Carmen Taran (now Simon), co-founder of Rexi Media, is on a mission—to prevent lackluster presentations. She wrote Better Beginnings: How to capture your audience in 30 seconds to teach others how to “get participants’ spines erect and minds engaged.” This book is for anyone who wants their audience, whether passive listeners or active learners, to remember their presentations (including all types of eLearning) for the right reasons.

To achieve the goal of getting people engaged, you have to capture their attention within the first 30 seconds. Is it really possible to capture an audience in 30 seconds? Consider this: advertisers spent an average of $3.4 million each to air 30-second commercials during 2012’s Super Bowl XLVI.  How much are you willing to invest to get your audience’s attention?

Techniques and tips

Simon asserts that so many presentations have become forgettable because they failed to use one or more of the following techniques: anticipation, specificity, inquiry, incongruity, novelty, uncertainty, complexity, ease of comprehension, indulgence, and staging. In the book, she devotes a section to each technique and provides tips on its usage (Table 1).

Table 1. Carmen Simon’s 10 tips and techniques for capturing an audience


What to Do


  • Give your audience the pleasure of wondering.
  • Incorporate surprises or rewards as part of your presentation.
  • Consider using negative verbiage to pique the audience’s interest.


  • Use specific language that stimulates the senses.
  • Focus on the quality, not quantity, of your words.
  • Starve the adjectives and feed the verbs to add energy to your words.


  • Ask questions to gain immediate attention.
  • Allow for pauses so that people can think about answering the question.
  • Create a mental space where you can place the answers.


  • Provide a conflict between what they expect to see and what really occurs.
  • Include disturbing information to provide opportunities for reflection.
  • Incorporate sequences of conflicts and resolutions to keep them engaged.


  • Find new uses for old ideas.
  • Create new ideas by combining existing ideas.
  • Modify the presentation’s structure, order, connections, or points of view.


  • Create a situation that is unpredictable but solvable.
  • Consider delivering your presentation in a game format.
  • Match the challenge(s) presented with the level of the audience’s skills.


  • Create a bit of tension to increase interest and attention.
  • Acknowledge the complexity and find order beneath the disorder.
  • Discuss solutions for complex issues with the audience.

Ease of Comprehension

  • Use analogies to provide clarity and cohesion.
  • Use comparisons (e.g., before/after) to move the audience to an emotional or intellectual state that is easy to understand.
  • Avoid using phrases and jargon that may be unfamiliar to the audience.


  • Address the audience to serve them.
  • Speak to the audience’s aspirations (or to what annoys them).
  • Find the audience’s “secret pain” or aspiration and deliver your own truth.


  • Use props and images to draw the audience’s attention or reinforce an idea.
  • Incorporate sound to help them focus and pay attention.
  • Use spacing, color, and light to create an environment that tells a story.


Implications for eLearning

Followers of Gagné’s nine events of instruction know the first step is to gain the attention of the learners.  The charge to gain (and retain) their attention is even more challenging when it comes to eLearning.  As developers, you have limited interaction with your audience—the learners who will be taking your training.

Therefore, you don’t get an opportunity to gauge the audience’s response to it. All you have is the course itself, not only when the course will be a stand-alone self-administered module, but even when an instructor will deliver it to distance learners in a virtual classroom. The content acts as your voice; it speaks to the learners on your behalf. Unfortunately, this communication is not a two-way street for the developer.  Simon encourages developers to view the learners as having remote controls in their hands: They can shut off the training without notice.

Conclusion and recommendations

In the last section of the book, Simon reminds us that “A strong beginning is enhanced by a strong follow-through.” Those first 30 seconds you invested can lead to a return of 10 more minutes of the learners’ attention. Continue to use the techniques in Table 1 to sustain it. Better beginnings in your training can lead to better experiences for the learners.

I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in developing more engaging eLearning interventions.  The author practices what she preaches, incorporating the appropriate words and examples for each technique to keep the reader’s attention. If you happen to come across a presentation or webinar by the author, don’t hesitate to register for it.

Bibliographic information

Taran, Carmen. (2009). Better Beginnings: How to capture your audience in 30 seconds. Rexi Media. ISBN: 978-0-615-24520-1. 197 pages.

Note: The book is currently out of print; however, copies may still be available through Amazon or AbeBooks. You can also read an excerpt from Rexi Media’s website.