In their 2011 book Conversations That Win The Complex Sale, Tim Riesterer and Erik Peterson tell a story that keeps on inspiring me. Whenever I am to come up with an opening for a presentation, a speech or a training session I always think about the hammock.

And then I know what not to do.

The Hammock Effect

Imagine you are a kid again. You enjoy the lovely summer vacation with your parents. Fun and games. No responsibilities. No work. No school. No tough adult life!

Sorry. I got carried away.

Anyway, at some point your father decides to take a nap in the hammock stretched between the two trees in the garden. That’s a problem.

You just came up with a new game and you absolutely need your father to participate. You don’t want him to take a nap. You want him to give you his attention. But, but… he lies in the hammock with no intention of even lifting his finger.

You are a kid. What do you do?

Swings of attention

You know what to do. You start swinging the hammock. Left and right. You know well that if you keep doing this you will get his attention. He might get angry and start to lecturing you on being a good kid. Or he just might realize that playing with his child is more important. Either way. You win.

Because nothing is worse than being ignored.

There is a pattern here

Back to your business reality. You see whenever you give a presentation, speak, teach, train or demand someone’s attention in any shape or form, the pattern you will receive looks somewhat like this:

Bez tytułu

Now imagine you are giving your average presentation which takes about 30 minutes long. From the moment you open your mouth – the first 5 minutes – you will be granted approximately 70% of audience’s attention. If you don’t take the advantage of it and simply (and ignorantly) move through with your show, then it dramatically collapses to 20% and stays there for most part. Surprisingly, as you announce the end of audience’s torment it miraculously spikes back. This time to full 100%.

How you do this wrong

At this 70% moment their brains are making a decision.  They ask themselves: “should I continue listening to him for the next 25 minutes or should I shut down and switch to a 20% maintenance mode?

What is the maintenance mode? It’s your father in the hammock.

It means they will manage a social smile, make sure to nod and pretend they listen to you. But really, they won’t. Think of yourself when you lose interest during a presentation you listen to. You start scribbling flowers and doodles on the conference materials while your thoughts wander from your afternoon’s shopping list to the upcoming vacation. That’s maintenance mode.

There is a simple procedure which takes place within those first 5 minutes. It’s goal is to establish whether maintenance mode is warranted. Your audience’s survival-oriented brains will ask two key questions to their gracious hosts:

1. “Have we seen or heard something similar before?”

Our brains are lazy. And for a good reason. Imagine you would pay attention to EVERYTHING around you. Notice every sound, every object, memorize every detail of any situation.

Your brain would literally explode. It’s just not possible, hence the term paying attention. It has a cost. It is limited. It is valuable. Should you grant it to someone or something you will have less of it.

Attention is like money.

Our brains are lazy. And for a good reason.

And just like you would not pay money for a movie you have seen before, their brain is not going to grant attention to a speech or presentation which sounds like something it has already heard.

What happens if it gets a “yes” to the above question then?

Twenty percent attention.

2. “What’s in it for us?”

Think about the way you deliver presentations today. Ask yourself, how do you use those first 5 minutes? What do you talk about? What slides do you show?

Ready to share? I already know what you do. And yes, it’s a bit embarrassing, because…

You talk about yourself.

Right? You talk about who you are. What you do. Why you are there. Where do you come from and where do you want this presentation to go. You. You. You.

Gently and unaware, with the soothing touch of a caring mother, you put them to sleep. In the hammock.

As you can imagine, talking about yourself is in no way a compelling answer to the above question.

And if you fail to deliver one?

Twenty percent attention.

Gently and unaware, with the soothing touch of a caring mother, you put them to sleep. In the hammock.

Ouch. What do you do then?

How to do this right

The last thing you want as a presenter is to have the hammock effect on your audience. Have you perhaps wondered why no one ever has any questions when you ask for them in the end?

Sure everyone is attentive at that point (remember that you get 100% attention in the end), but it’s just because they know it’s over and are getting ready to jump on the next big thing in their calendars. How would they know what good questions to ask if you only had 20% of their attention throughout most of your show?

What to do then? Follow these two rules to swing the hammock of their attention to your favor.

Make it unexpected

Don’t allow them to classify you or your material as “seen before” or “know this already”. Don’t blend in with other speakers or presenters. Be different.

Do something unexpected already from the beginning. Because our brains our lazy, we ignore what we already know (or think we know). So disrupt their thinking. Surprise them. Tell a relevant story they have never heard before. Ask a provocative question that will challenge the status quo of their life. Or simply change the presentation medium and ditch PowerPoint (#NoSlides!)

Ask yourself this as you prepare your opening: have I seen this kind of thing before? If the answer is yes, then it’s quite likely your upcoming audience has seen that as well. Change it. Do this whenever you think of how you should open your presentation.

Your goal is to send a very clear message immediately upon opening: “You have not seen or heard anything like this before. You better pay attention.”

Read more here: Break The Pattern: 3 Simple Ways To Immediately Get Attention When Public Speaking

Talk about them immediately

We are all very much interested in how we can benefit from everything happening around us. We all do. We are one hell of an egoistic species.

Who is your audience? Same species. And I presume you would be speaking to humans most of the time.

Tell them what’s in it for them. You don’t have to be obvious about it. Use a story, refer to their past experiences, ask them something. Whatever you do, just stay away from one topic.


The moment you start talking about yourself as their brains try to establish whether it’s maintenance mode or not, you are doomed.

Skip all the juicy, bragging pieces about who you are and what you have achieved. Make it immediately relevant and about them within the first minutes.

Read more here: If You Are Not Ready To Answer This Question, Don’t Even Get Up To Speak…

Over to you

Imagine you are that kid again. You try to get your father to comply and grant you his attention. You keep swinging and swinging. Finally he turns to you while still lying there (let’s say you have 70% of his attention…). He begins evaluating whether to continue his maintenance nap or to play with you. What do you do? What do you say?

Now imagine it’s not your father. It’s your customer. Your boss. Your business partner. What do you do? What do you say?

Now you have some ideas. Take advantage of the 70% attention and don’t let them slide into the cozy hammock of attention.

Now tell me:

  • How many times have you seen people open up a presentation in a predictable, expected way? Do they talk about themselves immediately?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • How can you use ideas from this post to change the way you persuade or inspire in your next big project?

Leave a comment now.

Wojciech is a trainer, teacher and life-long learner on the topic of effective communication. He believes that speaking clearly, effectively and with confidence is essential to our success and taking advantage of all life’s opportunities. READ MORE