First of all, I’d like to thank you for reading this post. It is a great pleasure to be read and recommended by people in many different countries. When preparing this post, I was reminded of a saying by someone you have never heard of. Here is the structure of the post, which you don’t really need to read but I will waste a good chunk of my time going through anyway.
As awful as that seemed, that paragraph represents to most common way that people start a talk. It’s mind-numbing stuff. Instead of catching your attention, it seems that many speakers actively want to lose it. Between long-winded acknowledgements, fluffy self-presentations and, of course, the unnecessary and ugly talk structure slide, the first five minutes can be frittered away without anything useful being achieved.
Thankfully, there is a much better way. Almost any talk can be introduced with a prologue – a short, snappy attention-grabbing introduction that sets the stage, whets the appetite and makes people sit up and listen. Like a good dose of caffeine, prologues get people ready to listen and allow you to do all the correct introductory stuff, like acknowledgements and framing, at a point when people are actually ready to hear it.
So, how do you write a prologue?
It’s pretty simple, really. If you have read previous posts, you will have made a t-shirt message for your talk. In your prologue, you should present that in as obvious, skilful and creative a way as possible, preferably with a succinct explanation or claim.
Here’s a simple example. I once did a talk on a project that aimed to helped people to engage more with research by using social media. Long story short, the project failed but did give useful data for later work. A prologue for that talk could have been something like this:
Research is exciting. We all know that. Research is useful. We all know that too. Sadly, for many people, research is distant, disconnected to real-life and disempowering. This talk will show you how a team in my department tried to change these perceptions. This particular attempt failed but this talk will demonstrate the important lessons this failure has taught us.
At that point, it would have been the right time to do the traditional thanks and introduce myself. Notice how the prologue does three things.
- It gives people a hook to hang the talk on
As I said in the Four Cs series, all talks need to connect with people where they are. A good prologue hits that point of connection hard and tells people, in as few words as possible, where the talk fits into their world.
- It tells people the main message
Apart from anything else, this is what makes a prologue valuable. By hitting the main message, you tell people straight away why they should listen. You also make sure that, even if people need to leave early or their attention drifts, they know exactly what you are trying to tell them. Instead of giving them a detailed route plan, as structure slides are supposed to do, you show them the destination. Once people know where you want them to go, it’s much easier to lead them there.
- It proves you are in control
I really believe that the reason why we default to fluffy acknowledgements, slides giving the talk structure and some boring waffling is that we fell that we need time to warm up. Get a punchy prologue and you tell people that you are already red hot and ready to go. For bonus points, give the prologue without even looking at your notes. People want to be confident that you know your stuff. Give a good prologue and you can tick that box easily.
Prologues are great for those talks when you need to make a punchy first impression. Next week, we will look at some alternatives for other occasions.