Guidelines for Special Occasions

Introducing A Speaker Excerpted from Merelyn L. Reeve
© Copyright 1992, By the Author.
Communication Handbook for Teachers. Dartmouth College.
Printed in the United States. Registration Number 522 517.
Reprinted on the World Wide Web with permission of the author to T.W. Sherry.

Speeches of introduction are the most common type of speech that people are asked to give, and yet they are often absurdly bad. Many of them are poorly prepared and badly delivered. Delivery is apt to be either weak and indistinct, or stilted and self-conscious. Introducers often say too much or too little and frequently lack tact and become trite, both in thought and expression. We've all heard the introduction that was interminably long or the one that was filled with clichés. Often we're subjected to the introducer's egotistical personal stories or absurdly lavish praise of the speaker.

It is wise to remember that the purpose of a speech of introduction is:

  1. To get the audience's attention and help them to settle down.
  2. To build interest in the speaker's subject, and
  3. To build credibility for the speaker by showing he or she is qualified to speak on this subject. To do this simple job, we need tact, brevity, and enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, the introducer's lack of tact is more frequent than we like to admit. The classic example is a story Cornelia Otis Skinner loved to tell on herself. She had been asked to be a speaker for an evening engagement in a small mid-western city. At the time, Admiral Byrd had just returned from his polar exploration, and the fees for his lectures reflected his popularity. When the chairman rose to introduce Miss Skinner, she began, "Since we cannot afford Admiral Byrd on this occasion, we are having Cornelia Otis Skinner instead." Senator Bob Dole's favorite involves the man who introduced him as the person who is "interesting even when he doesn't have anything to say."

Brevity is essential. Long-winded introductions are inexcusable. Remember that the audience came to hear the speaker, not the introducer. The speech of introduction is the hors d'oeuvres, not the main course; or to be even more blunt, the introducer is the "piece of parsley on top of a serving of fish."

The story of creation as told in Genesis is only 400 words; the Ten Commandments contain only 297 words; Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" is 266 words; and the Declaration of Independence is only 1,321 words. The kindest thing to say about long-windedness is that it suggests a lack of preparation or a compulsion to be in the limelight.

Our third charge is to show enthusiasm. As Emerson said, "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm." A great speech of introduction cries out for enthusiasm. Don't sound like a dead fish. If you sound tired and/or bored, you will fail to do justice to either the speaker or the audience. Put energy into your delivery and sincerity into your words and you can't miss.

The procedure for putting together a speech of introduction is as follows:

  1. Gather information that you need. Write or, if time is short, telephone for a résumé or biographical data. If you are asked to introduce the speaker minutes ahead of time, grab the speaker and ask questions. (Quickly forgive yourself if the introduction smacks of inadequate preparation.)
  2. Outline your plan. Read the résumé, analyze the information about the speaker, consider the occasion and the audience, and put your ideas in order.
  3. Contact the speaker. Check with the speaker the accuracy of names and titles and find out what the speaker wishes to have said and prefers not to have said. Sometimes this can be done when you are getting biographical information, but the speaker has the right to know what you are planning to say. Check the pronunciation of all names, titles, and offices.
  4. Prepare the introduction.
    1. Give the title of the speech. Even if the title is printed on the program, your first words should include the title of the speech or the topic.
    2. Explain why the audience should be interested-why the topic is important to them. Do not tread on the speaker's territory: check ahead of time with him or her for this section of your speech. Do not air your personal views. As Adlai Stevenson said, "The relationship of the toastmaster to the speaker should be the same as that of the fan to the fan dancer. It should call attention to the subject without making any particular effort to cover it."
    3. Give the credentials of the speaker. Be careful, selective, and discriminating. Find the credentials that qualify him or her to speak on this particular topic. Help make the speaker seem inviting as a person by mentioning their interests, hobbies and activities. In choosing which of the speaker's credentials to mention, avoid long, elaborate details about the speaker's life, avoid long recitals of the speaker's accomplishments, avoid anecdotes about your acquaintance with the speaker, and please avoid funny stories, for they invariably put the speaker or you in an unfavorable light.
    4. State the speaker's name. However many times you use the speaker's name throughout the introduction, your last words should be the speaker's name. Pause before giving the speaker's name. The surname is the most important, so put more emphasis on the last name. Speak clearly and slowly, and look at the audience. (The speaker knows his or her own name.) Immediately after giving the name, turn to the speaker, smile, and lead the applause. Step back two paces and let the speaker walk in front of you to the podium. You do not leave the podium area until the speaker gets there, then leave quickly — still smiling. Ending your introduction with such words as "I give you" or "Let's give him a big hand" is dull. Avoid "Without further ado," "None other than," "The one and only," and "An honor and a privilege." Use of clichés shows laziness and lack of originality. If all else fails, say, "I present," "Here is," "Let's welcome," or simply, "Now, our honored guest, Bob Smith."
    5. A speech of introduction should never be shorter than one minute and never longer than three minutes. Because the speech of introduction is a short speech, it must be tightly organized and well worded; preparation can take more time than it would in a longer speech. When asked how long he would prepare for a ten minute speech Woodrow Wilson said, "Two weeks." When asked how long he would prepare for an hour speech he answered, "One week." Then they asked, "How long would you prepare for a two hour speech?" Wilson immediately replied, "I am ready now."
    6. Some of the common pitfalls in speeches of introduction are:
      1. Overdoing credentials.
      2. Ignoring the reasons the audience will find the topic of concern or interest.
      3. Making the introduction too long.
      4. Telling the speaker his or her name, not the audience.
      5. Forgetting to lead the applause.
      6. Trying to be humorous. Introductions are not the time to use humor.
      7. Bringing yourself into the introduction. Whether you have known "old George" for forty years or not, keep yourself out of it.
      8. Setting the speaker up for failure with such comments as "the funniest woman in Connecticut," "the most brilliant speaker I have every heard," and "you're in for a treat." Do not praise his or her ability as a speaker. Ever. Let the speaker demonstrate their own skills. Extravagant praise brings out the negative in an audience, "Oh yea, prove it. Make me laugh." Remember that the speaker has to live up to your superlatives.
  5. Practice. A speech of introduction should not be read. Even at the expense of some fumbling or hesitancy, it is better that the audience and the speaker see the introducer as sincere. Genuine sentiments, even if somewhat rough, are better than the impersonal recitation of a few words. Because the speech is short, memorization is almost inevitable. To guard against our tricky memories when under the pressure of public speaking, always have either notes to jog you or have the speech completely written out. Excellent speeches of introduction stand out. They are inevitably well practiced. Mark Twain admitted to his listeners that it took him "about three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech."

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