Bringing Your Flame into Focus: The Five Presentation Hooks

by Raúl Sánchez, Dan Bullock, and Rod Sánchez, authors, How to Communicate Effectively with Anyone, Anywhere

How do you grab an audience’s attention? Well, have you ever caught yourself staring into the flame of a candle and felt your consciousness clear? You may have been inadvertently tapping into a yogic-Hindu focusing practice called trataka. When our attention fixates on a defining flame, our consciousness is absorbed into a meditative state.

In the same way, as global presenters, we must create an allure for our audiences using presentation “hooks,” which draw our audiences to the flame of our idea. In this section, we will cover the five presentation hooks that enhance concentration and compel intercultural audiences to participate cognitively in our speech right at the outset.

Neuroscience has mapped out the starting point of a successful presentation to reveal that we are attracted to much more than unique ideas or poetic words. Instead, across cultures, captivating speakers create a universal draw in their presentations — the curiosity to learn more.

PC: Adobe Stock

We need to build anticipation in our presentations to create the curiosity that fuels the transformative conditions necessary for deep learning to occur. Let’s break down this process. When we become curious, our brains trigger the release of a pleasure chemical called dopamine that makes us feel happy. In other words, dopamine is our brain’s “chemical reward” for curiosity.

According to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, stimulating curiosity causes the production of a natural high — not when receiving information, but when anticipating a reward of information. That’s right — the pleasure we feel in a state of curiosity is not derived from the actual reward itself (information), but the audience’s anticipation of that information. And it doesn’t stop there.

Participants in the study who were stimulated and primed for curiosity later were able to more effectively recall random information. In other words, an existing state of curiosity can lead to improved learning and memory retention, even about unrelated information we are not actually curious about. So, to create an engaging and memorable presentation, especially at the outset, think curiously!

We’ve all experienced this phenomenon — just think of how we vividly remember the anticipation of waiting in line for a blockbuster movie more than the movie itself or when we recall the first song of a sold-out concert more than the remainder of the show. Dopamine is the reason we sometimes remember these anticipatory moments where we were burning with curious excitement in more detail than anything else. A good opening hook, in addition to well-placed hooks throughout key sections of a presentation, can urge our audience to stay with us during a speech, regardless of the information itself.

Hooks are essential to an international presentation style, no matter the topic or situation. By learning to pique the curiosity of our audience to build anticipation for our speech, we trigger the kind of deep-seated curiosity that makes the listening and learning process more memorable and effective.

The following five presentation hooks align with the psychology and neuroscience of curiosity and not only enhance our spoken discourse, but our written communication as well. Remember, although we should place hooks at the beginning of a presentation, we can also place these purposefully throughout our presentation, at the openings of various sections where we want to reinvigorate the flow of our speech.

Effective hooks create story, and story is what awakens the fire of curiosity in the human brain. Just keep in mind that a hook doesn’t have the same role as a main idea or message. Examine the following two versions of the same hook — which is more enticing?

· Hook version 1: “Today, I am going to share with you information about the new net neutrality regulations proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and how these regulations may affect electronic communications and the role of internet service providers.”

· Hook version 2: “Online freedom of speech is in jeopardy.”

Notice how the first version functions as a main idea statement, while the second version functions as a hook that ignites curiosity about the topic and is, therefore, more effective. As part of an international presentation style, learn to adapt and even combine these hook patterns to strengthen your content and audience engagement.

Use the following five proven hook patterns highlighted in Figure 1–1, “The 5 Presentation Hooks,” to captivate the attention of world audiences with the cognitive power of curiosity:

1. Create a question: Jumpstart your presentation by engaging audiences with a dynamic question that disrupts an expectation or touches upon a concept of shared value. “Can you imagine the world without a single tree?” “What if sleeping near our smartphones had health benefits?”

Key strategy: Questions can be of two types. The first type, a “yes/ no” question or a “show-of-hands” question, should get your audience to ask “So, what?” Second, an open-ended question should imply that there is a predetermined answer in your presentation; regardless of the question, if your audience is thirsty for more answers, they will be “hooked.”

2. Start with an amazing fact: Audiences are immediately engaged when they are shocked. So, shock them. Surprise them! Give audiences a key statistic or figure that grabs hold of hearts and minds and derails their expectations. Avoid beginning with “Engaging in environmental sustainability can help us to decrease the greenhouse gases causing global warming . . .” Instead, begin with “New York and Mumbai will be underwater in 2050 if global temperatures continue to rise.”

Key strategy: An amazing fact should fuel anticipation for what comes next in a presentation and provide surprising insights, reveal hidden inspiration, or illuminate an urgent solution.

3. Share a story or situation: We are hardwired for story. So, why not lead with a gripping anecdote? The scenario should not focus on an ending, but rather serve as a prelude to the topic. For example, “This afternoon, when the clerk asked me for my driver’s license and my credit card, I hesitated. Identity theft may be one of the fastest growing crimes today — however, we can protect ourselves by . . .”

Key strategy: A story/anecdote hook should start in medias res, meaning in the “middle of things” and should be relatable so audiences can cognitively make a “listener-character swap,” imagining themselves having the same experience.

1. Make a compelling observation: Let’s go back to our earlier example, “Online freedom of speech is in jeopardy.” A striking observation ignites curiosity in a topic by making listeners’ minds beg, “Why?”

Key strategy: An observation hook should point out an irregularity, a pattern, a discovery, a warning, or a hint at compelling future outcomes.

2. Start with an inspirational quote (and your own words): Try to abstain from beginning presentations solely with quotes from others. Chances are when the orator said the quote, they weren’t thinking about you or your presentation. Therefore, these “borrowed openings” are related to another context and often require us to accompany the quote with a brief explanation of how it relates to our presentation topic. Sharing favorite quotes may have noble intentions but can waste valuable time and the opportunity to connect with our audience — at the most important juncture of our speech: the beginning.

Key strategy: A quote should support our ideas and be placed after our own words — the beginning of a presentation is an opportunity to lead with originality.

Raúl Sánchez is an award-winning clinical assistant professor and the corporate program coordinator at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. He has designed and delivered corporate trainings for Deloitte and the United Nations, as well as been a writing consultant for Barnes & Noble Press and PBS. Raúl was awarded the NYU School of Professional Studies Teaching Excellence Award and specializes in linguistics and business communication. He contributes to The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, Business.com, and Thrive Global, where he writes about the intersection of global business communication, leadership, and intercultural communication.

Dan Bullock is a language and communications specialist/trainer at the United Nations Secretariat, training diplomats and global UN staff. He also serves as faculty teaching business communication and public relations within the Division of Programs in Business at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Dan was the director of corporate communications at a leading NYC public relations firm, and his corporate clients have included TD Bank and Pfizer. He contributes to The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, Business.com, and Thrive Global, where he writes about the intersection of global business communication, intercultural communication, and professional development.

Rod Sánchez is an award-winning visual communication designer, artist, and filmmaker. He is a lead user experience/user interface designer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and his experience includes designing and illustrating book covers for Penguin Random House and Scholastic. He received design awards from: The New England Book Show and The Create Awards. Rod has directed and designed campaigns for: Disney, Nickelodeon, and Baruch College — CUNY. Rod’s artwork has been exhibited internationally, displayed on billboards in New York City, and published in HuffPost, The Guardian, El País, Thrive Global, and Time Out New York.

Adapted, and reprinted with permission from Career Press, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser LLC, How to Communicate Effectively by Anyone, Anywhere by Daniel Bullock, Raul Sanchez, and Rod Sanchez is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at www.redwheelweiser.com or 800–423–7087.