How Not to Introduce a Speaker
There's a better way to set up a talk.
Posted Apr 02, 2014
When I attend a presentation, the first thing that captures my attention isn’t the speaker or the material. It’s the person who introduces the speaker.
After giving a few hundred speeches in the past year, I’ve been struck by the variety of ways that different people introduce the same speaker. Some introductions energize me and seem to leave the audience excited to hear from me. Other introductions inadvertently make it more difficult to deliver a successful speech.
In my experience, the best introductions avoid three mistakes:
1. Don’t read the speaker’s biography. Much of the time, introducers walk up to the stage with a written biography, and proceed to read it verbatim. This is a mistake for several reasons. First, it’s boring. Bios are usually written to inform, not fascinate. Second, a typical bio is far too long to hold the audience’s attention. The goal is to pique the audience’s curiosity, not cover the speaker’s entire life history.
Third, even if introducers are armed with a short, punchy bio, they usually trip up when trying to read the words. This often happens to me when I’ve tried to read introductory remarks, leaving me mystified: why can I give a 45-minute speech from memory without missing a beat, but stumble through reading a few words that are right in front of me? (One explanation comes from classic research by psychologist Robert Zajonc: the presence of an audience enhances performance for well-learned tasks, but hinders performance when we’re novices. We’re used to reading silently, not out loud in front of large groups, and the arousal interferes with fluent processing.)
Instead of reading a bio, I like it when introducers highlight a grand total of three or four interesting tidbits about the speaker. Here’s one of the best intros I’ve ever received: “Adam Grant is a Wharton professor who has advised leaders ranging from Google to Goldman Sachs to the U.S. Air Force. He’s the author of Give and Take, and he used to perform as a magician.”
2. Don’t give away the speaker’s content. On numerous occasions, during the introduction, I’ve watched presenters turn white as a sheet. The introducer steals the thunder of the speech by giving away a punch line, a surprise, or a memorable quote. This has happened to me several times recently. One of my most requested speeches introduces three styles of interaction: givers (helpful), takers (selfish), and matchers (fair). I poll the audience: which group is least successful, and which is most successful?
Then, I reveal an unexpected conclusion from a decade of research across multiple industries. Givers are more likely to finish last…but they’re also more likely to finish first. It was a bummer when the CEO of a Fortune 500 company introduced me by announcing that I would be speaking about how good guys finish first.
Goodbye, element of surprise! Goodnight, audience interaction. Hello, pivot!
My rule here is clear: introducers should avoid the content altogether. It’s fine to explain the relevance of the talk to the audience. Just tell us the purpose of the presentation, or the topic of the speech, without divulging the message or the conclusion. You can also create a curiosity gap, as described by Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick. Pose a question that the speaker might answer, and the audience will be intrigued to find out more. For my speech, it works well when introducers simply say, “Today’s speaker will challenge our assumptions about what drives success” or “Adam will ask, ‘Is giving the secret to getting ahead?’”
3. Don’t make the speaker sound superhuman. I’m thrilled to share this idea with you, because the next paragraph is going to be the most profound argument you’ll read this week.
Many introducers wax poetic in superlatives about the speaker. This is a good idea in principle: extensive evidence shows that whether the speaker is a teacher or a leader, high expectations can fuel self-fulfilling prophecies. When the introducer emphasizes what’s impressive about the speaker, audience members are more likely to be smiling at the edge of their seats. This can enhance the speaker’s confidence and reduce self-doubt, and then a virtuous cycle ensues. The audience is more likely to engage with her insights and laugh at her jokes, further enhancing the speaker’s confidence and ability to command attention. If something goes wrong, the audience will be more forgiving.
Yet an over-the-top setup can lead to what social scientists call a self-negating or self-disconfirming prophecy. In a nutshell, if the audience’s expectations are too high, there’s a greater risk of a gap between anticipation and reality. If the introduction is too glowing—like my tongue-in-cheek opening sentence above—the speaker will have a hard time living up to it. To paraphrase one of my mentors, Jane Dutton:
It’s better if the introducer under-promises, and the speaker over-delivers, than vice-versa.