What's Your Hook?

I’ll never forget the time my oceanography professor said, “If you’re ever swimming in shark-infested waters, always swim with a partner. That way, if the shark attacks, you’ll at least have a 50/50 chance of surviving.” That was more than 30 years ago and I still remember it. That teacher knew how to hook his students.

Take a minute to recall one or two of the most memorable presentations or speeches you have ever seen. Who gave the presentation? Why was it so memorable? What did the presenter say or do to make his or her message stick in your mind? What did they do that hooked you?

Advertising (the industry that I worked in for 17 years) is all about finding “The Hook.” The best advertising ties the creative hook directly to the product, rather than simply acting as an attention grabber and nothing more. As a presenter, if you can successfully connect your hook to your main message, then your audience will be much more likely to remember your key point.

Today I make my living as a professional speaker and corporate trainer. My job is to help my clients prepare for important presentations and come out as winners. I teach them how to find hooks and weave them into their presentations so that their message will get through all the clutter. That’s why you should be using them, too. There are a few things to consider before you set your hook: 

What is a Hook Anyway?
A hook is any creative device that grabs someone’s attention: a catchy phrase, a humorous story or an amazing statistic, to name a few. Here’s my rule of thumb: If I find something interesting, it has the potential to be a hook. 

What are the Benefits of Using Hooks?
There are many, including:

  • They grab your listener’s attention.
  • They make your message easier to understand. (This is great when you need to talk about intangible concepts like insurance.)
  • They make your message more memorable.
  • They make your message more persuasive.

What Makes a Hook Work?

Given the fact that humans are highly emotional, inquisitive, creative beings, anything that’s different, intriguing or relatable on a gut level has the potential to grab their attention. 

What are the Best Kinds of Hooks?
I have three favorites:

1. Tell Personal Stories. A personal story is one where you take an incident from your own life and you draw a parallel between that incident and the point you’re trying to make in your presentation. Personal stories are an emotional hook and, when done right, are magic. Audiences understand them, they relate to them and they remember them. This, in turn, helps them remember your point.

Here’s a story I often tell in my Breakthrough Thinking workshop:

A number of years ago, while working at an advertising agency, I was talking with one of the guys who handled a camera account. I asked him if he was working on anything new and he told me that his client was involved in a whole new type of picture-taking method called digital photography. He said that there would come a day in the not-too- distant future where people wouldn’t even use film in their cameras. Well, I didn’t know what he was talking about because I couldn’t get my head around the concept that cameras wouldn’t use film. In fact, I thought that the whole idea sounded like a complete waste of time. As I walked away, I sort of snickered and said, “Well, good luck with that project.”

This story always gets a laugh and sets the tone that the class will be fun and that no one has all the answers.

2. Show Off Props. The most advantageous of visual aids, props are any three-dimensional object that a speaker uses during a presentation to help illustrate a point. Props could include just about anything – a newspaper, a hammer, a mouse (computer or otherwise), a plant, a beach ball, a pumpkin… the list is endless. A prop is anything that you can somehow relate to your message, either directly or indirectly. Props, because they’re tangible, add visual and tactile anchors to verbal concepts.

The chief executive officer of a software company had an ongoing problem. A number of his customers had received his company’s software without all of the instructions. He had talked with his team about the issue many times, but it was still a recurring problem. He found a creative way to make his message stick using props:

At a recent staff meeting I announced, “Let’s try a little friendly competition. I went to the bank and took out three $100 bills. I also went out and bought identical puzzles for everyone in the room.”

I continued, “On the count of three, open your box and solve your puzzle as quickly as you can. As soon as you put it together, run up here and if you’re one of the first three people, you’ll win $100.” I then counted to three and everybody ripped into their puzzles, working on them. After a minute or so, one person yelled, “I got it!” and ran up and collected a reward. Moments later two others ran up and grabbed their money as well. With that, everyone let out a big groan. One employee turned to the winners and asked, “How’d you do it so quickly?”

The three winners explained that they’d simply read the instructions. With that, the room erupted. The losers complained that the winners had received instructions and they hadn’t. They said the game wasn’t fair.

When the moaning died down, I said, “Now we all know how our customers feel when they get our software and they don’t receive all the information they need…it’s just not fair.”

This is a great example that shows the power of using props as hooks. His approach was simple, emotional (feeling cheated is very emotional) and directly connected to the point he wanted to make.

3. Share Surprising Statistics. While numbers are important, because they can communicate pertinent information, numbers are also abstract and can bore people. Rather than dumping mounds of mundane stats on your audience, you’re better off cutting back on the numbing numbers and instead finding surprising statistics. The key word here is surprising. Your goal should be to present your data so that it’s both interesting and provocative.

Here’s an example of the way a Forbes magazine reporter used statistics to communicate the awesome processing power of a network switch that Cisco Systems was developing:

On Monday, Cisco announced the development of the Nexus 7000, a network switch that’s capable of routing 15 terabits of data per second – the equivalent of moving the entire contents of Wikipedia in one-hundredth of a second, or downloading every movie available on Netflix in about 40 seconds.

Had the reporter stopped at “15 terabits of data per second,” that would get a big yawn from the reader. However, by equating it to examples anyone could relate to, the reporter made the statistic understandable and interesting.

While it’s great to find surprising statistics that are directly related to your topic, you can often find some amazing numbers that are indirectly related and they can work just as well. For example, let’s say that you wanted to make the case that in any organization there are an endless number of ways to save money and cut costs. You might share this little fact: Back in 1987, American Airlines saved $40,000 by eliminating one olive from each salad served in first-class! 

Where Do You Go from Here?
Start a Keeper Folder – A keeper folder is simply a manila folder marked with the word “KEEPERS” big and bold on the outside. Any time you come across something that grabs your attention and you find it interesting (it could be a newspaper or magazine article, a photo, a quote, an amazing statistic or whatever), put it in your keeper folder. That way, the next time you have to communicate an important message and you’re looking for hooks, you’ll already have a few in your folder. Along the same lines, when someone tells you to check out an amazing Web site or they e-mail you something funny, save it in an electronic version of your Keeper folder.

Write it Down – Start writing down your stories and anecdotes, both the ones from your past as well as the ones that are yet to come. A story could be about the time you backed your dad’s car into your mom’s car. It could be about a stranger who said a kind word to you when you needed it most, or about the time you hit a hole-in-one golf shot. A story is nothing more than an incident that happened to you that’s funny, frightening, inspiring or unusual. Stories can be as brief as 10 seconds or as long as five minutes (although it better be a truly amazing tale if it’s that long). Start writing down your stories now, so when you need them, you’ll have them.

Remember: Use a hook – with stories, props or stats – to grab your audience, and you’ll see how fast they grab your ideas!

Kevin Carroll is an author and professional speaker. His most recent book, What’s Your Hook?, is available on Amazon and on www.kevincarroll.com.