Um, obviously? Isn’t that the polite and expected thing to do? It’s rude to start speaking to someone without introducing yourself first, right? Not so fast, I say.
The opening seconds of your presentation are some of the most important because your audience makes subconscious decisions about the value of what you are sharing. The Genard Method says the first 60 seconds are critical. Duarte.com says the first 30 seconds are the most important. Forbes.com says you have just 7 seconds to make a first impression.
The point is, you have seconds, not minutes, to start your presentation on the right foot.
Should you consume those first, valuable seconds by talking about yourself? The answer is…it depends. Let’s explore a few questions on this topic.
1. Why do so many presenters begin by introducing themselves?
It’s a comfortable place to start, in an uncomfortable setting. The beginning of a presentation is often when we are most nervous, as we swallow the lump in our throats and start speaking. What topic are we most comfortable with (and an unrivaled expert on), if not ourselves? Beginning a presentation on the same footing as we would any other conversation with a stranger, might feel like the natural and most comfortable thing to do.
Sharing our background and other personal details can also “humanize” us and establish camaraderie with the audience. Certain details about ourselves, our families, our background may help us to connect on a variety of levels with different individuals in the room. Yet, are these details really the most important use of our opening seconds? Does sharing our background help us accomplish the goal of our presentation? Let’s explore that with our next question.
2. When should you talk about yourself in the introduction?
When details about yourself establish unequivocal authority on a topic, makes your audience care about your topic, or directly relates to the goal of your presentation.
A great example of a presenter who did this to great effect was retired Navy Vice Admiral Bill Sullivan. I’d never heard of, or met, Bill before I heard him speak at a software conference. His topic was leadership. Now, as a retired Vice Admiral for the Navy, I assumed he would know what he was talking about. However, his introduction had the audience hanging on his every word. He described, in what I assume was a comfortably de-classified level of detail, how he had captained an aircraft carrier carrying an unbelievable amount of men, in the Persian Gulf during the war in Iraq. After showing us pictures of his ships and describing some of the situations he encountered, I, along with the rest of the audience, was ready to absorb anything he had to say about people leadership.
Perhaps you’ve published a celebrated paper on the topic at hand. Perhaps you have overcome a personal tragedy which was the genesis for the story you are telling. There are all sorts of occasions where a self-introduction is the perfect use of your opening seconds, where your personal story will make the audience deeply care about, and want to listen to, what you have to say.
3. When do you not need to introduce yourself?
There are three scenarios where you do not need to introduce yourself at the beginning of the presentation.
Scenario 1: When you already know (or have just personally introduced yourself to) everyone in the room.
In an intimate presentation setting, as people enter the physical or virtual space, you may have the opportunity to introduce yourself. If you do, take it! This is an excellent way to establish rapport with the people you will be talking to ahead of time. If you remember their names, you can mention them or call them out during your presentation to keep the level of personal connection going. If you have already introduced yourself, you don’t need to do it again at the start of your presentation.
Scenario 2: When someone else will introduce you.
It’s worth finding out ahead of time whether someone else will introduce you before you speak. If so, you likely can provide them with details for your introduction, where they will establish your credibility for you and get the audience excited about what you have to say.
I once heard a presenter get an AWESOME introduction on to the stage, full of mind-blowing accomplishments and details, and I was thinking “I can’t wait to hear what she has to say”. And then…after getting on the stage, she spent the first several minutes repeating all these same details again. It definitely halted the momentum created by the announcer and got the presentation off on a weird footing.
Scenario 3: When your personal history doesn’t add any value to your message.
I know that might sound harsh. I deeply appreciate that we are all special in our own way (at least my mum told me so!) and that our personal stories are important to US. But what I’m really getting at is this - is your background relevant to your audience, and to the goal of your presentation?
You might reason that you MUST share your background so that the audience will acknowledge your experience and authority to talk on the topic at hand. But think about this, even if no one is introducing you before you speak, as the speaker you already have implied credibility. You are the one with the microphone, so therefore the audience expects you to have a level of knowledge on the topic (otherwise, WHY are you speaking?!). Your name and your title are probably on the opening slide or meeting agenda, and those things combined might be enough for the audience to know.
If your audience is ready to listen to what you have to say on a topic and you spend too long trying to convince your audience why you are the one talking, it can easily backfire and have the opposite effect.
The whole point of the introduction
If we come back to where we started. Your opening words can be some of the most important in your whole presentation. My advice is this: Begin your presentation with a well-prepared, powerful statement. I like to start surprisingly to grab my audience’s attention, to engage their emotions in my topic right up front, and then do a short preview of my main points. If your personal history hits on all these points, and you are beginning with a powerful one-liner, fantastic! Go for it. If your topic is more important than your life story, get straight to it.
To help distill my thinking on this topic, I created this handy graphic to reference. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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