(A Toastmasters talk.)
As public speakers, we put a great deal of effort into preparing our speeches. For example, we make sure that our speeches have proper structure: introduction, body, conclusion. We take care to match our vocabulary to that of our audiences. We consider how we will deliver our words, rehearsing, for example, the pacing of the presentation. We work on vocal variety. We rehearse our hand gestures, consider all elements of our stage presence, and work through transitions between each of these. If the speech is important enough we may do a full dress rehearsal. We may practice with a microphone or, at the very least, check out the acoustics of the room we will be speaking.
We do all this because it is important to us that our presentation be as good as possible. But often we overlook one of the most important elements of a successful presentation. I’m talking about the words that are spoken before we speak. I’m talking about the introduction to our speech.
Imagine that I held in my hands a small yellow ball. And imagine that I decided to toss it about the room asking each person in the audience to catch the ball and toss it back to me. Before I would throw the ball to anyone I would make sure it was safe to do so. Perhaps I would say, ‘I’m going to toss this ball to you. Are you ready? Here it comes.’
Passing the ball back and forth around the room is a very strong metaphor for what we are trying to accomplish as public speakers. We have an idea, represented by the yellow ball. We wish to pass this idea from ourselves to our audiences as safely and efficiently as possible. Before I would throw the ball to anyone I would make sure that they were primed and ready, literally, to receive my pitch.
The introduction to our speech serves the same purpose. It allows us to make sure our audience is primed to receive our ideas and that they are receptive to what we have to say. A successful introduction has three objectives: to let the audience know what they will get out of the speech, to let the audience know that they’re about to be addressed by an expert speaker, and finally, to build a bridge between the audience and the speaker. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
The first objective is to catch the audience’s interest, to provide a hook so that they will pay attention to what we are going to say. We do this by appealing to their enlightened self-interest. We make a deal with our audience. We tell them that if they will give us five minutes of their time we will give them something in return, namely our ideas. So when you phrase your introduction keep in mind who the audience is, what they want and what you are promising to deliver to them. That is the first goal of an introduction.
The second goal is to assure the audience you will deliver on the promise you just made to your audience. In the first part of your introduction, you promised them that they are going to receive something of interest. You have to make sure they understand that you are capable of delivering on that promise. You want to establish your own credentials as an expert in the area that is being addressed. Note that you don’t need to be the expert of all experts. You don’t need a PhD to call yourself an expert in the subject. If you’re talking about your dog you are the expert on that subject. If you’re talking about your hopes and dreams for a better world you already have a PhD in that area. You are the expert. The second objective of the introduction is to provide your credentials, your bona fides, that show that you are qualified to speak on the subject. These credentials insure you are capable of delivering on the promise you made in the first part of the introduction.
The final objective of an introduction is to bring the audience and the speaker together to build bridges between them, to establish a rapport and remove any barriers that may separate them. The introduction should conclude with the name of the speaker. This signals to the audience that you have completed your introduction and you can sit down. It signals to the speaker that he’s on and it gives them a small head rush as he hears his own name being spoken. More importantly, it tells the audience that they’re not dealing with just a stranger before them now, but this is someone that they’ve learned something about and they know them by name. It is as if you took the speaker by the hand, took him up to the audience members, had them clasp hands and said, “This is my dear friend. He has something important to say and I want you to listen to him.” This building of rapport between the speaker and the audience sets the stage for the fulfillment of the promise made at the beginning of the introduction.
In summary, an introduction should meet three objectives. The first objective makes a promise to the audience that if they will simply pay attention to the speech they will gain something of value out of it. The second objective establishes the credentials of the speaker and perhaps the subject matter as well. It, in essence, promises the audience that the speaker is qualified to deliver on that promise. The final objective of the introduction is to establish a bridge between the audience and the speaker, creating a situation in which the promise made to the audience can be fulfilled and delivered upon.
In future, when we prepare our speeches we should also take time to prepare an introduction that meets the objectives outlined here as the final and perhaps the most important element of the successful presentation. After all the words you put in the introduction may well be the most important words you never speak.