My post on grabbing your audience’s attention from the outset generated a really interesting contrarian view from Olivia Mitchell. I was going to keep responding back and forth in the comments, but I asked Olivia’s permission and we’re posting it here in the hope that it will keep the conversation going and widen that conversation.
This piece is a bit wordier than our usual fare here, but I hope you will agree it is worth it. One of Olivia’s earliest posts on her excellent blog was on this topic – you can find that post here [with some very interesting comments] and I highly recommend reading it. My original post on grabbing your audience’s attention is here and my dialogue with Olivia is below:
Olivia: I’m a contrarian on this subject. I don’t think it’s necessary for non-professional speakers delivering everyday business presentations to be so focused on the first few words (though I would agree on avoiding your first example). There’s 3 reasons for this:
Many people are most nervous at the start of a presentation and I don’t think it helps them to be thinking “I must get my first 10 words absolutely right”.

Rowan: Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful points Olivia. My thinking: (1) It is precisely because so many people are nervous at the outset of their talks that they should have their opening so carefully worked out. A well-scripted and well-rehearsed opener means the presenter can focus where he/she should be focusing – on the audience. It’s like when you get into an unfamiliar car and spend time fiddling with the ignition key, the light switches and learning where reverse gear is – rather than keeping your eyes on the road.
Olivia: Maybe it would be useful to make a distinction between a strong opening and an attention-grabbing opening. We could define a strong opening as one where the speaker sounds confident, is clearly organised and doesn’t waffle. The audience gets the feeling that, “Yes, this person is prepared and in control and this presentation is going to be a good one.” I think every presenter should aim for this result. An attention-grabbing opening is where the presenters starts with, say, a startling statistic or an intriguing story. I think this can be effective for some presenters and for some presenting situations. But I don’t think people who are nervous or who don’t have much experience should feel like they have to have an attention-grabbing opening.
Rowan: Smart distinction Olivia, I like it.

Olivia: Point 2 – I interpret the graph you’ve shown as saying people are already paying attention at the beginning of your presentation (therefore you don’t have to grab their attention). But you do need to hold it through the middle of the presentation when attention is likely to flag.
Rowan: In my experience, that classical U-shaped graph rarely happens in the real world. The audience has the potential for highest attention at the outset, but presenter after presenter blows that potential with a weak opening. In the age of 500 TV channels, audience tolerance is a thing of the past – particularly in business settings. I’ll be posting separately about the other end of that graph and how the high attention is rarely achieved at the closing either.Olivia: I think it does happen often in the real world. The graph above is one that John Medina uses in his book Brain Rules and which is referenced to a research study. It measures the self-reported level of attention of students during a university lecturer. I do acknowledge that there’s not a huge amount of research on this issue and it would be great to have more solid evidence. There may also be cultural differences to in the amount of time an audience is willing to give a presenter before fading out.
Rowan: I loved Brain Rules, but my work in academic environments has showed more ruthlessness than that kindly 10 minutes of attention. Nowadays, unless attendance at the lecture is mandatory (and measured), below-par lecturers in Irish universities are seeing very low attendance rate – students just download the notes or presentation from the server rather than sit through lectures with no added learning value delivered by academics who simply read from the PowerPoint. A slightly tangent, I realise, but with habituation to application-switching on computers, 500 channels on TV, and thousands of songs at the touch of a button, I can only describe the behaviour of most audiences now as ruthlessly intolerant – particularly young audiences. And that’s before we even get into the business environment …
Olivia: The common public speaking advice that you must have an attention-grabbing opening is borrowed from advertising. For instance in Toastmasters many years ago I was taught to use the AIDA structure (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) used in advertising. In advertising you do have to grab the prospect’s attention to get them to read the rest of your ad – but not in speaking/presenting. Your audience is right there waiting to hear you speak. So although I agree that the audience will switch off if your presentation is going nowhere, public speaking advice tends to overdo the “attention-grabbing opening.”
Rowan: I well remember being taught the AIDA approach both on marketing courses and in sales training. Funnily, I’ve never had anyone use it in any speaking/presenting courses I’ve been on, rather I’ve heard lots of references to theatrical and filmic ‘grab-their-attention’ approaches. The majority of my work is in corporate environments and it’s true that when the CEO steps up to speak to the financial community, everyone is listening intently, even expectantly. But for more humdrum presentations, my experience is that you have 20 seconds or less. I liked Gladwell’s thoughts on the ‘thin-slicing’ phenomenon in Blink and I’ve certainly seen them borne out time and again when credible, knowledgeable presenters fail to catch their audience’s attention and out come the Blackberries …
Olivia: Point 3 – I think for a normal business presentation it’s more effective to start in a conversational tone and build rapport with the audience.
Rowan: For an internal update or low-key presentation, I agree with you. Conversational is probably the route to go. But if it is a presentation with a serious business purpose, if there’s the potential for significant gain (or loss) as a result of the presentation, then I would argue that your opener should feel natural and relaxed to the audience, but that they should find themselves captivated without really knowing why … And I’ve encountered few, if any, presenters who can do that without giving the matter deep consideration. To paraphrase Mark Twain: “It usually takes me about three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
Olivia: I agree with this. There is a shift happening from a formal speech-making approach to a more conversational approach. It requires concentration to listen to a formal lecture. A conversational presentation is easier for people to listen to and to process. That’s because we listen to and process conversations every day.
It is understandable that so much focus is given by trainers and writers in this space to “making a good start.” What Olivia has made me realise here is that so much of that advice is acted upon so badly. But I don’t think that makes it bad advice. As I have cast my jaundiced eye over myriad lousy presentations over the years, I have come to the conclusion that this all comes down to humility and effort. If it’s a brainstorming session, then you may not need to put much advance thought into what you are going to say. Likewise for an informal review session that is more discussion than it is presentation.But if it is a presentation, if there is something riding on the outcome of your efforts, then it requires real effort, especially for the beginning when you will either hold them or lose them … and then more effort for your major points and even more for your close. But all that effort will be largely wasted if you have an audience who are largely ignoring you in favour of their Blackberries because you didn’t hold their attention at the outset.

I think it’s fair to say that most people dislike the formal, sage-on-the-stage presentation, but the problem with the more conversational, relaxed format (and that is very much my preferred style) is that it requires far more forethought than the tell ’em what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you’ve just told them style of old …

I loved Norman MacLean’s description of learning to fly-fish in A River Runs Through It:
“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

Art does not come easy.