Getting an event started is part art and part science. The scientific part is getting everything organized. As the emcee, your role is to ensure that you are organized so that you are one less worry for the organizer.
The art is getting the audience seated and ready. Experience has shown me that people in groups follow bell curve behaviours and the Pareto’s Law. 10% of people will show up earlier than you’d like. They will watch you practice and get organized. 80% will show up and be seated at the right time. 10% race into the hall late and out of breath. They will make a spectacular entrance and draw the attention of everyone along the path to their seat.
If people drank cocktails before the start of the event, it doesn’t matter how early they arrived, they can no longer understand words such as, “Please be seated.” People under the influence want your remarks to pass quickly and dinner to be served now, but cannot participate in making that happen and don’t care. Welcome to the unpredictable world of Mastering the Ceremony!
My only suggestion in dealing with stragglers is to give them fair warning of the start time (“5 mins left”, “2 mins left”) and go on. Speak loudly and clearly so that the 90% who are seated can hear you. They may tell the stragglers to sit. Some people will not sit until you start speaking so you might have 1-2 minutes of empty remarks ready to go.
Another trick is to actually start your remarks 1-2 minutes early with entertaining filler, knowing that it doesn’t matter what people hear in those moments. At one audience of 1800 we actually advertised a 6:30 p.m. start time, knowing that they were historically late by 30 minutes. Advertised time 6:30 p.m. Real start time: 7:00 p.m, with the cater in on the ruse. The event started exactly on-time, 7:00 pm, dinner was served hot at 7:15 p.m., and everyone was happy.
One more trick is to begin with the words, “Welcome… First we draw for a door prize!” That works well as the greed response overtakes graciousness.
The first time you experience what will feel to you like an unruly audience, you may be frustrated. Eventually you will see the humour in it as you see all the differences between humans displayed for you in one room at one time.
If you’ve ever attended a Toastmasters conference and sit back in amazement at the chaotic melee that occurs just before plenary sessions, be comforted or alarmed (your preference) that the Toastmasters audience is one of the best audiences you will experience.
The stage director is responsible to cue you to start. If it is appropriate in your situation to do so, help them out by taking your place and watching the stage director for your cue.
The first few seconds is your chance to draw in the audience. Unless this is a funeral, dynamic delivery is appropriate. If some of the audience is still milling about, start with something empty like, “Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the [Event name]. My name is [Your name} and I am your Master of Ceremonies.” If they heard it, fine. If they didn’t, it doesn’t matter.
Give the administrative instructions clearly and crisply. Your planning and writing skills will now pay dividends.
Maximum time: 15 minutes.
Present each introduction exactly as planned. Avoid tired, moronic comments such as “Without further ado…” Ado is defined as fuss, bother or trouble. Unless you consider all your effort a waste of time for you and your audience, try the word, “Now…”
Lead the audience in the applause.
The next part is tricky if you didn’t plan it ahead. If there is only one mic at a lectern, it’s easy. Motion with your hand towards the lectern, enabling the speaker to walk in front of you after he/she shakes your hand. Walk away from or behind the speaker and off stage.
If you introduced from a lectern and the speaker will speak from the open stage, meet the speaker at the open stage because that’s where they, in their nervousness, will naturally go. Keep applauding until it looks like the speaker will shake your hand. If the speaker zooms by you, don’t stand there indignantly holding your hand out. Just proceed as if nothing happened. Remember, the speaker is the show, not you.
If the speaker bounces on stage and grabs you a hug, give them a hug in the same way, allowing them to release first, according to their timing. Shake hands like they do. Give them a double peck on the cheek if they give you one. Allow them to control that moment. Of course, Plan A is to know, ahead of time, what they were going to do.
Avoid upstaging the speaker. However, if the speaker is a dud, the audience will appreciate the life you brought to the occasion. Use your judgement.
Transition Between Speakers
The speaker will close and motion to you. Walk confidently to the stage. I like to have the speaker again pass in front of me so it maintains them as the center of attention. I haven’t yet found out whether the correct protocol is to have the outgoing person pass behind the incoming person. So far my way works for me and speakers intuitively adopt it.
If the audience gives the speaker a standing ovation, shake the speaker’s hand a little longer and motion with your other hand for the speaker to receive the audience’s appreciation. Then let the speaker release your hand on their time.
As the outgoing speaker walks off stage, direct your body toward them and continue applauding. Allow your clapping volume and speed to fade intuitively with the audience. Don’t continue as the lone clapper.
Thank the outgoing speaker. In one or two sentences, refer to the speaker’s presentation and how it might have benefited the group. Then, transition to the next speaker by indicating how the next topic logically follows.
At breaks, people will tend to want to jump up and head to the washrooms. Keep your remarks as crisp as, “Now we will have a 10 minute break.”
Two minutes before the end of the break, stand at the lectern and tell the audience they have two minutes. Start again exactly on-time. People will quickly learn that you run precisely.
If the conference is running behind (unlikely with your professionalism and experience) you might confer with the stage director on shortening the break be a few moments.
When Something Goes Wrong…
Despite your best efforts, things can go wrong. If you flub, go on without drawing attention to it. If something catastrophic happens, and it’s obvious to the audience, don’t panic. Remain calm and self-assured. Have a humorous quip ready.
Know who to look to in an emergency.
My catastrophes ranged from a drunk grabbing the microphone and singing off key and loudly to a fistfight breaking out in front of me (always exciting to see live wrestling). Be diplomatically assertive, calm, and professional. Calling for divine guidance may help.
If there is a fire, yell, “Fire!” and leave the premises.
You could plan perfectly, but if you go overtime, your name is mud. The time to avoid going over is right at the beginning and throughout the event, not at the end. It requires diligence, good judgement, and flexible rigidity.
Keep your closing short. People are tired and they’ve seen the main attraction. You are the only obstacle between them and home, the bar, or the dance floor.
Comment on how enjoyable the event was. Give a one to three sentence closing thought that fits the occasion and makes a powerful connection. If you don’t have it or if the audience seems very restless, skip it. Encourage their participation next time.
Total time to close: one to two minutes.