Attention Getting Devices For Essays Online

Types of Attention Getters

Types of Attention Getters, Leads, Hooks

1. Personal Reference

Personal Reference. A reference to yourself can take several forms. You may express appreciation at having been asked to speak. You may share a personal experience. Or you may reveal your authority on the subject of your speech.
British statesman Winston Churchill, whose mother was American, used this personal statement of appreciation to open his address to the U.S. Congress shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941:

"Members of the Senate and of the House of Representatives of the United States, I feel greatly honored that you should have invited me to enter the United States Senate Chamber and address the representatives of both branches of Congress.

The fact that my American forebears have for so many generations played their part in the life of the United States, and that here I am, an Englishman, welcomed in your midst, makes this experience one of the most moving and thrilling in my life, which is already long and has not been entirely uneventful.

I wish indeed that my mother, whose memory I cherish across the vale of years, could have been here to see. By the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own. In that case, this would not have been the first time you would have heard my voice. In that case, I should not have needed any invitation; but, if I had, it is hardly likely that it would have been unanimous. So perhaps things are better as they are."

Reminding his audience of his own American roots helped Churchill to establish a strong common bond on which he drew as he urged the cooperation of Congress in the war effort.

Here is an example of a personal anecdote meant to arouse audience empathy:

"As I was working my way through the public school system, I, like my peers, believed that I was receiving a fine education. I could read and write, and add and subtract-yes, all of the essentials were there. At least that's what I thought. And, then, the boom lowered: 'Attention class-your next assignment is to present an oral report at your paper in front of the class next week.'

My heart stopped. Panic began to rise up inside. Me? In front of thirty other fourth graders giving a speech? For the next five days I lived in dreaded anticipation of the forthcoming event. When the day finally arrived, I stayed home. It seemed at the rime to be the perfect solution to a very scary and very real problem. Up to that rime, I had never been asked to say a word in front of anyone, and, more importantly, had never been taught anything about verbal communication skills."

The third type of personal reference, that which establishes your authority, was illustrated earlier in this chapter by the introduction to the speech on Boy Scouting. In another example, a speaker draws on his military experience to establish his credibility:

"After 20 years in the army during peace and war, and after having made master sergeant twice and been busted back to buck private three rimes, I think I learned something about military discipline. Let me tell you, it's irrational."

Personal references, then, can serve a variety of purposes. But what they do most of all-in all circumstances-is establish a warm bond between you and your au­dience.

2. Rhetorical Questions, Q&A, Questions

Questions. When raising a question to open a speech, you will generally use a "rhetorical question," the kind you don't expect an answer to. Nevertheless, your listeners will probably try to answer mentally. Questions prompt the audience's thinking process. This speaker opened a speech on geographical illiteracy with a series of question:

"Can you name the states that border the Pacific Ocean? What country lies between Panama and Nicaragua? Can you name the Great Lakes?"

And another speaker opened his speech on teenage suicide with this simple question:

"Have you ever been alone in the dark?"

Using just one or two questions, though, is not enough. It is best to use a series of questions if used by themselves. Questions are commonly combined with another method of introduction. In fact, the last speaker went on to tell a poignant story about a young suicide victim and, after that, to relate some rather startling statistics about the problem. Another speaker opened a speech on the inadequacies of our current driver's license renewal system with three startling brief examples followed by a question:

"In 31 states a blind man can be licensed to drive. In 5 states, just send in your check and they will send back your renewed license, no questions asked.

In 1916 my grandfather got his license for the first time. No exam was required; no exam has been required since. Ever wonder why our highways seem a bit unsafe today?"

Either by themselves or in tandem with another method of introduction, ques­tions can provide effective opening for speeches.

Attention Getters, Leads or Hooks:
Making the Audience Smile, Chuckle, Laugh

3. Humor

Humor, handled well, can be a wonderful attention getter. It can help
relax your audience and win their goodwill for the rest of the speech. The following anecdote, for example, could be used to open a speech on the importance of adequate life insurance:

"If you were to lose your husband," the insurance salesman asked the young wife, "what, would you get?" She thought for a moment, and then ventured: "A parakeet."

Humor need not always be the stuff of Drew Carey's "Whose Line is it Anyways?" routine or a Jim Carey slapstick comedy. It does not even have to be a joke. It may take more subtle forms, such as irony or incredulity. Here is another quietly humorous opening of a speech on deception in education:

"Sassafras Herbert proudly displays her certificate from the American Association of Dietary Consultants. This certificate entitles Herbert to a listing in the Official Directory of Nutrition and Dietary Consultants and special rates on malpractice insurance. She'll probably need those rates. Sassafras Herbert is an ll-year-old poodle."

Humor can be used in many circumstances and for many topics, but certain subjects do not lend themselves to a humorous introduction. It would hardly be appropriate to open a speech on teenage suicide, for example, with a funny story. Nor would it be appropriate to use humor in a talk on certain serious crimes. Used with discretion, however, humor can provide a lively, interesting, and appropriate introduction for many speeches.

4. Quotations/Using Explaining Famous Words on the Topic

Quotation Using an appropriate quotation to introduce a speech is a common practice. Often a past writer or speaker has expressed an opinion on your topic that is more authoritative, comprehensive, or better stated than what you can say. In a speech on the proliferation of "super babies," one speaker turned to Scripture to introduce her speech:

"'Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding, for the wisdom is more profitable than silver, and the gain she brings is better than gold.' This quotation, as taken from the New English Bible, Proverbs, Chapter III, is the cry that was uttered to the children of the earth. Today, the cries are coming. . . from the mouths of parents."

The passage quoted possesses both poetic beauty and scriptural authority, providing an interesting and effective introduction to the speech.

A different kind of quotation, this one from an expert, was chosen by another speaker to introduce a similar topic, the disappearance of childhood in America:

"As a distinctive childhood cultUre wastes away, we watch with fascination and dismay." This insight of Neil Postman, author of Disappearance of Childhood, raised a poignant point. Childhood in America is vanishing."

Because the expert was not widely recognized, the speaker included a brief statement of his qualifications. This authority "said it in a nutshell"--expressed in concise language the central idea of the speech.

It is vital that the speaker tie the quote to the topic if it is not so obvious. I'll never forget the speech where the young man began his speech in the following manner:

"'Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, and wealthy and wise.' Those of you with chips in the windshield of your car should get it taken care of immediately."

There are several questions that one should ask this student: (1) Is this the best attention getter for this topic?; (2) What does this quotation have to do with chipped windshields?; (3) Who said this? Speakers must explain the relevance of the quotation with the audience. They must also always tell the audience where the quote originated. If they don't, they are guilty of "academic dishonesty."

After asking these questions, the student came up with the following attention getter:

"'Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, and wealthy and wise.' I'll bet Ben Franklin never thought his quote would be used in a speech on car maintenance. When Franklin penned these words, he was really telling us to be more prepared and proactive in our daily lives. He was telling us that by being prepared for the unexpected, we really save ourselves lots of time and money. In 2005, one way to save your money is to make sure that you practice 'preventative maintenance' on your vehicles. Those nasty little chips in your windshield are one example of a small problem that can quickly become a large one if you're not careful."

Although a quote can effectively introduce a speech, do not fall into the lazy habit of turning to a collection of quotations every time you need an introduction. There are so many other interesting, and sometimes better, ways to introduce a speech that quotes should be used only if they are extremely interesting, compelling, or very much to the point.

5. Startling Statistic/Series of Facts

Startling Fact or Statistic. One method of introducing a speech is the use of a series of startling facts or statistics. Startling an audience with the extent of a situation or problem will invariably catch their attention as well as motivate them to listen further to what you have to say. This opening of a speech on teenage pregnancy must have caused the audience to sit up and take notice:

"There's a disease lurking in this country. A disease that quietly strikes one American teenager every 30 seconds--over one million a year. A disease that could be controlled . . . hasn't been; a disease that could be eliminated. . . isn't. It will affect 40 percent of today's 14-year-olds at least once before they reach 20. It's not contagious, not incurable; but once you catch it-you'll suffer from its effects for the rest of your life. What is it? The disease is teenage pregnancy."

The statistical information on teenage pregnancy is indeed startling. In addition, the speaker employed the technique of suspense, withholding the topic until she had relayed the statistics. Almost in spite of themselves, audience members must have found themselves guessing the cause of such alarming figures. And because they invested mental energy in thinking about the answer, the speaker had their attention. A similar example comes from a speech on the common cold:

"Americans get 500 million per year. This disease makes us lose 32 million days of work and makes us spend 105 million days in bed. We spend over 1 billion dollars in over ­the-counter drugs to help alleviate its symptoms, which include a sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, high temperature, and headaches. What is it? It is the oldest and most common ailment own to man-the common cold."

Like the methods of organization, the methods of in­troduction are not mutually exclusive. Very often, two or three are effectively combined in a single introduction. For example, the following speaker combined the methods of illustration and startling statistic for this effective introduction to a speech on geriatric medicine:

"Although my grandfather continued to struggle against dying, he did not go gentle into that good night. He died in an Arkansas hospital of what doctors officially termed as 'old age.'My grandfather was a member of one of the fastest growing groups in America: those over 65. Between the years 1900 and 1980, the number of people over 65 has tripled. By the year 2040, most of us will not be short of companions our age, because by then the elderly population will be at least 45%."

6. Illustration

Illustration. Not surprisingly, since it is the most inherently interesting type of supporting material, an illustration can provide the basis for an effective speech introduction. In fact, if you have an especially compelling anecdote that you had ­planned to use in the body of the speech, you might do well to use it instead in your introduction. A relevant story often effectively introduces a subject. An in­teresting illustration invariably gains an audience's attention. And a personal an­ecdote can help establish your credibility. Here is how one speaker opened a speech on the problems associated with diplomatic immunity:

"In 1982, Jane Doe was raped at gunpoint in her apartment. Three weeks after the incident, Ms. Holmes identified her offender as he walked down the street, and she then notified the New York police while her boyfriend subdued the man. After 45 minutes of questioning, Manuel Aryee, the accused assailant, was released a free man."

This story has drama, is relevant, and arouses the indignation of the audience. In short, it is an effective way to open the speech.An inherently poignant illustration was offered by this speaker in the opening of a speech on organ donation:

"On October 28, 2002, doctors told Jamie Fiske's grief stricken parents that their 11 month-old daughter could not survive until Thanksgiving. Jamie's hope lay in finding a suitable human liver donor. Only a liver transplant could save Jamie's life.

Some of you may remember the name, Jamie Fiske. You may even recall the dramatic televised appeal which her father, Charles Fiske, made to the American Academy of Pediatricians that day in October. For me, and I hope for some of you, the real hero of the Jamie Fiske saga was not the famous transplant surgeon but a baby boy named Jess Bellon. Why? Because less than a week after Charles Fiske's plea for an organ donor, Jess Bellon's liver was successfully transplanted to Jamie Fiske."

Here is a final example of an illustration, this one used in an introduction to a
speech on the value of autopsy:

"My middle name should have been Imelda. Mother always gave her children the middle name of a godparent. Instead, I became Mary Beth. I thought of my mother's naming system when my godmother and aunt, Imelda, died last summer, an event the family viewed as a blessing. Imelda had suffered throughout her adult life from insanity. Intensive work with psychiatrists and the latest drugs failed to offer Imelda help. No one in our family really understood her plight-we only knew that she was crazy.

We finally understood Imelda-after her death. Doctors performed an autopsy and found that Imelda had suffered from a rare disease in which her body's muscles grew uncontrollably, cutting off blood circulation to her brain, causing her insanity. We felt guilty about the way we had treated Imelda. We were also relieved to discover that her illness was not hereditary."

This personal Illustration captured the attention of the audience. In addition, the speaker established her own involvement and expertise in the subject.

7. Curiosity

Curiosity. There is an old saying, "Curiosity killed the cat." There's even a reference to being to curious in the Bible. Lot's wife was told not to look back, but she couldn't follow that simple instruction and was turned into a pillar of salt. Perhaps with these examples you might want to think twice about using curiosity as an attention getting device. However, keep in mind what's behind both of these examples: that there is an innate curiosity in all living things. We want to know what's going on, we enjoy figuring things out for ourselves. An attention getter that appeals to most of the audiences curiosity is a good thing.

Take, for example, this informative speech given in a Kansas classroom:

"This crop is the number two cash crop in the state of Kansas. This crop's value per bushel is more than soybean, corn and wheat's values combined. Many have seen this crop as an answer to their problems. This crop has saved many family farms. This crop is also viewed as evil by many others. There are many farmers who would rather burn this crop than see what its evil effects could do to their families. This crop is illegal. Growing this crop can land you in prison. This crop is marijuana."

Notice how each time the speaker refers to "this crop" that you try to figure out what it is in your head. In this instance curiosity is used masterfully to focus the audience's attention to the topic at hand, an informative speech on farmers who've resorted to illegal means to keep their family farms.

8. Guided Imagery

Guided Imagery. Asking an audience to close their eyes and imagine something is used frequently as a way to begin speeches. Just make sure to ask them to open their eyes again. Believe it or not, many speakers forget to do this and the audience is confused after the "guided imagery" has finished and the speaker continues.

In this attention getting device the speaker creates an image that he/she guides the audience members through. It can be used more effectively than visual aids as our imaginations can produce far more vivid images than even most films can be.

One student used a set of cymbals and guided imagery in a great informative speech of "The Big Bang Theory." She opened here speech in the following manner:

"Close your eyes. Come one, everyone close your eyes. Now imagine you are weightless. There is no gravity and you find yourself suddenly out of your chair. Your friends are next to you and they're weightless too. You decide to investigate and push yourself out the school door, you float up past the flag pole, past the trees, you find yourself in the middle of a cloud. You keep moving upward….You find yourself in space, floating towards the stars and all of the sudden a group of asterorids race toward you. You try to avoid them, you weave in and out, they are getting thicker and thicker, one is headed your way (she takes out the cymbals and creates a loud clang, audience members jump out of their seats). That is how some people say the planet Earth was created…"

The speaker craftfully and slowly involved her audience in a topic that some might wave off as boring or murmur, "Oh no…". Instead, as she started her informative speech on what might be chalked off as an boring, topic there were laughs from the audience and adrenaline racing in their veins.

Imagine in just how many situations you can ask your audience to place themselves before speaking. There are many great applications for this type of attention getter.

9. Hypothetical Example

Hypothetical. A hypothetical is a type of anecdote. Usually they are a "composite" sketch of what is known about topics ranging from shark attacks to child abductions, from identity-theft to getting to know people. Much like guided imagery, they ask audience members to imagine some sort of scenario. Unlike guided imagery they do not ask audience members to close their eyes and imagine. Speakers who use a hypothetical may or may not let the audience know that it is an imaginary situation before disclosing it.

One young man described with graphic detail the situation that a childe abuse victim dealt with on a daily basis. The picture that he created was a composite of situations he had researched in a speech on the same subject. His attention getter focused the attention of the issue on their school. He also masterfully used curiosity and questioning to get the audience fully submerged in the topic.

"He shows up to school everyday. He never misses. He's thin, pale and almost invisible to many of us. He doesn't talk much in his classes. I'll bet that many of you even know him. He doesn't appear to take very good care of himself and rarely has his homework done on time. You'll notice him sitting alone at lunch. He always seems angry and doesn't mind telling other kids what he thinks of them. Little do we know, though, that he goes home to uncertainty every night. Once last week his dad, drunk again, got up from the dinner table, threw his plate against the wall and punched him in the face. Last week his father pulled him out of bed and kicked him for15 minutes. How many of you think you know who this kid in our school is? (waits for a response) Well, although he's just a hypothetical example of an abused kid, his story is all too familiar to teachers, counselors and law enforcement. That is, if he's discovered in time."

10. Reference to a Recent News Event

Reference to Recent News Event. If your topic is timely, a reference torecent news event can be a good way to open your speech. An opening taken from a recent news story can take the form of an illustration, a startling statistic, or even a quotation, gaining the additional advantages discussed under each of those methods of introduction. Moreover, referring to a recent event will increase your cred­ibility by showing that you are knowledgeable about current affairs.

"Recent" does not necessarily mean a story that broke just last week or even last month. An occurrence that has taken place within the past year or so can be considered recent. Even a particularly significant event that is slightly older than that, such as the 1989 removal of the Berlin Wall, can quality. Here is how one speaker used an anecdote drawn from a contemporary news story to open a speech

"It was another beautiful day at the amusement park. Warm sunshine, the smell of cotton candy, the kids, and the rides surrounded all those who ventured out for a day of fun. The roller coaster's whooshing 60 mile per hour speed was accompanied by the familiar screams of delight from kids of all ages. Another ride, the Comet, was flying gracefully through the heavens when suddenly a chain broke flinging one of the gondolas 75 feet into the air before it crashed, killing a man and seriously injuring his son. This accident, on May 26 in Pontiac, Illinois, was just one of many in 2004--one that many that could have been avoided."

Another speaker turned to a news story for some startling statistics on kidnapping by parents: I
"The October 23rd, 2005, issue of the New York Times reported some startling facts. It reported the findings of the Gallup Poll Organization that there are about 500,000 incidents each year in which kids are kidnapped from one of their parents by the other parent. That's a half million parental kidnappings per year."

The first speaker delivered his speech in 2004; the second, in 2003. These events were only several months old and therefore fresh in the minds of people who knew them. They also pointed up the fact that the problems discussed in the speeches were current and urgent ones.

11. Reference to Occasion

Reference to Occasion. Instead of referring in your introduction to a historical event, you can refer to the occasion at hand. This way of introducing your talk is especially well suited to occasions that are noteworthy and are the reason you were asked to give your talk. For example, when a neighborhood elementary school celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, its first principal might open her remarks this way:

"It is a special joy for me to be here this afternoon to help celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Crockett Elementary School. How well I remember the excitement and anticipation of that opening day so many years ago. How well I remember the children who came to school that first day. Some of them are now your parents. It was a good beginning to a successful twenty-five years."

References to the occasion are often used at weddings, birthday parties, dedi­cation ceremonies, and other such events. It is customary to make a personal reference as well, placing oneself in the occasion. The audience at the school probably expected the principal to do just that. The reference to the occasion can also be combined with other methods of introduction, such as an illustration or an opening question.

Attention Getters, Leads or Hooks:
Referring to a Moment in History

12. Reference to an Historical Event

Reference to an Historical Event. What American is not familiar with theopening line of Lincoln's classic Gettysburg Address:

"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal"?

Note that this opening sentence refers to the historical context of the speech. You, too, may find a wav to begin a speech by making a reference to a historical event. Every day is the anniversary of something. Perhaps you could begin a speech by drawing a relationship between a historical event that happened on this day and your speech objective. How do you discover anniversaries of historical events? Three sources should prove useful. First, consult Jane M. Hatch's American Book of Days; this resource lists key events for every day of the year and also provides details of what occurred. Another source, Anniversaries and Holidays, by Ruth w. Gregory, identifies and describes key holidays. Finally, many newspapers have a section that identifies key events that occurred on "this day in history." If, for example, you know you are going to be speaking on April 6, you could consult a copy of a newspaper from April 6 of last year to discover the key commemorative events for that day.

We are not recommending that you arbitrarily flip through one of these sources to crank up your speech; your reference to a historical event should be linked clearly to your speech purpose. Note how Carl Sandburg began a speech on March 4, 1961, the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln's first inaugural:

"Here one hundred years ago to the day were 10,000 people who hung on the words of the speaker of the day. Beyond this immediate audience were 30 million people in 34 states who wanted to know what he was saying. Over in the countries of Europe were more millions of people wondering whether the American Union of States would hold together or be shattered into fragments."

Attention Getters, Leads or Hooks:
Referring to a Previous Speech

13. Reference to Preceding Speech

Reference to Preceding Speech. Referring to an earlier speech is the sole im­promptu method of attention getter. This method occurs most often when your speech is one of several being presented on the same occasion. The occasion might be speaking day in a speech class, a symposium, or a lecture series in which your talk is one of many on the same topic.
­You must decide on the spot whether referring to one of these previous speeches will be better than using the introduction you originally prepared. As a rule, you are better off sticking with your planned intro­duction. Occasionally, however, a reference to a previous speech may work well, either by itself or in combination with the prepared introduction. And sometimes it is a virtual necessity.

Few experiences will make your stomach sink faster than hearing a speaker just ahead of you speak on your topic. Worse still, that speaker may even use some of the same supporting materials you had planned to use. When this situation happens, you are better off to acknowledge the previous speaker's efforts than to "play ostrich".

Another time when it might be wise to refer to a preceding speech occurs when another speaker has spoken on a topic so related to your own that you can draw an analogy. In a sense, your introduction becomes a transition from that earlier speech to yours. Here is an example of an introduction delivered by a student speaker under those circumstances:

"Kate did a fantastic job of telling you about problems with the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. She was 'right on the money' when she told you how our civil liberties are at risk of being lost once and for all. The Patriot Act is just one of the many "wolves in sheep's clothing" that I plan on sharing with you this afternoon. The decay of our civil liberties is easily wrapped up in the American flag. However, that flag is the very reason that we as responsible Americans must put our feet down and say 'enough is enough.'




Johnie H. Scott, M.A., M.F.A.

Associate Professor of Pan African Studies

, Northridge

Key Concepts:

1)      proactive

2)      gambit

3)      mull

4)      thesis statement

5)      heartfelt

6)      adept

7)      synergy

8)      synergistic


I’ve prepared this with three purposes in mind that are all related to improving the ability of aspiring writers to (1) capture the audience’s attention from the onset with effective, clearly-written and articulated openings for paragraphs and longer compositions, (2) present cleanly-written and carefully-formulated thesis statements, and (3) finish compositions with strong, forceful conclusions that leave the reader talking and with something to think about.

I want to acknowledged a scholarly debt of gratitude to John Langan (i.e., College Writing Skills), Ronald S. Lunsford and Bill Bridges (i.e., The Longwood Guide to Writing), Philip Eggers (i.e., Process & Practice), and Tammy L. Boeck and Megan C. Rainey (Connections: Writing, and Critical Thinking) for their own work in the area of opening and closing essay stratagems. At the same time, credit must also be given to Deanne K. Milan (i.e., Developing Reading Skills) and John Roloff (i.e., Paragraphs) for the extensive attention they gave to improving the reading and basic writing skills of young writers.

Finally, a sincere note of appreciation has to be extended to my colleagues and associates in the Writing Program of the Pan African Studies Department at California State University, Northridge from the time this was first written some 15 years ago in 1986: Dr. Rosentene B. Purnell (Professor Emeritus and founder of the PAS Writing Program as well as author of Bridges: Ways of Approaching Written Discourse), Dr. Tom Spencer-Walters (Chairperson of the Department and founding editor of Kapu-Sens), and Professors King Edward Carter, Professor and author Herbert A. Simmons (i.e., Man Walking On Eggshells, Corner Boy and Tough Country), and Eric Priestley (i.e., author of Raw Dog and Abracadabra). I thank each for the insights and observations over the years of commitment to developing voices among the students matriculating through the PAS Writing Program. To Simmons and Priestley, in particular, I give a heartfelt thanks for continuing the Watts Writers Workshop tradition of which we were all part of.

Much has been made over the years about the importance of experience – very simply, of working at one’s craft…whatever that craft might be. In Robert Townsend’s critically-acclaimed feature film The Five Heartbeats, the central character is an aspiring writer. We hear the statement made by this character (played by Townsend), “To be a true writer, you have to suffer before learning what writing really is.”

Well, my mother, who was not a writer, was not nearly so fanciful in saying to me during my grade school years that I would “have to pay a lot of dues before amounting to anything in this world.” For those reading this, I am saying that writing is not something to be mastered in five easy lessons. Writing has to be worked at – and worked at constantly, every single day. You have to read along the way – whether that reading take the form of newspapers, news magazines, comic books, popular fiction like Walter Mosley’s Walkin’ the Dog, cultural criticism such as that done by Michael Eric Dyson with Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line, or major writers like Toni Morrison with Paradise or Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth. The point I’m making is that a person reads in order to develop, expand and appreciate the power of the word, of vocabulary, of being able to express themselves without stretching for meanings beyond their grasp.

Having said that, my intent is to present another approach to writing. This article is based upon my own experiences as a writer and in the classroom – and I do this as someone whose ability and love for writing enabled me to move up out of the Jordan Downs Housing Projects in South central Los Angeles, pass through Harvard, Stanford and Antioch Universities, and settle into a position where I can now share my love for the craft and love of writing itself with others. For those of you concerned solely with writing better paragraphs and essays, what I have to say should offer some insights on accomplishing that task. For those of you, though, who see writing as a means to affect social attitudes and change the way people view issues (and one another), perhaps what I have to say will help jar some now thoughts into existence. I certainly hope so.

“The Hook”: Getting the Reader’s Attention

How many times have you opened your mailbox to see one of those large, brown envelopes with large lettering boldly announcing that you have been “Pre-Approved” and stand to be “An Instant Winner!” It doesn’t matter that the letter may have come from some publishing clearinghouse. You take a seat in your living room, perhaps at the breakfast nook in your kitchen where you then pause for a moment or two while hefting the envelope from one hand to the other. In your mind, you imagine what it would be like to be a sweepstakes winner – and think back to that happy face of the person who hit the Super Lottery for $70 million. You find yourself thinking of what being an “instant winner” could do in changing your own personal fortunes: payoff outstanding loans, clear past due accounts from your credit report, make it finally possible to take that “Dream Vacation.” Perhaps you even call in family, or a close friend, telling them about this strange letter – wanting them present when you open the envelope.

You do so very carefully, removing the contents which include the facsimile of a $100,000 check bearing your name and a series of numbers --- one of which, you are told, is yours “to keep” and follow in the hope that it will be drawn at a lottery sometime in the not-so-distant future. Excited now with the adrenalin pumping, you put the number series to the side and read on. This is when you get “the pitch” from the company sponsoring the lottery: purchase one or more of their products with the notation that “failing to do so will not detract from your ability to win the $100,000 Grand Sweepstakes Prize!”

In marketing circles, this is referred to as “The Hook”: it is a 20-second window of opportunity wherein marketers gain your attention and make their sale. That 20-second window of opportunity is true for all audiences. Knowing that it exists and how to make the most effective use of that window is one of the reasons why good writers use strategies to immediately gain the reader’s attention. Good writers know that one of the most serious errors that can be made is by opening up right away with the main purpose of the writing – this is an automatic turnoff for the reader!

Think back to that brown, “Pre-Approved Instant Winner” envelope with the facsimile check! Imagine that same envelope in your mailbox, opening it up and immediately being hit on the head with “Buy this.” Without a doubt, that envelope would go sailing into the trash can. With today’s audiences becoming increasingly sophisticated and demanding, there is a premium on the attention span available. You have to make the most of that time. Knowing about and being able to make effective use of the various opening strategies can only enhance your skills as a writer.

There are, as a matter of fact, seven (7) proven opening gambits or strategies for one’s paragraphs and/or longer compositions:

1)      Begin with a broad, general statement that you narrow down to your thesis statement. Keep in mind that the thesis provides the main idea for the entire composition;

2)      Use a question or series of thought-provoking questions. When using this gambit, it is very effective to state these questions as a series of one-liners (i.e., paragraphs) before getting to the thesis. Just keep in mind at all times that the questions you raise do more than merely set a tone for your paper, those questions sooner or later must be answered;

3)      Use quotations. The best quotes are those drawn from popular culture, from the social literature the general public (i.e., your targeted audience) is acquainted with. If you are writing to a politically conservative audience, then you might want to open with a quote from a noted conservative. If the audience is perceived as a hip, upwardly-mobile group of African-American women, then you might want to open with a statement from someone like Joan Morgan, bell hooks, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker or SistahSouljah.If, on the other hand, you are directing your message to a teenaged readership based in the urban core, you might want to open with a quote from the socially conscious lyrics by one of the leading rap artists or groups. Who would you use, for instance, if the paper was centered on the problems caused by gang violence? Use quotes, in other words, that connect with your audience!

4)      Use an anecdote. All audiences enjoy a story, particularly those with human interest. In this instance, you are putting a face (or faces) to your composition by drawing upon an incident containing a moral center, one that you can then use in leading your audience to the thesis statement. Here again, the best anecdotes are those coming from popular culture: from stories and events that people are aware of and talking about.

5)      State the importance of the topic. You do this by presenting statistical data, facts, figures that underscore the issues about to be discussed. The data must be pertinent, validated and presented in an objective manner free of any editorializing – the facts speak for themselves;

6)      Use the opposite of what you plan to write about. This is done for dramatic effect, as in “What if the world were like this instead of what the world, or situation about to be discussed, truly is?” Readers are often fascinated, intrigued by this type of approach; And lastly,

7)      Use a combination of the strategies. This is best done by using two of the six gambits. Your more skilled writers frequently make use of this, the seventh and final opening gambit.

The Thesis Statement

All of these opening strategies, or essay gambits, have one purpose and that is to focus the audience on your purpose for writing: your thesis statement. This statement is best seen as a single, complete sentence containing the main idea of the entire composition with at least three (3) patterns by which you intend to develop and support that subject. You could not write a very good or insightful essay, for example, if your thesis was “The Hyundai is a great car.” That statement by itself is both vague and general. It has no focus and fails to give the audience anything in terms of where the composition is going. On the other hand, the audience receives a clear sense of direction from a thesis statement that reads “Because of its great gas mileage, low maintenance, and outstanding road handling on highways and city streets, the Hyundai is a great car.”

From this thesis statement, we know that you are going to write about (1) the great gas mileage a Hyundai gets in comparison to other cars, (2) the low maintenance and monies saved in repairs with the Hyundai in contrast to other vehicles, and (3) the responsive way the Hyundai handles on the road in relationship to other cars on the highways and city streets. Those three patterns of development all contribute to and support the main idea, which is that the Hyundai is a great car. They do so in a logical, orderly fashion which is what your readership expects in a well-organized composition.

By the same token, you need to now about the four (4) most common errors made when fashioning thesis statements:

  1. Do not make announcement. One of the sure signs of the struggling writer is the telltale “In this paper I am going to write about” or the even more deadly (and monotonous) “The purpose of this paper is…” Announcements are a sure way of insulting the intelligence of your readership. Don’t make announcements (“For the next 750 words I am going to…” which leads the reader to start counting your words rather than concentrating on what you are trying to communicate!) or tell the reader what you plan to write about – allow the writing to communicate the story!
  2. Do not make the thesis too broad. This happens when the writer has failed to carefully think out or plan what the actual subject is going to be. Imagine a thesis statement that asserts “The Civil War was the turning point in American race relations.” Scholars, historians, and many others have written volumes on that subject! This is not the sort of thesis statement you would put forth for a research paper or essay topic due the following week. It is entirely too broad and general.
  3. Do not make the thesis statement too narrow or specific. Again, this is a result of failing to fully think through what one is going to write about. It is very much like painting oneself into a corner, away from any exit, and being left with no way out. Imagine, for example, having to write a paper with the thesis being “This table is made out of wood.” While such a sentence might lend itself to a few sentences (at best), one certainly could not hope to go any further than that. By always incorporating those three (3) patterns of development into your thesis statement, the error of being too narrow or specific will be avoided; and finally,
  4. Do not make your thesis statement too vague. This error usually results from fuzzy, unclear thinking. If the thesis is unclear to you, then it will be unclear and, even worse, confusing to your readers. “The California Condor is an interesting bird” does nothing for the reader. It invites confusion by raising too many questions. “Interesting” meaning what? To who? Why? Here, once again, the confusion can be avoided by incorporating those three (3) patterns of development into the thesis statement.

Synergy – Bringing Everything Together:

Effective writing comes, first of all, from being precise and logical in one’s thinking process. When structuring paragraphs, essays and other compositions that work for the reader – and keep in mind that when writing for the public, that audience always comes first! – consideration must be given to capturing and then holding the attention of the reader. You accomplish this by using the opening gambits or strategies that I have identified here, each of which leads the reader to what hopefully will be a well-formulated, clearly-articulated thesis statement (i.e., the main idea of the entire composition). Your reader(s) should be able to follow that thesis in a logical and orderly fashion to the conclusion.

I like telling my students, however, that concluding or wrapping up a paper is just as important as getting the reader’s attention in the first place. You want to writer something that leaves an impression in the mind of your audience, a belief that they have been given something of considerable worth. This is best achieved by using any one of the following six (6) closing gambits (Again, there are actually eight but students who follow-through with me into 155 Freshman Composition will pickup the remaining two at that level):

1)      Restate the main points raised in the paper. What you are doing here is to repeat for your readers those patterns of development first articulated in the thesis statement; in effect, you are now tying the package together.

2)      Close with a quotation. This can be a very effective means for closing out an essay. It adds style and grace to the writing. The best quotes, again, come out of popular culture or wisdom. The quote(s) should be directly related to the subject matter. Using quotes definitely gives your audience the impression that you are in control of the material.

3)      Close with an anecdote. Once more, we are dealing with readability. Audiences love good stories, those that have a core, a sensibility. The writer who can close a composition with a brief story is certainly going to leave a memorable impression on the readers.

4)      Restate the main point and end with a thought-provoking question. Anytime you can focus the audience on the main point of your writing, then leave them with something to mull over once they have finished the reading, then you have succeeded.

5)      End with a prediction or recommendation based upon the subject matter. Remember that the prediction reflects what might or will take place if the assertion in your thesis is not followed through or acted upon. This engages the audience into actions which is always a positive effect. In the same vein, giving the audience a recommendation or series of recommendations is effective in that you are providing them with a list of actions they can take. This moves the audience from passive readers to active doers.

6)      End with a Call for Action. This is proactive, engaging writing that makes your audience aware that what they have read is not merely brain candy, but a serious call by the writer for them to act upon what has been put on the table. This conclusion keeps your readership stimulated.

7)      Close with a thought-provoking question, one that stands by itself and leads the reader to wonder, “What if?”


Good writing calls for practice and commitment. One of the keys to being an effective writer is remembering your audience, keeping them in mind, understanding that the best audience is one that takes an active rather than passive role in reading what it is that you are trying to get across. The opening and closing strategies that have been discussed here are proven means for accomplishing that exact purpose. At the same time, you have been given a list of the do’s and don’ts in developing thesis statements. To become really adept at writing, though, you have to read: widely and broadly. Reading will give you access not only to new information but, even more, will expose you to different writing styles and ways of expression that can only enhance and improve your own.

Discussion Questions:

1)      The author provides seven (7) different gambits or strategies for starting one’s paper. What are those seven and provide your own original example(s) in explaining each one.

2)      What is a thesis statement? The author lists the four most common errors in the construction of thesis statements. What are those errors and which one(s) give you the greatest difficulty? Why?

3)      In this essay, you have been provided with eight different techniques for concluding one’s paragraphs and longer compositions. Identify each of the eight techniques and briefly give your own, original examples and illustrations in explaining each one.

4)      What has been the greatest value or insight this particular assignment has given you? Why? In what way(s) has it expanded on your previous knowledge and awareness of ways in which to open and close your writing.

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