How many hundreds of guest talks I have given in the past sixty years, I do not know. I do know that a great variety of folk have introduced me to some audience. I may be justified, therefore, in putting down a few educated suggestions about the best ways to open the door between a speaker and the spoken-to.
1. Open the door; don’t stand in it for long. It’s a temptation, for some introducers to display their talent for mastery of the speaker’s curriculum vitae. I was once introduced to a high school audience with a recitation of all five pages of a c.v. I had sent ahead. It took me ten minutes, I am sure, to win back the attention of those students after the boredom of that introduction. I later composed a one-paragraph summary of my biography for future use to my introducers.
2. The more eminent, the briefer; the less known, the more detailed. “The President of the United States” is quite enough for introducing that high officer. But such brevity is seldom enough for the rest of us. I have sometimes been introduced merely as “the president of Union Theological Seminary.” For two reasons this is inadequate: In almost any audience there will be persons who know little or nothing about a place called UTS. Further, most of us, in our association with an institution, have more facets to our history than is implied in any current official role. We’d like to be known for who we have been. It has helped constitute who we are. For example, having served half of my career in the American South, I like northern audiences to know that. One and all, as Bonhoeffer said, we are persons of many dimensions.
3. Get the titles right. A third fault of that “UTS” introduction is its failure to add “in the City of New York.” There happens to be another Union Seminary in Virginia and one in the Philippines. More personally and egotism aside, it’s nice to have some accurate mention of one or two titles one has acquired in one’s professional trek. Women tell me that male introducers of women are often careless in this matter. Names of church offices, faculty chairs, public organizations, “Dr.” and/or “Rev.” make a difference. You can overdo or “underdo” titles. Just do them — accurately.
4. Choose facts that fit the audience. Since all of us, like Hamlet, have in our biographies that “which passeth show,” the choice of facts about us demands great discrimination. It can be useful to ask the speaker for some help: “What would you most like us to know about you?” There’s lot to know, so the principle of choice ought to be: what about this person is likely most to interest this audience? Academic audiences will be interested in books, even the degrees, of a scholar. Church audiences would be glad to know if the speaker has ever served or is a member of a local congregation. Community audiences will be interested in secular involvements outside the church and the academy. The same focus on cultural “fit” applies to self-introductions. I once made the mistake of introducing myself to an up-country church congregation in Indonesia without any mention of my wife and children. That was what they wanted most to know about me and soon after I began to talk, they so informed me!
5. Introduce the audience to the speaker, too. A good introduction is like a swinging door. It invites traffic in both directions. Justify the invitation to speak by identifying what the inviters believe to be the interests of the audience. What are we most interested in hearing from you? Who are we that we are looking forward to an address on this topic? Often members of the audience will benefit from such simultaneous introductions, for it helps them know each other. The swinging door can identify ties that bind audience and speaker before he or she stands up.
6. Mention personal associations carefully. Among the most risky introducers are those who have known the speaker for decades. This circumstance can complicate observance of rule # 2. Start by tumbling out this and that little memory of “how we first met” and “here are things about her that only people like me are likely to know,” and you may be introducing yourself as much as the speaker. A little personal testimony, i.e. “what I have always liked most about her,” is OK. Testimonies from one or two others are, too. But beware of indulging too many anecdotes around “I knew her when.”
7. Tell stories, short ones. As all public speakers know, illustrative stories are the spice of speeches, but they can be time consumers. Most ministers know that a sermonic budget of twenty minutes requires economy in anecdotes. The same caution applies to speakers who have to introduce themselves. I could have told those Indonesians a long story about how I met my wife and what our children are doing, but that would have overdone it. They needed only to know that the guy had a family. It was for them a crucial identifying fact.
8. Be sure to prepare. To observe all of these rules requires considerable forethought, even research. The old saw about speechmaking applies to introducers, too: “If you want me to speak for a half hour, I can do that immediately. If you want only five minutes, I will need a few days.” Unprepared introductions offend against one or more of the above rules. By their offhandedness, they also are likely to imply that the only important thing about this person is what we have asked him to talk about. Not so. A long time ago I learned that, when it comes to public speaking, who you are matters as much to an audience as what you will say. Reputations matter. In all brevity an introducer should recall what accounts for that reputation.
In sum, a good introduction whets the appetite of audience and speaker for communicating with each other. The appetizer of the introduction anticipates the main course. Happy the audience whose members afterwards agree that it was a banquet well and tastefully begun!
Donald W. Shriver Jr. is President Emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.