Speech introductions are an essential element of an effective public speech. Introductions have four specific functions that need to be met in a very short period of time. Introductions must gain the audience’s attention and their goodwill, they must state the purpose of the speech and they must preview the main points.
These first two functions of the introduction, gaining the attention of the audience and the good will of the audience, have most to do with getting the audience to want to listen to you. The other two functions of the introduction, stating the purpose of the speech and previewing the structure of the speech, have to do with helping the audience understand you.
The secret of successful speakers? Passion and compassion with a purpose. – Lily Walters
Gain Attention and Interest
The first function of the introduction is to the get the attention AND the interest of the audience. The “and” here is important. Anyone can walk into a room full of people sitting quietly, and YELL AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS. That will get attention. However, it will probably not garner much interest—at least not much positive interest.
Gaining attention and interest is essential if you want the audience to listen to what you have to say, and audiences will decide fairly quickly if they want to pay attention. Standing in front of an audience, slouched, hands in pockets, cap pulled low over your head, and mumbling, “my name is… and I am going to tell you about…” is an effective method of NOT getting attention and interest. Before you even open your mouth, your attire, stance, and physical presence are all sending out loud signals that you have no interest in the speech, so why should the audience.
Gain the Goodwill of the Audience
Over 2000 years ago, probably the pre-eminent speech teacher of all time, Aristotle noted the importance of gaining the goodwill of the audience:
…it is not only necessary to consider how to make the speech itself demonstrative and convincing, but also that the speaker should show himself to be of a certain character…and that his hearers should think that he is disposed in a certain way toward them; and further, that they themselves should be disposed in a certain way towards him.
When an audience has decided to listen to you—when you have gained their attention and interest—you still need them to think favorably of you. The most effective way of doing this is by establishing your credibility to speak. Credibility is your believability. You are credible when the audience thinks you know what you are talking about. There are a number of methods for developing credibility, and you will use them throughout the speech. In the introduction, however, since you have comparatively little time to develop this credibility, your options are a bit more limited.
To be persuasive, we must be believable. To be believable, we must be credible. To be credible, we must be truthful. – Hellmut Walters
Essentially, credibility has two elements: external credibility and internal credibility. External credibility is the type of credibility you as a speaker gain by association: use of sources that the audience finds credible, for example. In an introduction, you may be able to develop external credibility by this means, as we will see later in this section.
More importantly, given the immediate nature of an introduction, is internal credibility. You develop internal credibility as the speaker through specific actions. First, be appropriately attired for a public presentation. Second, make eye contact with the audience before you speak. Third, speak clearly, fluently and confidently.
You can also demonstrate internal credibility by demonstrating personal experience with or knowledge of the topic of your speech. Audiences are more positively disposed toward a speaker who has had experience with the topic of his or her speech. You can also demonstrate credibility and goodwill by showing a connection to your audience, demonstrating shared experiences or shared values.
A student giving a speech to a class about a month before spring break, right in the middle of an extended cold spell of a long Midwestern winter, offered this introduction as a way to show shared values and experiences:
I need everyone to close his or her eyes. All right, now I need everyone to picture how he or she got to school today. Did you bundle up with a hat, some mittens, boots, and two jackets because it’s so cold outside before you left for class? While walking to class, was it cold? Did your ears burn from the icy wind blowing through the air? Were your hands cold and chapped? Now I want you all to think about the sun beating down on your body. Picture yourself lying on the beach with sand between your toes and the sound of the ocean in the background. Or picture yourself poolside, with a Pina Coloda perhaps, with tropical music playing in the background. Picture yourself in Mazatlan, Mexico.
When speakers can identify with the audience and can show how the audience and the speaker share experiences, then the audience is more receptive to what the speaker has to say. The speaker is both more credible and more attractive to the audience.
The secret of success is constancy of purpose. – Benjamin Disraeli
Clearly State the Purpose
This seems like such a basic step, yet it is one too often missed; and without this step, it is difficult for the audience to follow, much less evaluate and comprehend, a speech. In both basic composition classes and basic public speaking classes, this function is much the same: State the thesis of your speech. In all speeches, there should be that one sentence, that one statement that succinctly and accurately lets the audience know what the speech will be about and what the speaker plans to accomplish in the speech. Speakers, especially novice speakers but also experienced ones, are so concerned with the content of the speech that they forget to let us know about the purpose. A good thesis statement clearly announces the topic and purpose of the speech.
For example, a standard problem- solution speech should have a thesis statement that clearly states the problem and the need for a solution.
So right now let’s see how dependence on fossil fuels costs you money and how use of ethanol as a supplement will save you money and save the world from energy dependence.
We know the topic and we know what the speaker will be attempting to prove. Once a thesis statement is clearly announced, the final function of the introduction is ready.
Preview and Structure the Speech
The thesis statement lets the audience know what the speech is about and what you as speaker want to accomplish. The preview statement lets the audience know HOW you will develop the speech. A preview can be understood as a roadmap—a direction for the speech that leads to a successful conclusion. A preview lets the audience know what will come first, what comes next, and so on, to the end of the speech.
The preview is essentially an outline—an oral outline—of the basic organizational pattern of the speech. Previews help the audience follow the content because they already know the structure. Remember, though, that the basic structure of a speech is not linear, it is circular. Organizational patterns for speeches have a conclusion which, as we will see later, brings the audience back to the beginning.
Taking as an example the thesis statement from above, a sample preview for that speech could appear as the following:
To see how we can end our dependence on fossil fuels, we will first take a look at why we as a society are so dependent upon fossil fuels; secondly, find out what continues to cause this dependence; and finally, see how ethanol as a fuel supplement will help end this dependence and make the world a better place for all of us.
- Aristotle (1982). The art of rhetoric. (J.H. Freese, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ↵
- Townsend, C. (2007, February 5). Spring break in Mexico. Speech posted at http://msustr0.campus.mnsu.edu:8080/cah/gorgias/333/MMS/Cassie.wmv ↵