Attenion_CuveWe’ve all seen the classical attention-over-time graph demonstrating the importance of Primacy (what you say first) and Recency (what you say last) in any lecture, speech or presentation. The opening moment is when you have the greatest chance to catch and hold people’s attention – even if you are talking to a group of people who don’t really want to be there. For the first few moments, even if it is grudging attention, you have their attention. But how often do you see a strong opening? A really strong opening? One that will command respect and hold their attention? Most often, you hear either:

[mumble mumble] I’d like to thank Mr Last Speaker for the interminable series of bullet points he read out to us. And now, if you’d just wipe that crackly sleep goop from your eyes, I’d like to talk to you about [mumble mumble] exactly what it says here on my title slide and now I’m just going to take a minute or two to read out my very long, very minuscule-fonted subtitle, which will effectively obviate the need for you to listen to anything further I have to say …”

Or :

“I’d like to TALK to you today about the MOST ASTOUNDING discovery in the history of the universe [dramatic pause] EVER! Without further ado … ladies and gentlemen … I give you … the latest patch for Windows!”

When I talk to people in advance of their presentations and ask them what their opener is going to be, I typically get some version of the first speech above. Rambling, somewhat apologetic, heard-it-100-times-before obvious.

Not exactly attention-grabbing.

Let me ask the same question a different way. What are your first 10 words are going to be? What are you going to say, and in what tone, with your first lungful of air? The people who open as per our second example above, have no difficulty answering those questions, but unless you have something a bit more interesting (to your audience) and a bit more dramatic (to your audience) to say, I think I’d hold off on that kind of overblown, ham-fisted, delivery.

I remember many years ago watching a Karate training course being delivered in my old college sports hall. There must have been 250 black belts milling around on the floor, loosening out, chatting, largely oblivious to what was going on around them. And then the teacher walked in at one end of the hall.

His name was Kenosuke Enoeda, not a particularly tall man, but he had a massive presence. The whole hall fell instantly silent, which was very interesting to me as an observer, because only a very small number of people up near the door where the Sensei had come in could possibly have seen him. It wasn’t that people had shushed each other or whispered, “He’s here, pass it on.” They just knew.

Presence probably isn’t a big enough word to describe what Enoeda Sensei exuded. His nickname was ‘The Tiger’ and you could instantly see why. It must be nice to be able to command that kind of attention when you step up to do your job. Some household-name comedians can achieve that just by walking onstage, but they still have to deliver, the moment they open their mouths. Some (very few) CEOs exude that kind of power over an audience too – think Steve Jobs on a good day – but when they open their mouths, they still have to deliver.

Take another example. If you have ever seen the Riverdance show live, you will have heard the collective intake of breath as the lead male dancer comes on stage for the first time. It’s a very steady, considered build, as Bill Whelan’s Reel Around The Sun develops in pace and volume and then bam! He arrives:

Now, I’ll grant you that Brendán has the advantage of being eagerly awaited (like Enoeda Sensei or Steve Jobs), and he’s the Grand Champion of the Universe at what he does, plus he has Bill Whelan writing his backing music; so when he bursts onto the stage like some kind of wild animal, he has certain advantages stacked on his side. But, and this is a big but, the show’s director still made sure to stack every possible element in Brendán‘s favour. A deeply-considered build of the voice-over, the lighting, the music, the dance troupe and the pace of the piece – all building so that Brendán has maximum impact each time he appears. And it works like magic every night. There is always the sharp collective intake of breath and the, “Ooooh” from the audience, just as there is always a standing ovation at the end of the show.

That’s stagecraft. That’s directing. That’s sitting down in advance and determining what will have maximum effect on your audience. In a word, that is professionalism.

So there you are with your laptop, your remote clicker, your data projector and your so-so PowerPoint. Have you given yourself any chance of grabbing, and holding, the audience’s attention?

Do yourself a favour. Think about your first 10 words. Think hard. If you are using slides, think hard about your first three clicks on the remote and the impact whatever you flash up on screen is going to have on your audience. How about thinking long and hard about your first 100 words? With no malice or cruelty, your audience are going to decide whether you are worth listening to in the first few seconds of your talk. And if they decide you are not, they will tune you out. Because they are human and that kind of ‘thin-slicing’ is what human beings do to each other.

So give yourself a chance. T-h-i-n-k about your opening. Then try a version of it. Review and hone, review and hone. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely that you are a Kenosuke Enoeda, a Steve Jobs, or a Brendán de Gallaí. That means you have to think harder, work harder and hone more than all the other so-so presenters out there to give yourself a chance.

Get to it.