Presentations: 6 Ways to Hook Your Audience

When you are giving a presentation, look to actively engage your audience right from the start. Don’t assume they are paying attention; they may be thinking about their last meeting or the next one! So go beyond the dry and conventional; Capture their imagination, make them part of the show. Use any of these six approaches to hook your audience, so you can then reel them in with a memorable, powerful presentation.

1.  Surprise the Audience
We started one client’s presentation (to an executive audience at a global Fortune 500 company) with a slide that had a single large number on it: $3,000,000. The presenter began, “$3 million dollars, that’s right, $3 million dollars. That’s how much we lose every year because new hires are under-utilized. But we can cut this number in half with a one-time $25,000 on-boarding investment.”  My client reported back to me that the audience was surprised all around by both the magnitude of the cost and the inexpensive fix. In short, they were paying rapt attention right from beginning — they wanted to know more, and my client had them “hooked.”

Often surprise can take a different form, like sharing a counter-intuitive or unexpected piece of information. For example, you might say something like “Ask any executive, and they will tell you that the key to success is first x, then y.  But you may be surprised, as I was, to learn that the exact opposite is true.”

2.  Ask the Audience a Question
Any interesting, intelligent question posed to the audience at the start of your presentation can help to hook the audience, since you are soliciting their active participation. Questions could be as simple as: “How many of you have ever done ‘x’?” Or “What do you do when ‘y’ happens?” For example, in a salary negotiation presentation, I might start off by asking the audience “What do you say when an interviewer asks about your current salary?” Asking this question engages them and raises an issue of great interest to them!

Here is another example: A client was pitching his company’s information services to a prospective corporate buyer. We created an opening slide that showed the logos of several well-known Fortune 500 companies and asked, “what do these companies all have in common?” When he presented this slide, no one got the right answer, which was “They all use our services.” My client not only engaged them by asking this question, but made an important point about his service’s perceived value.  He ultimately got the sale (although this “hook” was only one part of a much larger effort).

3. Combine a Question with Surprise
Combining both of the above techniques is even more powerful. For example, sometimes in my Presentation Skills training workshops I’ll start off by asking the audience “Which of these five items is essential for a great presentation?”  I’ll list things like eye contact, where you stand in the room, and so forth. No one ever gets the correct answer, which is “none of the above.” And since people are surprised by the answer, they are immediately intrigued (as I’ve been told by audience members) and want to know more.

4. Use a Metaphor
Starting off a presentation using a metaphor is like sharing a mini- story. You capture their imagination with the image in the metaphor, and make your point more memorable. For example, a client was putting together her pitch as part of a sales presentation for her company’s “workflow management” software. Here is how she started her winning pitch: “A client once said to me ‘our workflow management process was like the chaos of Manhattan streets during rush hour, until your software transformed it into a wide open superhighway.’ In fact, we’ve helped many clients in your industry create their own workflow superhighways…”

5. Tell a Story
An engaging story can work wonders in any part of your presentation, and a short, bite-sized story at the start is no exception. As with the metaphor example, people will remember the image in the story, and will be more likely to remember the point you are making as well.

For example, with one client, an Information Technology executive who was presenting the case for investing in a new system architecture, we started out his presentation with: “One morning last week, I saw someone trip on a broken piece of sidewalk near our building and fall! I ran over to help them; luckily, their palms saved the day– they were fine. As I think back to them dusting themselves off and lamenting the crumbling infrastructure, I am reminded of the urgency with which we need to address not only our physical space, but our I.T. infrastructure problem first, before rolling out a new product…”

6. State the Problem in Stark Terms
You can grab an audience’s attention by simply stating the problem clearly and right up front. I learned this early in my career from a former manager. She would start her presentations by presenting the dilemma in stark terms. For example, she might say something like “Competitor X is targeting our customers with product Y. We are beginning to lose market share and we have nothing in response.” She didn’t start off with the background, the research, the lengthy introduction. She simply got right to the point, with a problem or situation stated in dramatic terms that resonated with the audience.  Her approach was always an attention-grabber.

I share many more insights on how to deliver great presentations in my free RESULTS Matter: Make Your Presentations Great! webinar.