What do professional public speakers have in common with champion prize fighters? They both have devastating hooks. One champion boxer may have a great left hook, another champion a great right hook. Every world class speaker has many great verbal hooks. Just as the boxer may set his opponent up for the knockout punch with a left hook or a right hook, so must the public speaker with his or her verbal hook which consists of the very first words out of his or her mouth.
What is a verbal hook?
A “hook” is anything that gets the audiences attention. A speaker can begin by asking the audience a question that requires a response on the part of the listeners. A rhetorical question doesn’t work well as a hook. A speaker may open his or her speech by presenting a shocking fact or statistic, that will get their attention. The speaker might even choose to open his or her speech with a personal story. Audiences like personal stories as openers. What you need to remember that every hook will not set your audience up for the knockout punch, the body of your speech. In order for you to deliver an effective knockout punch, your hook must not only get the audiences attention within the first 30 seconds, it must hold their attention for the punches to come. In order for your hook to accomplish that, whatever you use to hook your audience with must be relevant to the rest of your speech. For example, yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and on the Pentagon. I might have opened a speech yesterday by telling the story of how I lost several very close friends during those attack. That story would have caught my audiences attention as an opener, but it wouldn’t have held their attention for the rest of my speech unless the rest of my speech pertain to those 9/11 events. A good hook not only captures your audiences attention, it will make everything else you say more memorable.
What kind of hook should you use?
The good news is that there are many great hooks to choose from, but not all of them work equally well with every speech. What would work well with one audience for a given speech might not work with a different for the same speech. This is another reason every speaker must master the art of audience analysis. In order to pick an effective hook to use with any given audience, we need to know what motivates that audience in the way we want to motivate them.
Personal stories are great hooks provided that the story is something that your audience can relate to and provided that it is relevant to the rest of your speech. The story must also be a true story. I once knew a speaker who had been hired to give the keynote speech at a fund raiser for a local animal shelter. His face was badly disfigured so he had devised this opening story about how he had been burned while rescuing puppies from a burning tenement building. The story was a masterpiece of fiction but it was fiction none the less. He captured the audiences attention, a few of the women were even crying, as they hung onto his every word. Things were going great until a few minutes into his presentation a man in the back couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He stood up and yelled out at the top of his lungs, “You are a fake. You hate dogs. You didn’t get those burns rescuing puppies, you got burned in a car accident. I know. I was there.” Well, that got the audience to wondering if the fund raiser itself was on the up and up and many needy animals went without funds because of that deceitful speaker. I know that this story is true because I was the man who stood up in the back of the room and accused him of being a fake.
Physical props work great as hooks too. Public speaking is all about making an oral presentation. If you suddenly reach down beneath the lectern and pull out a physical object that is critical to the subject you are speaking on, you will have captured your audiences attention and will have them in the palm of your hand for the duration of you speech. Not just any prop will do. It has to be something that will reach out and grab your audience in a vise-like grip.
I am a lifetime member of the NRA, the National Rifle Association and a Second Amendment activist. I was asked to give the keynote at a rally where most of the audience was in favor of stronger gun control. What was my hook? What were the props that I used to capture and hold their attention that night? After I was introduced and before saying anything at all, I slowly laid out on the table provided for me, some of the rifles, shotguns, and pistols that they would like to see banned. That really got their attention. Then, each of those legal and legally owned weapons were used to illustrate various points that I made throughout my 45-minute keynote speech. For me this approach worked because I had the credentials, which included a concealed carry permit for all the pistols I had displayed. The display of actual guns got their attention. I then combined that with true stories about how private citizens had used legally owned firearms to save their own lives and to save the lives of other citizens when their lives were threatened by armed criminals.
Startling statistics are an unbeatable hook. I used this one recently when presenting a speech on second amendment rights. I opened my speech with this question/statement: “Did you know that the four states in the United States—Vermont, Arizona, Alaska and Wyoming has the lowest violent crime rates of all the fifty states and the District of Columbia?” of course, if you are going make that kind of assertion, you had better be able to back it up with some cold, hard facts. I did, the Uniform Crime Report published by the United State’s Department of Justice.
Just any old hook will not do. You need the right hook for the audience you are presenting to. Quite often you will spend more time developing the right hook for each audience you present to then you will spend preparing the speech itself. One final word about props that could pose a threat to your audience’s safety, such as my weapons, make sure they are displayed in a safe manner. In the case of my weapons, they were displayed with their magazines removed, their bolts locked back, and with a trigger lock in place.