In an ideal world, you’d have the audience in the palm of your hand from “CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY” to “Thank you; you’ve been lovely; tip your servers.”

But the world of public speaking isn’t ideal. Audiences have a limitless supply of distractions to choose from: that strange noise the fan is making, the fact that their lunch isn’t sitting too well, and of course their mobile device of choice.

And unless both the speech and the speaker are the most riveting thing since… well, this,… their attention is going to wander. Not far, if the speech is decent and relevant, but it’ll wander. And as a speechwriter, you need a tool to bring that attention back when it really counts. 

That’s why I’m a fan of attention-focusing phrases: the signals to your audience to prick up their ears, because the very next thing will be important.

These are phrases like:

  • “But here’s the thing…”
  • “It all comes down to this…”
  • “And you know what?”

(The clichéd, over-used phrases “At the end of the day” and “In the final analysis” also used to serve this function. But they’re so worn out that they often just sound like verbiage.)

The trick to using phrases like these is that the next thing you say needs to be worthy of the audience’s full attention: clear, memorable, pithy and profound (at least, profound in the context of the speech). There’s no time for prologue or meandering; you’ve promised significance, and you have to deliver.

And speaking of delivering, speech delivery is much more important than any one phrase. When a speaker slows down, pauses, and changes the pitch and volume of their voice, they command attention almost irresistibly.

Use this sparingly: a few times in a speech is plenty. (Little-known fact: the original title of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” was “The Boy Who Said ‘But Here’s The Thing’ All The Time.”)

You’ll see these techniques in any number of TED talks. The next time you’re watching one, keep and eye (and ear) out for the moment the speaker signals they want your attention by using a focusing phrase and/or by sharply changing their delivery. The next thing they say will almost always be the key point of their presentation.

Got a favourite attention-focusing phrase? Here’s the thing: I’d like you to share it in the comments.

Adapted from my answer on Quora.


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