then Vice President Dan Quayle. Traditional politicians, Gore and Quayle were readily recognized as compared to Stockdale.

Humor is the affectionate communication of insight. ~ Leo Rosten

Audience laughing.

“Audience enjoy Stallman’s jokes” by Wikimania2009 and Damiu00e1n Buonamico. CC-BY.

Use Humor

The use of humor in an introduction can be one of the most effective types of introductions—if done well. Humor can create a connection between the speaker and audience, can get an audience relaxed and in a receptive frame of mind, and can allow an audience to perceive the speaker (and the topic) in a positive light.

Humor done badly can destroy the speech and ruin a speaker’s credibility.

So first, a word of warning: None of us (those reading this, those teaching this class, and those writing this) are as funny as we think we are. If we were that funny, we would be making our living that way. Humor is hard. Humor can backfire. Humor is to a large extent situation-bound. Most likely, there will be a number of members of your audience who do not use English as a first language (there are plenty of people reading this who are English as a Second Language learners). Much humor requires a native understanding of English. Most likely, there will be a number of people in your audience who do not share your cultural upbringing—and humor is often culture-bound. Be careful with humor.

In general, there is basically only one safe and suitable style of humor: light and subtle self-deprecation. In other words, you as speaker are the only really safe subject for humor.

Ann Richards

“Ann Richards” by Kenneth C. Zirkel. CC-BY-SA.

Using humor to tell stories about other people, other groups, and even other situations, may work—but it is just as likely to offend those people, members of those groups, and people in that situation. Using self-deprecating humor will not offend others, but unless you can do this with a light and subtle touch, you may be harming your credibility rather than creating a connection between yourself and the audience.

Now, with all these warnings, you may want to stay far away from humor as an introduction. Humor can work, however.

Ann Richards, at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, used humor in the introduction to her Keynote Address. Knowing the audience, Richards was able to use partisan humor to establish a connection to the audience and score points against the political opposition.

I’m delighted to be here with you this evening, because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like.


  1. Fisher, W. (1987). Human communication as narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  2. Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1, 114.
  3. Bono. (2006, February 2). Keynote address at the 54th national prayer breakfast. Speech posted at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/sp eeches/bononationalprayerbreakfast. htm
  4. Glaser, E. (1992, July 14). 1992 Democratic national convention address. Speech posted at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/sp eeches/elizabethglaser1992dnc.htm
  5. Schenck v. United States, 249 US 47 (1919).
  6. Lehrer, J. (Interviewer) & Stockdale, J. (Interviewee). (1999). Debating our Destiny: Admiral James Stockdale. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/debati ngourdestiny/interviews/stockdale.html