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Speakniques

How to Capture Your Audience’s Attention

What do you do when a lot is riding on your speech, and you need to grab the audience’s attention IMMEDIATELY?

I had a coaching client contact me recently about a very important speech she had coming up in just a few days. She is an elementary school psychologist, and also occasionally tutors children in reading at her home. For months, she had been toying with the idea of creating a literacy initiative in her town. She researched other literacy program models across the country, and little by little had started making notes on what her own program would look like. She talked the idea over with some teacher friends, and they LOVED it. They reassured her this was a viable idea, and urged her to discuss it with the principal. The principal was so ecstatic about it after their initial meeting, that he set up a meeting for her to present the idea to key decision-makers. As you can imagine, she was very concerned about making a good impression. Not only for herself, but for the initiative. She needed to create buy-in, and therefore needed to pique the audience’s interest right away. She needed a strong opening.

When I met with her, her initial idea was to open with an anecdote from the automotive industry that she’d read in a book a few years before. While the anecdote was interesting and supported her overall message, it just didn’t have the “It” factor. So I asked her to tell me why this literacy project was so important to her. I felt there had to be a deeper story fueling her passion for this initiative. And I was right.

Years ago, she had been an elementary school counselor and also a volunteer with the local chapter of a well-known youth organization. She established a close relationship with the 14-year old twin girls she was assigned to. While they were well-mannered at home, they constantly acted out in class. Their behavior was like night and day. She did not understand why until she thought back to a student she had been observing in a classroom at one point. It became clear this student could not read well, and this was a major factor why the child acted out in school. When my client had the girls read to her one day, her suspicions were confirmed. She was not yet a literacy tutor, although this experience is what drove her to become one later on. The girls’ challenging homelife, coupled with illiteracy, shaped many events in their life down the road. Eventually, they both went down a wayward path of committing petty crime. It broke my client’s heart. The last time she had seen the older twin, she heard the words that were forever etched in her memory: “Thank you Ms. X for caring. We need more people like you in this world.” I told her THIS story was her opening.

This week, she told me how amazing the whole meeting went. When she told her story, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop in the room. All eyes and ears were on her as she relayed the story that had been nestled in her heart for years. Her program was VERY well-received, and the town is in talks for how to implement it. There are still some details to be worked out, but there is a lot of positive local buzz happening about the program. Literacy has been brought to the forefront of people’s minds again, which was a major goal of hers.

My client struck a chord with the people in the room that day. Her speech did what it was supposed to do and more – it was memorable and did indeed create buy-in.

Stories are powerful. Stories are personal. Stories touch people on an emotional level more than any statistical data and impersonal anecdote ever could. Think about the stories from your life that can open your speeches with a bang. We all have a story!

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