Speech Tip: Capn’ Hook (Hooks in Speeches)

Speech Tip: Capn’ Hook (Hooks in Speeches)

Captain Hook

Speech Tip: Capn’ Hook (Hooks in Speeches)

A client recently asked me about hooks as it related to an inspirational speech. A hook is sometimes a compelling story, a humorous opening, or some other kind of emotional grab. It helps the audience transition into engagement. How long? Under 7:00, I think. Pop songs are usually shorter. Why? Because holding intense emotions is hard. It needs to be long enough to warm them up but not so long as to tire them out. Come on, Captain, hook ’em.

It is important to know the distinction of what makes a speech more than reading a white paper. You are doing more than imparting information. You are persuading the audience to take an action. The specific action isn’t the point. It might be as exact as committing to give a certain dollar amount to your cause. Or it can be as vague as convincing the audience to live healthier. The emotional factor is always in the mix.

What’s Your Fight?

Part of the hook’s job is to help the audience focus on the speech. Imagine boxer Muhammad Ali in his prime, or, maybe more accurately, Mike Tyson. The bell rang and they came out swinging hard. Not wildly. Every punch was strategic. The fighters wanted to achieve an effect which would lead to their goal: winning the fight.

You are fighting not for your audience’s attention. That’s not the end goal. You aren’t just talking to entertain them, are you? You want them to do something.

For example, if your speech is about quitting smoking, you want them to quit (unless you are in the addiction business, like Philip Morris International Inc.) the audience knows the impact of not quitting. Death is not unlikely, but, at the very least, living a less healthy life is a probable consequence. You might tell a story about a son who lost both parents to smoking and how, because the parents chose not to quit, that child will, as an adult, have the cavity only a parent can fill. The parents listening know intellectually smoking causes cancer, but in telling the story, they will also feel what that child feels.


I could tell that story because it is true. It is my story. My hook? I’d start starkly:

My mom is dead. My dad is dead.

My mom’s body slowly shriveled for 14 months while she slowly also lost her mind.

I saw my dad’s dead body slumped, still sitting, in his bathroom, on a hamper. He had sat there struggling through a heart attack, alone, knowing he was dying.

I last saw my mom a few days before she died, speaking incoherently. I last saw my dad a month before he died as we visited my mom’s grave.

I don’t have them now. They aren’t here to share my joys and sorrows. I won’t sit with my mom over coffee and play Scrabble again, and I will never again take my dad to a Chicago Bulls game. I miss what we used to have and I miss what we could have had.

Death is compelling and, ultimately personal. Then, I would build on each story, then combine them, working then into my theme directly.

My goal in such a speech is to break your heart. I want you to transfer from feeling my loss to imagining how your children will feel if you died early.

In it, my case for you to quit smoking exists in a way throwing statistics around cannot do. There is a time for stats, but, because addictions are so personal, stats alone won’t do the job.

Besides Death

Many speeches have that visceral component. You might highlight a story about sex trafficking, homelessness, or AIDS. If you are talking about a business topic, you might tell a funny story about someone using your product, or the strong path your company has followed into success.

If you start with a quote instead of a story, say something new by someone they don’t expect.

Are you starting with a joke? Try it out on some honest friends. Why? That’s easy: An awkward, not-funny joke is not what you want to deliver.

Struggling to find that hook? Let’s talk.

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