May 13, 2015
by Andy Saks
So you’ve been drafted to be an emcee at an upcoming seminar, awards ceremony, or other event?
Don’t panic. You can do it, and do it well. You can even enjoy it.
Recently, I published “6 tips to make your seminar or event emcee script sparkle.” This companion post tackles the other side of the coin: 4 common mistakes you should avoid to help ensure you don’t alienate your audience in the opening seconds of your emcee gig.
Each “don’t” is a lesson learned from my own painful experience on various stages and in various audiences. Consider them shared with love, and take them to heart. You’ll have more fun, create a better experience, and your audience will thank you.
Admit it: when you first accepted your emcee role, you hastily raced through your mental Rolodex of jokes (readers under 35: this is a Rolodex) for a snappy one-liner you could use to initiate enough uproarious laughter to start your event with a bang.
Don’t. I love you, but don’t.
Opening jokes are notorious for falling flat. Reasons vary, but generally it’s because:
And when your joke falls flat, instead of uproarious laughter, you’ll be greeted with blank stares and the sound of the guy in the last row coughing.
In fact, unless you’re a professional comedian and you’ve honed your razor-sharp comedy writing skills through countless performances in subterranean comedy clubs, I’d suggest staying away from scripted jokes altogether.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be funny. It does mean you shouldn’t force the funny. Instead, let the funny find you, and seize it when it does.
In my experience, the best humor at live events is spontaneous. It erupts when you’re relaxed on stage, engaging freely with your audience, and not worrying about every detail of the proceedings.
In that state, your mind free of anxiety and interacting with your crowd, trust me: moments will naturally present themselves that are ripe for humor. Someone in your audience or on stage will say or do something spontaneously that cries out for a funny retort.
Because you’re relaxed, you’ll recognize this moment, invent the right retort, and deliver it with just the right flair. And because your audience recognizes your retort’s context, and detects not a whiff of underlying neediness, they are far more likely to respond with the uproarious laughter you crave. (When they do, remember: start speaking again when their laughter has died down about halfway.)
Now here’s the best part: as the emcee, you get the credit for both the other person’s funny setup and your funny rejoinder. In fact, you get credit for anything funny that happens in your event. That’s the glory (and the risk) of the emcee role.
Still absolutely insist on opening with a scripted joke? OK, then. First, deliver it for your boss, co-worker, intern, infant, ingrate, someone. Get their honest feedback and take it to heart. If each one of them laughs until milk comes out of their nose…don’t use it anyway.
Have you ever seen an emcee (or a speaker in any context) start a speech like this?
“This is my first time doing this, so bear with me.”
“I was just asked to step in and didn’t have time to prepare.”
“I can’t believe I have to follow [previous speaker].”
“I’m really nervous.”
Still excited? Me neither.
Anxious emcees tend to blurt out these statements the moment they take the stage, in an uncontainable, last-ditch effort to lower expectations and increase sympathy for their plight. In effect, they’re telling their audiences, “I’m going to suck, but before you judge me, consider my circumstances.”
I’m startled by how often I see speakers start with self-deprecating declarations like these. Just when their audience’s level of eager anticipation has peaked, these emcees vacuum it right out of the room in a sudden, one-sentence whoosh. Resigned to mediocrity, audience members sigh and reach for their smartphones.
That won’t wash. Your audience members deserve better. They chose to be there. They showed up. They’ve been promised, implicitly or explicitly, an enjoyable experience. And you are the master of their ceremonies. Telling them you’re not 100% ready to deliver (or at least try and deliver) that experience immediately erases any possibility of it happening. What a bummer of a first impression.
What should you do instead? Do a great job. Take the gig seriously. Prepare and practice with whatever time and resources are available. Then when you take the stage, instead of telling your audience you aren’t up to the task, show them you’ll try your best and give your all and won’t go down without a fight. If you do that and are less than perfect, you’ll find them much more sympathetic to your plight and appreciative of your effort.
Many emcees work with a formal, complete script of everything they’ll say in performance. Either they write it themselves, or a professional scriptwriter does it for them.
In many cases (especially corporate and high-profile gigs) the event manager will use the script to set the audio, lighting, prop, slide, and other cues managed by the crew during performance. So as the emcee, everyone else in your production is counting on you to say your approved lines in the right order, without straying from the script.
Here’s this situation’s emcee challenge: how do you get all the words in that approved script from paper to brain to mouth during your performance?
Many emcees take the low-tech, obvious route and simply print a copy of their script or notes, take it on stage, and read it to their audiences. In the performance world, this is, shall we say, frowned upon.
Why? Fairly or not, reading from a piece of paper instantly signals to your audience that you’re unprepared, that you haven’t internalized what you want to say. It also interrupts your eye contact with them, which makes it difficult to stay connected to them (and generate that spontaneous humor we talked about). Instead, reading directs both your focus and that of your audience to your paper, at which point the paper becomes the true star of your show, and you become its supporting player.
Some emcees take an alternate route, placing their word-for-word script on the slides projected on the screen for everyone to see, or on a laptop computer placed at their lectern. The effect is the same: the emcee reads the notes, the audience knows the emcee is reading, and your notes become the true master of your ceremony.
So what’s your alternative to reading? Here are four your might try:
1. MEMORIZATION: If you’re good at memorizing, have the time and focus to dedicate to it, and trust your ability to recall your lines in performance, this may work for you. The downside is the immense prep time it requires, the likelihood your script won’t be ready early enough to memorize it, and the recall anxiety that often accompanies performing from memory (every actor has a horror story about forgetting their lines on stage). But if this option appeals to you, by all means, go for it.
2. TELEPROMPTER: The teleprompter is commonly used by politicians, emcees, and other speakers. You place your script on a TV monitor that usually sits near or at the foot of the stage. You glance at it, read a phrase, look at your audience, deliver the phrase, and glance back for the next phrase. As you do, a teleprompter operator scrolls your script at the right speed to match your delivery. A teleprompter thus lets you read and deliver your lines while still generally looking toward your audience, which beats reading slides or paper. However, you’re still reading a screen, which isn’t optimal. And you’ll have to rent teleprompter equipment and hire an operator, which can get expensive (though today there are free and low-cost teleprompter apps for tablets that may be a viable substitute).
3. EARPROMPTER: The Earprompter is the secret weapon of so many corporate performers, actors and politicians. It’s an audio recording and playback system designed specifically for live performance. Basically, you record your word-for-word emcee script into a souped-up audio recorder, along with your slide advances and other directions and cues. Then in performance, you play back your recording into a hidden earpiece, and deliver your script as you hear it. An Earprompter relieves you of notecards, memorization (and recall anxiety) and a teleprompter. It keeps your attention focused on your audience, and reassures you that your words will be there when you need them. However, the Ear equipment requires a sizable investment and a fair amount of training and practice to use in on stage. Still, if you regularly emcee events, give speeches, or engage in other types of performance, you may well find it (as I have) by far the best option available, worth every penny, and a godsend every time your script isn’t ready until the last minute.
To get a quick taste of the Ear, watch this 30-second intro video:
4. SPONTANEITY AND NOTES: In this approach, you move away from using a formal, word-for-word script altogether, and toward a more informal, spontaneous speaking style. First, write an outline of what you generally want to say, using single words or short phrases to remind you of topics you’ll address, names and titles of guests you’ll introduce, key ideas and information you’ll share, etc. Then, you place that outline on a sequence of slides or notecards. Since you’re only writing single words and short phrases instead of full sentences, you should be able to glance at them quickly, remember what to say, and turn your attention back to your audience as you improvise your delivery. If your emcee gig is a one-off event, and the options above are unappealing, this is probably your best option.
Choose the option that helps you stay most relaxed, centered, connected to your audience. Be sure to rehearse with your chosen setup, anticipate what might go wrong, and just in case, bring a printed copy of your full script as a backup (it’s still better than saying nothing!).
During my junior year in high school, I played the role of Jonathan in a drama club production of Arsenic and Old Lace. In one scene, I had to fall asleep on a long wooden box that sat against a wall (really a 20-foot-tall, plywood scenery panel). When another actor touched my shoulder, I was to roll off the box and on to the stage without opening my eyes, as if I were still asleep.
During our opening-night performance, while lying on the box feigning sleep, I somehow got my hand caught inside a loop of rope that was secured to the scenery panel. (How this happened still puzzles me; the mystery has triggered more than one nightmare over the years.) The loop wrapped itself around my wrist.
As the other actor touched my shoulder and I rolled obediently on to the stage—eyes still shut—I heard a sudden gasp from the audience. As I’d rolled, the rope, still wrapped around my wrist, had pulled the top of that scenery panel down almost to the stage, suspending it just a few feet above me. That panel pulled its two neighboring panels down with it. Only the end panels on the far sides of the stage were left standing, like a mouth with the three middle teeth knocked out. Video footage confirmed that when the panels fell, several members of the stage crew, headsets and flannel shirts and all, were suddenly exposed to the audience. (The crew stayed up half the night fixing the set and would not talk to me at the cast party.)
Lying on my stomach on the stage (still feigning sleep) I heard the audience gasp, cracked open one eye, and saw the middle panel hovering just a few feet above me. Did I panic? Did I scream? Nope. I closed my eyes, put my head back down against the cold stage, and began convulsing uncontrollably with laughter while the crew scrambled to pull the panels back into place. The audience members (including my parents and many others I knew) laughed with me until they cried, then applauded in sympathy. After all, what else could we do?
And for the rest of the night, when we encountered scripted lines like “This whole house is falling apart!” we delivered them with sly winks, milking a little extra humor from this unexpected reference to our shared traumatic experience.
The moral of the story? Stuff happens in live performance. We’re human. We’re imperfect. Things go wrong.
The only question is how you’ll handle them when they do go wrong. The best thing—maybe the only thing—you can do is to laugh along with your situation, fix it and move on. It may seem like the end of the world, but as my dad likes to say, the sun will still rise tomorrow.
Plus, remember, your audience takes its cues from you about how they should react to the unexpected. If you react as if your problem is a calamity, they’ll assume it is, and respond with panic and aversion. If you address it calmly, laugh it off and move on, they’ll smile, laugh it off with you, and move on too.
I hope these “don’ts” steer you away from mistakes, and toward a performance that’s enjoyable for your audience, and sheer pleasure for you. Please share your own tips and stories in the Comments field below.
OK, you’ve read this far; ready to laugh a little? Here’s my own emcee demo reel with some funny moments from various gigs. Enjoy!
Break a leg!
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.