Now hear this! Attention first

Attention: A rare resource

“NOW HEAR THIS.” The U.S. Navy uses this phrase to command attention over a ship’s speaker system. Attention is the first order of business whether you’re giving a speech, writing a headline, or attempting to flag down that snooty waiter.

Bellowing “NOW HEAR THIS” over a bullhorn is unlikely to win friends and influence people. You need something more effective. How you gain attention will vary depending on context. But you must gain attention because it doesn’t matter what you say if no one is listening.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion.

You can ask a surprising question, or make an arresting statement. You can make people laugh, or tell an emotive story. Align your attention-grabbing opening with your subject. If you tell a joke, then make sure it’s associated with your topic. This way you’ll stay relevant and respect your audience.

Attention today is a dwindling resource. And this means you have to work to maintain it. Authors don’t know at which point their readers lose interest and give up. But presenters do. They have more information.

As a speaker, you can see a lack of attention. You can feel it. And this can be disconcerting. But the accomplished presenter will have a few tricks up her sleeve. One technique is to pose a hypothetical situation by telling a story. It looks like this.

You point to Mary, who’s struggling to keep her eyes open. (She had a sleepless night last night. It’s not your fault.) You say: Imagine Mary here (gesturing to her) has just been promoted to plant manager. And Brian (engrossed in his smartphone until a second ago) is head of the union. And…

Now everyone in the room is alert. Who will you pick on next?  The point is this, pay attention to attention. Without it, you’re wasting your time.


There’s always someone who will listen to you. She’s called your mom.  But apart from her, you’ll have to establish credibility. For some people, the definition of an expert is someone from out of town with a presentation. Most of us expect more.

You get status by doing something. This can be writing a book on your topic, establishing a reputation, or by relevant achievement. Any of these can get you in front of an audience.

Your audience will listen to you because you make a connection. Maintain attention by having something of interest to say, and saying it well.

Kenneth W. Davis’s book, Business Writing and Communication (The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course) is a classic on communication. Any business writer can improve by working through this book. First, Mr. Davis (rightly) emphasizes what he calls “finding the we.” The “we” is the common connection between speaker and audience, between author and reader.

Communicators through the ages have studied Pericles’ Funeral Oration. What’s so special about an ancient Greek speech? How can it have relevance today? In a word: inclusiveness.

This speech was given during the Peloponnesian War between 431-404 BCE. The custom was to honor the war dead by recalling their heroics. But Pericles used the occasion to speak of the glories of Athenian achievement and why they were worth fighting for. The ‘we’ for Pericles included all Athenians, their values and way of life. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863 has its roots in Pericles’ oratory, too.

Shakespeare’s Henry V, St. Crispin’s Day speech also employs connective rhetoric. Here, Henry is talking to the troops after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Effective communication forges an emotional bond between speaker and audience. Understand who you’re talking to. Meaning varies by culture. DTM is a Distinguished Toastmaster, a designation of achievement in public speaking.  DTM is also a sports car (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters). It’s best not to confuse the two.

NOW HEAR THIS: Claim attention first. Speak the language your audience understands. Have something to say that interests them.