The Man Who Needs No Introduction

by Robert Nagle on 6/6/2014

in geekevents,observations,Personal

A few years ago I was on a  panel at a conference, and someone asked how  I ought to be introduced. “Just say I am a Houston writer.”

I wasn’t being coy; I genuinely hate introductions – giving them, receiving them and having to sit through them. They are as annoying as the warnings at the front of DVDs.

There are many reasons to hate introductions. They are  too long.  They mention unnecessary details. In this Internet age, most of us could look this information up if interested. In many instances, the biographical sketch is already on the program or  panel description, so you are simply repeating  well-known information.

A less important complaint is that these introductions dwell on accomplishments and pedigrees. At one point in my life  I found it interesting that someone got a degree  from Harvard or Stanford, but now I no longer do.  Going through a prestigious academic  program makes it more likely that the speaker has been exposed to the latest research; on the other hand, it also means that the person has probably absorbed certain ideas about education and entitlement and probably had little difficulty pursuing an academic career. Successful academics got tenure because they  already received these distinctions.  When you attend a lecture, you don’t need to be persuaded that the speaker will be interesting or important  — you are already there!

Other people have started businesses or charities, written books, started Internet trends, written  new web applications. I don’t mean to dismiss those kinds of accomplishments. They seem to point to external signs of success or  external validation. To be honest, I have no way of knowing whether these accomplishments are truly impressive or just routine milestones along a certain career path. Most of the time, I don’t care because  the only thing important to me is what will be said during the talk.  Even if I did care about these accomplishments, I want to hear the speaker describe them in his own words.  The talk is all that matters.

I work in writing and publishing; I am aware of how many perfectly interesting and gifted people are ignored or overlooked because of happenstance (indeed, I count myself in that category). Perhaps I haven’t achieved my “true” potential (whatever that means), but I have embarked on some interesting projects. Some of these projects  have succeeded; some have failed; some are ongoing or deferred, so there is no way to judge the value of these projects right now.  There are some projects which I never fully realize for practical reasons. Either I lacked the time or money to execute it or was distracted by another project or some personal crisis  prevented me from dedicating the necessary time to it. Sometimes in the middle of doing something, I realize that the project was not worth finishing; perhaps someone had already done it (and done it better), or perhaps some part of the project was outside my level of talent or interest.  The biggest constraint for a writer is time and money; how do you work on your projects without bankrupting yourself in the process?  How do you balance the day job with the outside projects? Logically, it makes sense to work on projects one at a time, but practically  that almost never happens – especially if you keep stumbling on new subjects of interest.  Alas, nobody said the writer’s life was going to be easy.

It’s hard for many to pretend that social position doesn’t matter when it comes to exchanging ideas. A few years ago I attended a TED talk in Houston. It wasn’t awful or anything, but the speakers were profoundly unexciting. The speakers were  competent academics, most of whom had boring and predictable (but well-researched) ideas. One was a medical researcher pontificating about science.  I wouldn’t say his presentation was awful, but it really didn’t go anywhere; the audience applauded wildly (I have never seen this kind of fervor  for a speaker). It reminded me of the phenomenon where people who normally have no love for classical music suddenly fall in love with a movie about classical music. In that case, you don’t really love classical music; you are simply expressing appreciation for the idea of  classical music by saying you like the movie. All the speakers were applauded by the audience not for the content of their presentation, but because they had achieved some level of distinction in  their field.   It is basically the celebration of academic success.  Horray, success!

I’ve run a few panels and given a few talks; though I’ve given some good ones, I’m always surprised at how many  remarkable people turn up in  the audience — some of whom never manage to ask a question.  Some of the unconference techniques are better at facilitating the exchange and dissemination of ideas among these types.  I attended an energy conference two years ago; the  best part was a catered lunch  where everyone sat at the round table and had a chance to ask questions of 2 experts assigned to that table.   Attendees could just float from one table to another and discover on their own who was talking about subjects they found interesting. Sure, sometimes it is necessary or even ideal  to sit through an hour long talk because of the subject matter; for some subjects, you need almost 30 or 40 minutes just to lay the foundation for what you are about to talk about.    In that case, the introduction just further delays the main point of a talk.

For various reasons, I have stopped attending workshops or panels in person. Instead, I  watch a lot of lectures on Youtube or listen to  podcasts.  I’ve always found it easy to skip speaker introductions — just cue Youtube to the right place. One of the most mind-blowing lectures I have ever seen was a one hour talk about climate change solutions by  atmospheric scientist Marc Jacobson.  (I must have watched it three times).  Unfortunately before he speaks,  Jacobson is given 18 minutes of introduction by two people who are dull speakers and have practically nothing interesting to say. But who needs people to prepare you for what Professor Jacobson has to say?

Yesterday, at an environmental justice conference, the introducer to an well-known investigative journalist departed from routine by relating a charming anecdote about being arrested together with this same journalist at an environmental protest.  I love offbeat and personal introductions; writers and artists often do such things.  Something 3 to 5 minutes is perfectly adequate — the shorter, the better.

At the same environmental  conference,  the keynote speaker received a long and adulatory introduction from one of his department underlings.  That isn’t necessarily a problem,  but unfortunately the underling (a noted scholar himself) went into excruciating detail about this speaker’s accomplishments and bibliography — all of which could easily be found on wikipedia. In fact, the keynote speaker gave an outstanding talk — he surely deserved those  accolades — but ultimately what mattered was not  that Book X  won an award or that the speaker met Bill Clinton but that his presentation had compelling points to make.

I mentioned elsewhere that panels can have a  more interesting dynamic than single-person lectures.  You are exposed to multiple  perspectives,  and  audience members  are less deferential to a panel than to  a single speaker. If you think about it, a single speaker wields way too much power; he towers behind the podium and determines with the clicker which Power Point bullet points will be seared into  everybody’s  retinas. Sure, with panels you have people jostling to make remarks and that is frustrating, but rowdiness can be part of the fun.   Often after a talk, I chase down an  audience member  who said  something unusual or  ask a panel member a follow up. I   find such encounters enormously  rewarding — note that I did not  need a  formal introduction to decide that a particular audience member  was interesting or worth listening to.

Here are three reasons why introductions can be so appalling.

First, intros often feel compelled to acknowledge their funding source.  This lecture was made possible by a grant from the Blubbertibubb Foundations, with hotel accommodations at the Hilton Hotel. It is part of a Distinguished Visiting Curmudgeon Lecture series which was created in 2002 under the auspices of the Archeology department in conjunction with the American Society for Jugglers under the leadership of department chair William H. Tralfaz who came up the idea for the series during a university-wide inititiative to have more stuffy eggheads visit this  campus. Who cares! Who cares! Who cares! Who Cares!

I realize that sometimes an introduction needs to contain something about the funding source (especially if the benefactor is a 90 year old philanthropist sitting in the front row of the lecture hall).  Hey, it’s ok to give the occasional shout-out — as long as it’s no more than 10 words long! You can easily convey this same information on promotional flyers, handouts and even the opening slide.

I mentioned this in another piece that ” If you cause 100 people to wait an extra five minutes, that means you are destroying 500 minutes of human time.” Every minute of the talk better count, and unfortunately intros never do.  Think about it — how many times do you reminisce about a gloriously long-winded introduction to  a talk  and not the talk itself?  My guess is you never do — although maybe you recall the annoying sensation of having to wait for the speaker actually to start speaking.

Second, for high-profile speakers, often the dean (or even the university president!) will  insist on sharing the stage. My general rule is that almost anything that a university president has to say as an introduction is  ceremonial and mainly geared towards providing a good photo-op for  students and parents. Let me rewrite every single introductory speech so that it accomplishes that purpose in as painless manner as possible:

Hi, I’m President Nagle of Pendelton State University. I can’t wait to hear this talk. It’s gonna be great! I asked  PSU prof Vincent Strudwick to say some  words before the talk begins. See ya!

The Dean can give a variation of the same speech. Here’s another idea. If you’re sitting onstage just for the sake of appearances, try to have enough courage to refrain from talking.   Making an appearance does NOT mean you are obligated to make a speech.

Third, another rationalization for making long intros is  that it reduces the need for the featured speaker to spend time  plugging his books.   Presumably it seems gauche for the featured speaker to do a sales pitch, and so the person making the  introduction can take care of the crassly commercial sales pitches.  As  sympathetic as I am  to this motive, good speakers already know how to insert casual and non-irritating  mentions of their latest books. Yes, I as an audience member probably would like to hear the title of the speaker’s latest (or most important) book, but often it suffices  to see the title listed on a slide.   Actually, if  a speaker is engaging enough,  I’m probably going to look up his books anyway.

Finally, I want to express admiration for what is called the “cold open” in show business. It can work tremendously well. My favorite example of this was a joint presentation by Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow at 2002 South by Southwest (summarized here).  My memory of the event may be a little foggy (and I sat in the back of the room), but remember no intros at all — two  cool and well-informed people just started jabbering  away on topics of interest. It blew my mind because 1)both guys were talking fast and extemporizing, 2)clearly their thoughts were original and interesting (and well-thought out), and 3)neither person seemed to care about selling their personal  brand or pimping their book-like projects. They were just having fun.  And the audience was having fun too.

I wish more people would do that. Imagine that Socrates were going to speak at your university. Which kind of opening would engage you more:

OPTION 1: INTRODUCER

Socrates is a controversial philosopher who has been gaining a lot of fame in intellectual circles. The Athens Times wrote that “Socrates is a bold and impressive thinker who has devised a new method for testing the validity of philosophical ideas” and the oracle at Delphi said there was no man who was wiser than Socrates. But Socrates is best known for being portrayed satirically in the comic  plays of Aristophanes.  Recognized for his heroism in saving the life of Alcibiades, Socrates is also a war hero and  is best known for a philosophic method of inquiry called  the “Socratic method.”  Socrates has a reputation for asking unusual questions and has been in heavy demand as a speaker and teacher.  Indeed he has already attracted a lot of intellectual disciples and has at times been accused of corrupting the youth. So far, Socrates has not written any books, but books are already being written about him.  Thinker, rabble-rouser, provocateur or buffoon — you can decide. So now I present to you….Socrates — making his first appearance at Pendelton State University.

 

Or maybe we can skip the formalities and let Socrates do a cold open:

OPTION 2: SOCRATES

“Is it always better to tell the truth to someone close to you even if you know it causes pain?”

 

So I ask you: Which kind of beginning    would engage you more?

 

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