Wednesday, March 20, 2013

FAQ: How to introduce a speaker?

At church and at Christian Union meetings I hear speakers introduced and I get introduced. Sadly this is often quite cringeworthy and ineffective. Can we do better?

In How to Deliver a TED Talk Jeremy Donovan writes on the subject. The famous TED talks videos don't include their speaker introductions but they do happen. He highlights that it would be possible to introduce a speaker by giving their full CV or biography but that doesn't help.

It seems to me that the basic rule on an introduction is that it needs to briefly tell the listener:
Why should I listen to This Person and On This Subject.
This can be Informational or Anecdotal and should be brief. Three options:
  • Interview the speaker.
  • Introduce the speaker.
  • Have them introduce themselves.
I'm inclined to think its better to introduce a speaker rather than interview them. What you'd discern from an interview can be found out in a conversation before hand. The speaker wants to be focussed on giving their talk rather than trivial or serious things about who they are in the moments before they speak. Self-introduction is fine and probably for a regular speaker that is sufficient - though every meeting should be done with an active awareness that there should be new people present and that we'd want them to feel included rather than excluded.

Anything said upfront in any Christian meeting should be said under the assumption that a Christian from another context could be there who might not speak our dialect, and more importantly that someone who isn't a Christian could be there and should be welcomed both directly and indirectly. If we talk like we expect it to be an "in house" meeting then people will tragically treat it as such. If we consider our speech to include people we'll have a form of meeting that fits with the content of our meeting, with the good news about Jesus.

Many an introduction "fails to tell the audience what is in it for them." (Donovan)

At our recent leaders conference I asked one of my team in to introduce me before I gave the first of three talks to new student leaders from Psalm 45. I did the preparation work for this - on my own and then conversationally with her. I asked her to say that I had 15 years of experience in student mission, that I'd sat where they're sitting as a new leader. Perhaps more helpfully, she also shared that she and I had worked through the material together over the previous three months and she'd really enjoyed and been helped by my passion for Jesus, that and she was confident that they would too. It was my first attempt at seriously preparing an introduction but I think it was quite effective. On a different occasion and subject a different introduction would be needed. The point remains:
"Emcees must establish the speaker’s credibility without making them appear superhuman." Donovan 
The speaker needs to have something to say, but also be human enough to stand with us not appear to be too far ahead that we can't join them. What's said should be relevant to the occasion. Telling people about the speaker's Physics PhD is probably not relevant unless its a talk on a Science related subject. Telling people about the speaker's family background isn't that relevant unless they're coming to speak on something related to that.

The other thing to be aware of is setting the stage - speakers and hosts should make sure that any mics, stands, cables are set up rightly with good sound levels. Having to fiddle around with PA/AV at the start of a talk is deeply distracting and easily avoided by a few minutes preparation before the meeting starts. When I arrive at a CU meeting as a guest speaker I want to speak to the person who will introduce me (and often read a Bible passage), the sound/visual team and whoever I'm handing over to at the end of the talk. That means I've tried to personally connect with five people, and clarified our working relationship in the meeting.

A little thought can make a huge difference and sometimes the relationship is enough as Donovan illustrates:
"My central theme was secrets to delivering presentations that help little companies close big company deals. Just before we took the stage, John Friess, a busy entrepreneur and the evening’s emcee, admitted to me that he had neglected to review my introduction. He took a brief look at the copy I handed him, crumpled it up, put it in his pocket and said “Trust me.” Needless to say, my blood pressure immediately rose more than a few points. John took the stage and proceeded to tell a brief personal story about his struggles with pitching to investors, partners, and customers. He then shared with the audience the story of how he met me and of my passion for trying to give everyone I meet the tools and the feedback they need to become inspiring communicators. I could not have asked for a better introduction." 
Often that'd be possible because we invite people we know to speak -- or on the strength of someone else's recommendation. The right story or the right information tells those who have come why it'll be worth them listening.

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