Public Speaking Myths: You Must Immediately Capture Your Audience’s Attention

So you’re listening to someone read your introduction to the audience. It’s your turn to finally take the stage. You walk out, shake the hand of the person introducing you and face the audience. The clock has started and you have only a few precious moments to capture the audience’s attention or it’s forever lost. Or do you?

I had the pleasure of being part of a conversation on Twitter that was started by my friend, Cynthia Lay. Cynthia asked if a “10 second” rule exists – a public speaking “theory” that you only have the first few seconds of a speech to get the audience’s attention or they head off to dreamland (or you miss out on some other opportunity to make your speech the greatest ever). Now there is much debate among the so-called “presentation skills experts” out there as to whether it’s three, six, ten or fifteen seconds. My position is that you’ve got at least a couple minutes, sometimes longer.

Yes, I am well aware that this goes against many of the books on public speaking and what they teach in Toastmasters, but it’s the truth. It reminds me of the following story:

A woman is making a roast and cuts the end off of it before putting it in the oven. Her husband asks why she’s wasting the meat. She says that her mom did it that way so she calls her mom. Her mom said that she did that because that was how her mom taught her. So the woman calls her grandmother and asks why she cuts the end off of the roast. The grandmother says that it’s because her broiler was too small to fit the whole roast in it.

Many pieces of public speaking advice get passed along for similar invalid reasons – it worked for someone way back when but doesn’t apply today. Just take a moment to seriously think this one through though. Grab a stopwatch or use a timer and note how long fifteen seconds is. Does it really make sense that you only have this short amount of time to connect with the audience or you’ve lost them for good?

On more than one occasion, I’ve attended “public speaking training” in which the instructor has stated this ridiculous notion (among others) and people believed it. On at least one of these occasions, this feedback was directed towards me – the exact words were “you need to start stronger or you can kiss your audience goodbye.” Perhaps I missed all those speeches where someone didn’t grab the audience’s attention within the first 15 seconds and everyone just got up and left.

Now I’m in no way suggesting that you should be boring during the first few moments of your talk – I’m just pointing out that these so-called experts are giving you bad advice. You should try to be interesting and catch the audience’s attention off the bat, but it’s not the end of the world if it takes you a minute or two. It’s not TV or Youtube and people aren’t able to change the channel or visit another web page and they certainly aren’t going to get up and leave -unless they’ve realized they’re in the wrong place.

I teach public speaking (among other things) and I make sure that the advice I provide is something that I’ve experienced. If I haven’t experienced it but it sounds reasonable to me, I’ll also share it with the caveat that I haven’t actually tried it but it has worked for others. I’m sure you can sense my frustration with this topic and it’s because I feel it weakens my industry. Numerous companies and organizations have told me that they’ve brought in “presentation skills experts” that didn’t help at all and one only hires me for my networking programs because the group has had so many bad past experiences with public speaking training that the members are no longer interested in the subject.

So in summary, when you get advice related to public speaking, always question it. Ask the person who gives you the advice to ensure it’s not another cutting the end off of the roast situation. And then ask yourself if it really makes sense. Question the experts to ensure that they truly are an expert.

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8 thoughts on “Public Speaking Myths: You Must Immediately Capture Your Audience’s Attention

  1. Sarah Gershman

    Great post. I will add that the audience needs to check you out before they will listen to what you say. For this reason, I suggest not looking at the audience while you are being introduced, so that they will “check you out” before you get up to speak and thus be ready to hear what you have to say right off that bat.
    Please check out my public speaking advice blog – sarahgershman.blogspot.com and let me know what you think!

    Sarah Gershman

  2. Martin Ng

    I don’t thin the ‘rule’ is true at all – if you continue and ramp up your ‘interest’ factor, you have a captive audience, and you can certainly win them over later.

  3. Peter Bowler

    I agree that you have a lot more time than 10 seconds. But you don’t have forever to seize your audience’s attention. During the first few minutes your audience will want to know what you stand for and how they can benefit by engaging with you. That interest can last a few minutes. After then it’s harder.
    Peter

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  8. Nakima

    Do you ever actually go out into the public and speak or are you just writing what you think? I have been in the business of public speaking for over 10 years and I have spoken to everyone from Kindergarten to 90. A goodd presentation is like a good movie. People are going to watch the first few minutes, then they are going to do one of two things: find another movie to watch or sit on the edge of their seat. I think this speaks for itself..people don’t want to be “ramped up”. We want to sit at the edge of our seat and enjoy every minute of it! Create suspense. Have a climax. Recap the important parts and you’ll leave them talking about it at the water cooler the next day.

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