The Importance of Introductions

Give Your Speakers a Strong Start

Knowing how to introduce a speaker is an important skill in our professional and personal lives. Everyone is expected to be proficient but most are not. Are you comfortable when asked to introduce a speaker? It is more likely you are nervous and a bit uneasy about what is expected. Does it feel like an opportunity?

Why not just let the speaker get up and start speaking? (Sometimes that idea has crossed my mind in the middle of a long, dull, and droning introduction covering every achievement in the life of the speaker and frankly, it might be an improvement.) Why are so many introductions such a drag? Bad introductions are so common that introducers mistake them for the norm and most people are ignorant of the purpose and organization of introductions.

The purpose of an introduction is to gain the audience’s attention. Members of the audience arrive individually and need to coalesce as a group. The audience may have just come from listening to another speaker on a totally different topic and are still mulling over the ideas. They may be in the middle of an interesting conversation with a friend. They may be thinking about modifying their own speech scheduled for later in the day.

A secondary purpose is to motivate the audience to listen. Just because the audience is there doesn’t mean they are ready to listen. Maybe they came to be seen, take a brief nap, or escape something else. You can motivate by giving a preview of the speech from the perspective of the audience. Let them know “What’s in it for me”—narrow the gap between the audience and the lectern.

Organization & Preparation

How is a good introduction organized? Introductions fuse three elements: the subject, the audience, and the speaker. The order of the elements is not important; any one of them can come first or last. The important thing to remember is that the focus is not solely on the speaker; it is on bringing together the three elements so that they open a window.

What do you need to craft a good introduction? The answer is prepare, practice, and be enthusiastic. These need not take long once you understand what you are doing and why. Preparation involves learning about the speaker, the topical nature of the subject, and the audience’s interests and concerns. Get audience background from members of the audience and subject information from your own discussion with the speaker.

When you ask for information, ask what the speaker would like you to emphasize or what the speaker thinks is relevant. Some seasoned speakers prefer to write out their own introduction. (They have experienced too many bum intros.) If a speaker provides lengthy vitae, do not feel obligated to use it all. Shift through and pick out the things that connect the speaker with the subject and the audience. Write out your introduction. Practice it in front of a mirror or into a tape recorder for timing. Hone it to sound natural and enthusiastic. Reduce your written introduction to a few key words and phrases. Transfer them, in large font, to a large sheet of paper. This will be your crutch, and because it is there, you will probably not need to look at it.

Introduction Tips

  1. Know the speaker’s name and how to pronounce it. If it is an unusual name, help the audience learn it. “It rhymes with …”
  2. Know the speaker’s title or position. Do not turn and ask the speaker, “Is it Associate or Assistant Professor?”
  3. Be brief. Aim for between one and three minutes. Five minutes is too long.
  4. Do not read the introduction. It will sound flat, unenthusiastic, and convey the impression that you are unfamiliar with the subject. It is okay to bring notes to the lectern but keep them inconspicuous.
  5. Smile and be enthusiastic in tone, gesture and choice of words. Know enough about the subject to sound knowledgeable. Do not turn to the speaker and ask if the topic is epidemiology, epistemology, or episiotomy. Announce the speech title as given to you by the speaker. If you have any questions about it, ask the speaker before the introduction. Many speakers select specific titles for a reason or for a pun.
  6. Introductions are no place to use slides, overheads, or presentation software.
  7. Anecdotes are good but should pertain to the subject and be in harmony with the mood of the presentation. Avoid canned jokes.
  8. If the credentials of the speaker are so outstanding that they must be shared with the audience or if there are publications that the audience will want to know about, insert them in the program or prepare a separate commemorative handout.
  9. Introduction of a panel of speakers is the same except the introducer needs to describe the structure and format of the panel (speaking order, length of time) and the various points of view and perspectives of the panelists. The introduction of the individual panelists can be done in two ways: all at once or individually as the panel program progresses. Most audiences prefer a handout with the panelists’ credentials so they can refer to it as the panel progresses.
  10. Never use the old cliché that the speaker needs no introduction. If the introduction ties the speaker to the audience and the topic, then each introduction is unique, plus there is always something new about every speaker.
  11. You are the catalyst, not the performer. Do not try to upstage the speaker with your knowledge of the subject. Do not dwell on your relationship with the speaker, even though he or she is your boss, relative, or significant other.
  12. Identify yourself by name and title unless this has already been done earlier. Remember the speaker also needs to know who you are.

1997 by Marie Wallace. Originally appeared on Law Library Resource Exchange (LLRX). Used with permission.