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Story Startle Question Quote

Advice for marketers from a community college

A decade ago, in the mix of activities that made my life fun, I taught public speaking at a community college. One thing I kept emphasizing was the importance of the intro. “If you don’t grab your audience in the first thirty seconds, it won’t matter how good your speech is.”

From the textbook, I adapted a menu of ways to open a speech, which I abbreviated as SQ2. Story, Startle, Question, Quote. One of those four options would usually suffice. Occasionally a second one could be added. This strategy proved helpful for dozens of tongue-tied college students.

  • Stories are powerful. As soon as you launch into anything resembling “once upon a time,” people perk up. In a persuasive speech, an opening story could describe the situation that you’re persuading people to change. And perhaps you could use a cliffhanger, where you pause your opening story and resume it at the end, describing your proposed solution.

  • Startle the audience with a strong statement, something they wouldn’t expect to hear. Then use the rest of the speech to explain why that statement is true. From the first moment, you’ve engaged the critical faculties of your listeners, so they’re paying attention, but it puts pressure on you to make your case.

  • Questions force an audience to enter the discussion. “What’s the most valuable thing you have?” That question might lead into a speech about values or investment or integrity or family. By asking it, you are revving up the minds of your audience.

  • Quote a famous person to launch a more formal speech. This is less effective in grabbing attention (unless it’s something we wouldn’t expect that person to say), but it does build your credibility. You’ve done your homework, and now you can take your place with the quoted celebrity as an intelligent person saying public things.

Takeaway for Marketers

You might use these tips in your own public speaking, but there’s a greater application for anyone who creates messaging for a company. These four tactics apply well in the marketing biz.

Stories are the gold standard. They attract people’s attention, but they can do more. Consider a basic story arc of “problem-helper-solution.” Like any persuasive speech in a college classroom, your marketing pitch needs to move people from Point A to Point B—and there’s a story in that.

In a crowded marketplace, it might help to startle your potential customers with an unexpected offer, pitch, or statement. Find the most surprising benefit of your product and state that in the starkest terms possible. Avoid the bait-and-switch. Yes, you could gain attention by offering “free money,” but you’ll lose goodwill once you explain that it means something else.

Questions connect. How do you feel about this? Have you ever had a problem with this? How badly do you want a solution to this problem? Avoid rhetorical questions. You want to get their minds whirring. This is a great way to show empathy and not just talk about it. If you’re asking the questions they’re asking themselves, they will bond with you.

The quotations you need are from satisfied customers, whether or not they’re famous. Celebrity endorsements are a mixed bag. Often a car dealer will hire a local sports star to appear in an event or commercial. This “respect by association” sometimes works (and it may be especially important in the car business, where trust is in short supply).

But if you can gather testimonials from ordinary clients who had particular problems that you helped them solve, that has tremendous value. Get beyond “Oh, they’re great.” Get to the story of a negative you turned to a positive.

Story, startle, question, quote. Four great ways to start a speech. And four great ingredients of a marketing pitch.


Randy Petersen, founder of Petersen Creative Enterprises, is a veteran author, playwright, teacher, speaker, and consultant.

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