My father was a fiery preacher and a great speaker.  His sermons kept even the sleepiest of parishioners at attention with his intermittent thunder.  He used life examples to illustrate his message, and he usually captured attention with his first few sentences.  The opening to a speech or an essay is critical to people’s tuning into the rest of the presentation.  An introduction serves several functions such as stating your purpose, reviewing main points, and establishing credibility, but grabbing attention in the first few lines is essential to carrying interest through to the end of your message.

There are many ways to create interest, but there are some pitfalls that actually do just the opposite.

  • The choice of attention-getters must be relevant to your topic. To start with a story about your dog being chased by a goat when you want to persuade someone to vote for a certain candidate lacks a clear link in subject matter. The opener should lead to the main topic.
  • Considering your audience and their tastes should also be part of the plan. Offending people in the first few sentences guarantees that minds have dismissed any important message you wanted to share.  Writing for an audience of teetotalers about the wonders of alcohol won’t put you on their list of most admired folks.
  • Ethics enter into the foray, too. If you state something as a fact, it should be true; be careful – the internet, the news, and, yes, even some politicians make startling claims that are not based in fact.

Snappy starts come in all kinds of shapes.

  • Startling statements are a good way to begin because they often run contrary to what people already know leaving a curiosity that needs to be fed.

In 2016, 2600 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer.  That is 1 in 1000 men.  Most people think that breast cancer is only found in women, but even though it is rare, men can also be affected by this dreaded disease.

  • Stories can be factual or hypothetical. They can be personal, and they can be humorous.

When I was a little girl my older brother brought home from work a Look magazine that featured the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  There were pictures of hangings and violence that had a profound influence on me.  Every night I would pack in all my largest stuffed animals around me in bed to protect me in case the Russians were to come to my house.  Children are very impressionable, and parents should take care to monitor their exposure.

  • Questions can trigger some thought processes that lead the audience to want more from the speaker or writer. They can require a response or be rhetorical where no answer is expected.  Everyone has heard the zealous salesperson on the TV ads – “Are you too pooped to participate?”  “Do you have a hideous rash?”  If the question fits, then the audience will listen to find a solution to their horrible problem.  The same is true with questions in your writing or speech; a provocative question can be very effective.

How many of you have been instructed on the full meaning of sexual assault?  How many of you know someone who is a victim of sexual assault?

  • Well-chosen quotations can be found online or in a large number of helpful reference works.

To wrap up…

Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”  Climate change came about with very little examined thought, but to treat the problem will require complex planning and universal cooperation.

A creative beginning buys additional, on-going attention.  This is not the definitive list of snappy starts, but an innovative effort will pay off in a positive audience response.




Diane Repass is a retired tenured assistant professor
from The University of Dubuque and now a beloved
writer for Plaid Swan Inc. She received her M.A. from
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.