The attention-getting myth

There is a pervasive myth in public speaking and presenting that you have to have an attention-getting opening.

I would argue to the contrary. The beginning of your talk is the one time that you can guarantee that the audience is paying attention. They will pay attention for the first one or two minutes to see if your presentation is going to be useful to them. But after that, if you don’t deliver good value through your content they may get bored and turn-off.

I believe that this attention-getting myth came from the advertising world. Advertisers generally have to interrupt what people are doing to get them to pay attention to their ads. So they’ve developed many attention-getting devices. Classic advertising formulas like AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) have been imported into public speaking and presenting without consideration of the different context. Generally, our audiences have decided to come and listen to us – we’re not having to interrupt what they’re doing to come and listen to us.

This attention-getting myth has led to two problems:

  1. Some speakers feel like they have to start with an attention-getting device. This puts extra pressure on you just when you don’t need it.
  2. It’s led some speakers to start with inappropriate attention-getting devices. I heard today about a speaker who started a business presentation by showing a photo of himself in an apron with a woman’s body in a bikini painted on. That may be an extreme, but often the attention-getter is cheesy and has little relevance to the content of the talk.

Here’s my advice. If you’re a beginner or nervous speaker, let go of the need to start with an attention-getting opening. Start in a conversational manner by simply introducing yourself and your topic. Be yourself.

If you have more experience, do try out different ways of opening your talk. But ensure it’s relevant to your topic. A useful technique is to design the rest of your talk – and then choose something interesting from the body of your talk to open with. For instance, you may have a good story or case study which would make a good opening, or you may have an interesting statistic that will intrigue your audience. But remember it’s a myth that you have to have an attention-getting opening.

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  1. I agree 100% about this. I teach public speaking and this question always comes up when we talk about writing a speech. I explain to course participants (most of which are deathly afraid of public speaking) that it’s not always necessary. I tell them that some people focus too much on trying to grab attention right away that if they mess up that single first sentence, it throws their whole speech off.

    You have a lot of great points. Good post.


  2. Thank you James – Yes – the pressure it puts on people to really “perform” at the beginning of their talk is not helpful!

  3. I’m glad to see someone exposing the myth that we have to “grab” the attention of the audience right away. I’ve heard many “experts” say you only have 60 seconds before the audience loses interest. I couldn’t disagree more.

    Although there are circumstances in which you do need to grab attention right away, I would argue that those circumstances are few and far between for the average speaking situation.

    To prove that you can still succeed, even after blowing your opening, I posted a video of my most embarrassing speaking moment. You can see it on my blog at:

    Thanks again for the post.

    John Watkis

  4. I went over to your blog, and watched your video John (and also left a comment there). Thank you for being so open about a humbling moment for you so that others can learn from it.

  5. Hmmm, I think it’s good to get the audience’s attention at the beginning, and I don’t see it as pressure on the presenter. First of all, in MANY cases, the audience has not chosen to come. Almost all internal presentations are like that. Many external ones are too — the attendees were told to attend by their boss, for example. So, they aren’t naturally interested. Second, people are not paying attention at the beginning — they’re chatting with their neighbor, madly finishing off an e-mail before you start,… Third, people often expect the presentation to be boring (especially if they had to come). AIDA is used in copywriting; the audience has decided to read an ad, and so is already attentive. But the attention step gets the person to continue.

    To say that the principle of getting the audience’s attention has led to people using inappropriate measures reminds me of people who say one shouldn’t use PowerPoint because it’s been used inappropriately. It’s not the principle that’s wrong; it’s the way it’s used.

    At the University where my husband teaches, all the students are taught to start an oral presentation with an attention step. It’s often the most fun part of the presentation for the students.

    I think that perhaps one could say that you should start by engaging the audience. I like the idea of asking the audience a question and the use of a shocking (or just important) statistic. Even just a good quote can be effective. Rather than putting pressure on the presenter, it provides a tool that makes the rest of the presentation go more smoothly, because the audience is now engaged. Without it, there can be a struggle to maintain the audience’s attention throughout. That little attention step makes the rest so much easier!

    That said, I love your thoughtful posts! And agree with most of them.

    • Thanks Ellen, for your thoughtful comments.

      First, I do agree that an attention-getting opening is effective, what I’m arguing against is that you have to have an attention-getting opening in all presentations. And I’m saying this mainly to benefit beginner and nervous presenters who do feel the pressure of having to have such an opening.

      I have a different interpretation of AIDA as it is used in advertising and copywriting. The Attention step is to get them to read the ad eg: the headline that intrigues them. They are not already reading the ad.

      Switching to the beginning of a presentation, if people are not paying attention in a literal sense (ie: chatting, checking blackberries) there’s a risk they will not hear your opening line. As a trainer, I make sure that I have their attention before I say anything important.

      I totally agree that you should endeavor to engage your audience by saying stuff of value which is relevant to them. And if you’ve got a great idea for an opening line, and can carry it off, that’s great too. I just want to dispel the myth that everyone has to do that – all of the time.

      Thanks for your contribution to the debate, Ellen.


  6. I certainly agree that being dogmatic about anything leads to, well, dogma. And that’s not good. Anything that helps a nervous presenter feel more comfortable is good, of course. I just think that if you’re going to practice your beginning, it might as well be one that draws in the audience and primes them to listen to the rest of the talk. My attention steps are usually pretty low key, such as asking the audience a question and getting them to raise their hands. It sets the stage for a dialogue rather than a one-way presentation. I also find (and here’s my secret weakness) that it forces me into some eye contact, which is something I’m always working on, as it doesn’t come naturally to me. (I tend to be overly intellectual, more of a writer than a speaker, and would be happy to give my talk with my eyes closed!) So, asking the audience a question helps ME, while helping the audience, too.

    • Thanks Ellen, for sharing what works for you and your audience. I think that’s the key – and there are many different ways of priming your audience for what’s to follow. Olivia


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