May 6, 2013 fm

When Curiosity Meets Ethos

I have two fetishisms in public speaking: your voice and your first sentence. Let’s focus on the latter in this post.

How many times do we miss a great chance to start a great conversation? How many times do we make a comment about that stupid weather at a cocktail party? How many times do we sit in an internal business meeting with a number of new faces and we all say the same introductory lines: Hello, my name is Florian Mueck. I’m from the Markets department, and I’m looking forward to working with all of you guys. 


The first sentence is holy, sacred, divine. The first sentence determines your conversational fate. Al Pacino would say, The first sentence makes all the difference – between winning and losing, between living and dying!

In one of my former posts, What Do You Do For A Living?, I reflected on the anti-elevator speech, as Cliff Suttle calls it. In the meantime I’ve started to impart workshops on the first sentence, in which people come up with creative ways of how to respond to that cliché question, What do you do for a living?, with more impact.

Here are some of the answers:

  1. I enjoy my job with all five senses.
  2. 15-20 thousand € in 365 days.
  3. I create concepts and find solutions.
  4. I’m a sponge.
  5. I enthuse many people every day.
  6. I let it shine.
  7. I’m the witch with the cloth.
  8. I ask the right questions.
  9. I solve problems and take decisions.
  10. I read newspaper and delegate tasks.
  11. I wait until it’s Friday, so I can drink champagne with my colleagues.
  12. I motivate my team in order to reach our goals.
  13. I build the road to a full house.
  14. I creatively process groceries on the fourth continent.
  15. I’m a passionate persuader.
  16. I build bridges.
  17. I boost your charisma.
  18. I’m the devil’s advocate of product management.
  19. I help others grow.
  20. I’m a frozen food fan.

Two success factors

Analyzing these and other first sentences of anti-elevator speeches, for me, there are two main success drivers – curiosity and ethos.

Whether it’s a public speech in front of 500 people or a one-to-one dialog – curiosity is a wonderful driver of audience attention. Think about those cliff-hangers in “Prison Break, “24” or “Lost”. When you answer that cliché question you have one goal: you want the other ones to be curious to know more. If they want to know more, you’ve won. Hence, your first sentence must reveal something, but not everything. It must be blurry, not clear. It must be mysterious leaving room for imagination.

Ethos – one of the three pillars of rhetoric – means credibility. How credible are you as a speaker? What is the level of your authority? Do they admire you from the start or do you only cause a quick and cheap laugh that crackles instantly? From my point of view, aside from creating curiosity, your first sentence must also transmit professional ethos.

In the curiosity-ethos-matrix below you see my subjective ratings of those 20 before mentioned first sentences:

First sentences with the highest impact transmit a high level of ethos and create a large momentum of curiosity.

What exactly do I like about the green numbers?

1. I enjoy my job with all five senses. – People who enjoy their job are passionate about it. People who are passionate about their job, tend to do an excellent job. This is a subtle indicator of professionalism. See, hear, touch, smell, taste – the five senses open the door to a room of fantasy. I’m hooked.

5. I enthuse many people every day. – It may be a humbly bold statement, but how can you enthuse many people every day, if you’re not good at what you’re doing? For sure, I want to know how the originator of this phrase does it! I’m hooked.

7. I’m the witch with the cloth. – I love this one. And you would too, if you knew the person who said it. The phrase tells us that she has something to do with cleaning, but it’s the witch part that makes it mysterious. I’m definitely hooked.

8. I ask the right questions. – Short and sweet. Someone who knows how to ask the right questions, knows his turf. It could be sales, it could be general management. It’s an intriguing answer asking for more. I’m hooked.

13. I build the road to a full house. – What a powerful phrase! Metaphorical, constructive, success-driven. Curiosity and ethos – 100%! I’m hooked.

14. I creatively process groceries on the fourth continent. – You can say, I’m a chef. Or you say what this gentleman came up with. The four continents raise the bar of ethos. The word creatively makes the phrase more intriguing. I’m hooked.

15. I’m a passionate persuader. – The art of rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Great historical orators like Aristotle, Demosthenes or Cicero were lawyers. They were passionate persuaders. Using this first sentence any lawyer could gain a lot more impact. I’d be hooked.

17. I boost your charisma. – My own phrase. I always use it. It works.

18. I’m the devil’s advocate of product management. – I grilled The Wisdom Hunter for almost 10 minutes, until she finally came up with the phrase devil’s advocate. Someone who challenges and questions everything for a better outcome. High ethos mixed with a high level of curiosity to learn more. I’m hooked.

19. I help others grow. – Lean and mean – like number 8. It burns the question mark into in the questioner’s brain: HOW? That conversation doesn’t end there. I’m hooked.

What is your first sentence?

Next time someone asks you the cliché question, What do you do for a living?, be prepared. Do it try-and-error-style. We often hear this question in life, which means we have many chances to refine our answer.

If you have a great one, please send it to me and we discuss it.

Comments (3)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *