How to Introduce a Tech Conference Speaker in a Minute (or Less)
  July 31, 2012

You’ve been to plenty of programming conferences. And at all too many of them, the host spews something inane about the presenter being introduced. Or worse, offers a well-meaning but sexist intro like, “She’s the sexiest Drupal developer I know.” Such lame introductions come from ignorance, we think; techies just don’t know how to do a conference introduction. So here’s how the process works.

One minute. According to Toastmasters International, you have a minute or less to introduce a conference speaker. Sound easy? Not so fast. Your brief introduction should include all the elements of a full speech, including an opening, body, and conclusion. And in that single minute, your introduction should also set the tone for the topic, direct the focus to the speaker, and set the mood. 

The American Communication Association (ACA) outlines four specific functions of speaker introductions: gain the attention and interest of the audience; gain the goodwill of the audience; clearly state the purpose of the speech; and preview and structure the speech for the audience.

Still, keeping the introduction succinct is important. “Because of this, you as a speaker need to carefully consider every word of your introduction,” the ACA explains. The organization recommends writing out your introduction, word for word, and memorizing it. It's the best way to keep your intro clear and succinct.

These six tips will help you get the most out of your minute that matters:

1. Better Be Brief

“Introductions should never be more than a sentence or two. No one cares,” says Scott Berkun, author of Confessions of a Public Speaker. Berkun recommends watching television news shows to see examples of how short the introductions are for the next speaker. “It's always just a few words,” he says. And Berkun knows what he's talking about: He is paid to speak at 20-30 events around the world each year.

Berkun points out that the event schedule has probably been posted online for weeks by the time the event speaker takes the podium, so attendees probably already know who the speakers are. “The best intro explains one thing the speaker did that they might be best known for, and maybe a short note on why the organizers chose this particular speaker to speak,” he says. “Done. Get the host out of the way and give the speaker the floor.”

Ben Cotton, a systems research engineer, agrees that an introduction should be brief. But don't assume everyone is familiar with the speaker or visited the event website after the schedule was posted. “Keep it short, but don't assume the audience knows who the speaker is or his/her credentials,” he says.

“You don't need to summarize their talk; that's their job,” says Lee Damon, a senior computer specialist at the University of Washington and a public speaker. “However, you should at least give the title of the talk.”

2. Harness the Humor

“Remember that it is an introduction, not a roast,” says Jeff Osier-Mixon, event speaker and community manager for the Yocto Project, an open source collaboration project. “This can be particularly pointed if the person is an old friend. It is much easier to introduce people you don't know.”

The ACA offers a free e-textbook on public speaking, which includes a section on humor in speaker introductions.“The use of humor in an introduction can be one of the most effective types of introductions — if done well,” the ACA says.

But they also point out that bad humor has the potential to ruin a speaker's credibility and destroy his or her talk. The ACA says that humor is hard, especially when you consider the diversity of your audience. “Much humor requires a native understanding of English,” the ACA explains. “Most likely, there will be a number of people in your audience who do not share your cultural upbringing, and humor is often culture-bound.”

3. Kill the “Cute”

Do not make any comments about the speaker's physical appearance, unless it is somehow tied to the talk and you have the speaker's blessing. In a post on Google+, Pearl Chen, founder of Karma Laboratory, a studio that develops tools and curriculum for technology education, offered a brief rant on these kinds of introductions. “Maybe this is me being curmudgeonly, but if you're a [a master of ceremonies] of a tech or professional event,  do not intro or outro your female speakers as cute, sexy, pretty, beautiful, etc.,” she wrote. “Just bite your tongue on those words, please!” Chen notes that how a speaker looks or dresses has nothing to do with the content of the presentation. “I wouldn't be so irked about this if the same MCs made similar appearance comments about the men speaking, but they do not,” she adds.

4. Speak with the Speaker

John Van Ostrand, founder and organizer of the Ontario Linux Fest, recommends briefly interviewing the speaker in advance to find a unique detail or two to add to the introduction. “Be clear why you are asking, to make sure the speaker knows his responses will soon be public. I look for an interesting hobby, a big event in his life, trouble traveling that day — anything unique or interesting,” he says. “It also helps to find continuity. Look to connect your introduction with previous talks that day, the theme of the show, or current events,” Van Ostrand suggests.

5. Practice Pronunciation

“Find out how to pronounce the speaker’s name,” recommends Damon. “Make sure you say her name to her before announcing the speaker, just in case.”

Federico Lucifredi, an event speaker and product manager at Canonical, agrees with Damon, and for Lucifredi, it's personal. “It is very easy to butcher non-English names,” he says, “And even when you do know how to read the original language, the speaker may prefer anglicized pronunciation. It's a no-win situation, so just let them tell you how they like it spoken.”

6. Ignore the Intro

After interviewing the speaker, you might decide that it is better to skip the introduction all together and let the speaker dive right in. “As a speaker, I generally prefer to introduce myself,” says James Schweitzer, software engineer for Watson Managed Services at IBM. “I've never accepted praise well, and an introduction feels like ego stroking. A self introduction allows for humility and humor.”

Do you have other tips for best practices for speaker introductions? Let us know about them in the comments.

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