For the next few weeks, I will be giving you ways to grab people’s attention and keep it. If first impressions count then your introduction is your most valuable asset. I want to show you some ways to use those precious first few minutes wisely and set yourself up for success.
This week, I want to talk about connecting. The introduction is the ideal place to connect with your audience with either a (short!) remark about them and the conference location or by showing how what you will say relates to what others have said. I would like to give you a few quick pointers to getting this right, most of which I have learned from two true experts: speaking coach, Iain Davidson, and my senior PhD supervisor Graham Turner.
Next week will be all about prologues. Prologues are all about impact and power. Whereas connecting gets people on your side, prologues catch people’s attention. If you want to know how to peel people off their smartphones for a few minutes, that will be your week.
In two weeks’ time, it will be all about alternatives. I will cover stories, how to do an outline without an outline slide and starting with questions. All of these offer useful ways of doing an introduction that don’t require the hard work of getting connecting right or the sharp delivery required of prologues. In short, over three weeks you will get five introduction strategies that you can apply to any talk.
So, now to connecting. You will probably be used to a certain kind of introduction. The speaker might say who they are and where they come from, they might say something like “it’s really nice to be here” and then, if they are of a certain generation, you are likely to get a black and white slide with all their main points. At the end of their talk, someone else comes on and does exactly the same thing. It is as if each talk exists in its own little bubble cut off from the rest of the world.
I was the type to do that too, until I watched this talk by Bill Hybels, where he spent about 5 minutes talking about the church where he was speaking. Then I received advice from Graham Turner on academic conferences, when he pointed out that the people who get the most interest are those who can show how their work relates to everything else that is going on at the conference. The theme is the same. People are more likely to listen when you show them how you are joining the dots between their world and yours.
That is your job if you want to build connection in your introduction. Take something simple, like the conference venue or the city or the topic and think about the ways that other people might have experienced it. Maybe the venue is especially impressive or the city is famous for traffic jams or the topic has been in the news recently. Whatever it is, if it is common, it is a possible point of connection.
But beware. It is possible to get connection wrong by dropping into clichés. It seems a rule that the any opening speech for events in Scotland must include mentions of haggis and kilts. When visiting France, speakers will mention garlic or the Eiffel Tower. I sometimes wonder if guest speakers in Texas feel they have to mention oil or the Bush family.
As common as those things might be, they are pretty dead in terms of connection. In fact, they might even push people away. “Oh great, another speaker who sees us as walking stereotypes,” will be the words in the minds of your audience.
On the other hand, tune in to something closer to home and you help people to see you as someone who cares, in short, someone who is listening. So, instead of clichés, try something like “I was really impressed by what Mr X said, especially since I would like to talk to you about Y” or “[Topic X] has been in the news a lot recently. Today, I would like to share with you how [your theme] is affecting it.” The point is that you link your talk into something tangible and important in the minds of your listeners. Do that and you have their attention.