November 26, 2014
by Andy Saks
“Hey, we really need an emcee for our upcoming event. Last year we didn’t have an emcee, and the event was so lifeless and dull. Would you do the honors?”
This is the moment many would-be emcees dread. They’re drafted into service, and take the gig reluctantly. Does that sound like your situation?
If I asked you why you’re filled with such trepidation, you might respond, “I don’t know what to say” or “I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing and bomb.”
You’ve already embraced a worst-case scenario featuring you on stage, fumbling awkwardly for words, humiliating yourself in front of legions of people with camera phones and YouTube access.
If that’s your vision, know this: you can have fun as an emcee. It can be done. I’ve done it.
And when you have fun as an emcee, it really is a magical experience. You generate a connective energy in the room that’s just intoxicating, and will leave you wanting to do it again.
But as with any live performance, emcee work does carry a real risk of failure. If you don’t prepare well, you won’t execute well, and that experience is exactly as excruciating as you think it is.
In my experience, the most common reason emcee gigs don’t end well is this: the emcees don’t start their shows well. They fumble through the critical first few minutes, setting an awkward, underwhelming tone from which it’s hard to recover.
This post, the first of a two-part set, will help you avoid that. As a professional emcee for AT&T (read about that), Best Buy, Microsoft and others, I’ve learned over many years and events that a great emcee performance starts with a great emcee script.
Here are six key components good emcee scripts include, and many not-so-good emcee scripts leave out. They’ll help you connect, relax and establish yourself in the opening minutes of your event, which will make everything else flow better.
It’s true what they say about first impressions: you never get a second chance to make one. Your first impression sets the tone for the whole event.
So what do you want your first impression to be? In those key opening seconds of a special event, you no doubt want to create eager anticipation, energy, and suspense.
That won’t happen if you just walk on the stage and start talking over your audience members (or shushing them). That approach ensures your program will start with an awkward whimper, not a bang.
Instead, use what’s called a “Voice of God” introduction to start your proceedings.
The VoG isn’t complicated; it’s literally just someone with a deep radio announcer voice starting your event by standing offstage somewhere and introducing you before you take the stage. Here’s a sample:
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to [event]. And now, here’s your host, [name]!”
You can even tweak it with some fun wordplay that enhances your emcee credibility. For example, when I emceed one of the AMD/Microsoft North American Tech Tours back in 2005, my Voice of God introduction emphasized my knowledge of blazing-fast computer chip speed, which was the event’s theme:
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the AMD/Microsoft Tech Tour 2005. And now, please welcome your host, the Seeker of Speed, the Sultan of Swiftness, the one, the only, Andy Saks!”
See for yourself; here’s the video from our Seattle show on that tour. As you can see, the VoG intro works even better when the house lights are down, the spotlights move wildly, and there are very loud guitars playing.
Don’t have someone to do this for you live? Don’t be afraid to deliver your own. I’ve delivered my own Voice of God introductions at events I’ve emceed, introducing myself while hiding behind the crew table, then running on stage to start the show. Or try having your VoG intro pre-recorded by a professional; you can find countless voice-over artists at freelance sites who’ll do this for a song.
Successful emcees are both grand and humble. You can demonstrate the humble part by immediately acknowledging the contributions of everyone who helped create your event, showing your audience you know your event isn’t all about you.
Here’s a partial list of people you can thank:
1. THE EVENT PLANNERS for planning a great event. Event planners are the unsung heroes of events, and tend to get noticed only when something goes wrong. They deserve a BIG moment of recognition. As as the emcee, you’re perfectly positioned to deliver it by inciting a round of applause from your audience.
2. THE PRODUCTION CREW for building the set, lighting, audio, video, slides, decorations, etc. The production crews I’ve worked with toil tirelessly, hauling massive cases from the loading dock, assembling scaffolding, seating, video wiring and drapery for hours, then running the whole show from the crew table. They too deserve your public acknowledgement. (Plus, it never hurts to throw some love toward the folks who control your lighting and sound).
3. THE AUDIENCE for showing up. Without them, you’re just a crazy person talking to an empty room, right? Thank your audience members sincerely for their time, their attention, and (if it applies) their passion and efforts for your organization and its mission. You’ll win them over and give credit where it’s due all at once!
Here’s a sample video of me thanking the audience when I served as auctioneer at the Boston Jewish Film Festival’s 2012 Gala, held at Theatre 1 in Boston. Starting around the 0:45 mark (and leading up to that) you’ll see me thanking the audience and telling them what their contributions mean to the BJFF:
Sounds obvious, right? You’d be amazed at how many emcees I’ve seen who forget to identify themselves.
This lapse leaves a nagging hole in your audience’s understanding of the proceedings. They see you, but don’t know who you are or why you’ve been chosen for this central role in the event. So while you’re off pontificating about other topics, they’re still ruminating on why you’re up there to begin with.
Ah, but maybe you’re confident that everyone in your audience already knows you? Introduce yourself anyway. There may be friends, colleagues, special guests, and spouses in your audience who don’t know you. And those who know who you are may not really understand what you do, or how and why you got tapped for the emcee role.
I’d suggest mentioning:
— Your first and last name (yes, both)
— Your official title in the organization sponsoring the event
— Your role within that organization (summed up in one casual phrase or sentence)
— Some sense of why you were tapped as the emcee
* BONUS: Express to your audience that you’re honored and humbled to serve in the emcee role. Reassure them you know how special it is, and you’re happy to do it.
Emcees can get overwhelmed with performance anxiety before taking the stage, wondering how they’ll do all that talking when their hearts are pounding and their limbs are shaking.
If that’s you, share your speaking burden with your audience by engaging them in something of a conversation. The most common approach is to ask three questions on a relevant topic, such as who’s attended previous events, or who’s traveled the farthest to attend this year. The first question sets the terms, the second ups the ante, and the third plays off the first two as a joke.
Here’s a sample script:
“Show of hands: who traveled at least two hours to be here?” [Audience members raise hands.]
“Who traveled at least four hours to be here?” [Some audience members keep hands up, others lower hands.]
“Who never left last year’s event?” [Audience laughs; all hands go down.]
Here’s a video sample for you: In 2012, I emceed an IT seminar for Spark client Atrion called AlwaysOn Symposium, held at the Putnam Club at Gillette Stadium (home of the New England Patriots football team). I snuck in TWO of these three-question sets:
— At the 2:03 mark, I asked audience members about their association with the stadium (the Wes Welker reference related to a photo on the screen of an Atrion employee wearing a painted face and Welker jersey).
— At the 2:40 mark, I polled audience members about their attendance at past AlwaysOn Symposia, and saved the biggest “ginormous” round of applause for first-time attendees.
In the 15-20 seconds it takes to ask questions, you’ve not only lessened your own performance anxiety with a few key seconds to breathe and collect your thoughts. You’ve connected directly with your audience members, assessed their collective mood, discovered the extroverts (who respond to every question) and introverts (who always stay silent), and shown everyone you care about their contributions to the proceedings, all of which helps you relax on stage.
When an event starts, audience members will inevitably be harboring nagging logistical questions about it:
Will I get home in time to relieve the babysitter? Who validates my parking? Should I pee now, or wait for a break?
If you don’t answer these questions, they tend to become distractions that prevent your audience members from giving you their full attention.
In your first few minutes on stage, put them at ease and set their expectations by giving them the full agenda for your event. Here are some details worth including:
— The general order of proceedings in your event (what happens first, second, third, etc.)
— When you’ll take a break for a meal, networking time, etc., and how long the break will last
— Where key elements of the venue are located, like restrooms, prize tables, and autograph sessions
— Explicit instructions for anything in which audience members are directly involved (“In ten minutes, we’ll ask each of you to vote for your favorite item using cards we’ll distribute when the vote starts, so start thinking now about who gets your vote!”)
Special events should be just that: special. Part of giving your event that extra shine is helping audience members understand the deeper contextual meaning of your event.
For example, let’s say you’re serving as master of ceremonies for an awards banquet. Most audience members probably assume you’ve all gathered to merely facilitate the award distribution. But that could be done privately (and far more cheaply). So why the pomp and circumstance?
It’s your job to answer that question, to inject more meaning to that procedure by framing the awards, the nominees, the winners, the cause, the occasion and the organization in a larger, more meaningful context.
Start by answering questions like these:
— Why are your honorees worth honoring?
— If your event has a theme, why did you pick it?
— Why are you holding your event at this specific venue or room? Why is it special? What does it symbolize?
— How does your event relate to your organization, industry, location, cause, the greater world around you?
Connect your event to something greater than itself–and connected to your audience–and you’ll instantly make it more profound and memorable.
Start with these six steps and you’ll be well on your way to an emcee script and performance that’s fun, inspiring, and memorable for all the right reasons!
Here’s one more unofficial emcee tip: HAVE FUN. Really! Relax. Enjoy yourself. Smile. Find ways to let loose (a little). The more you embrace your master of ceremonies role with joy and excitement, the more fun you’ll have, the more fun your audience will have, and the more likely you are to look forward to doing it all over again next year.
Got a question or a tip of your own to add? Need more details or an example? Wondering if your emcee idea will work? Share your thoughts in the Comments field below, or contact Andy directly anytime!
ABOUT SPARK PRESENTATIONS
Andy Saks owns and runs Spark Presentations, a private company founded in 1998 that provides presentation skills training and speech coaching for executives, salespeople, marketers and other businesspeople, plus booth staff training for trade show exhibitors.
Spark also books professional presenters and public speakers to represent its clients at high-profile events, in roles like keynote speaker, trade show booth presenter, master of ceremonies (emcee) and auctioneer, as well as on camera talent and voice talent.
Spark’s client list includes large corporations like AT&T, Best Buy, FedEx, Hyundai, Intel, Kimberly-Clark, Olympus, Owens-Corning, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Volvo; high-tech industry players like AMD, Atrion, Citrix, Gigamon, and Symantec; service organizations like Vistage, 1nService and NERCOMP; and New England institutions like the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Andy is also the author of The Presentation Playbook Series, a three-volume set of books that help businesspeople master common presentation situations by building and running speaking “plays” like a coach or player calls a key play in a game.