Impactful MC – or a gap-filler between speakers? Find out the difference!

By Susan September 11, 2013 09:18

Impactful MC – or a gap-filler between speakers? Find out the difference!


An oft-quoted statistic is that public speaking is the number one fear for most people, topping even fear of death… I’m not sure how reliable this statistic is, but it is true that, for every person who loves public speaking (like me!), there are many, many more who would prefer to disappear in the ground, rather than step on the stage and deliver a speech.

Many people mistakenly think that speaking at an event is a relatively similar experience if you’re giving a keynote, participating as part of a panel or acting as MC (Master of Ceremonies). Take it from somebody who has done a lot of all three, they are vastly different.

In my experience the last one is the one that keeps you most on your toes and requires a wider skillset than being knowledgeable about a subject, delivering an engaging, articulate speech and interacting with the audience. And it’s also a very rewarding role – if you like a challenge!

So if you like a healthy shot of adrenalin, go for it…

I have recently been an MC at three events: at the IOD Belfast, Global Economic Forum, UKTI “Trading in Ireland” Bristol Conference, at Cantillon 2013 (where I was also a speaker in a different panel) ; and at the “Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs” launch for the Enterprise Europe Network.


What can you bring to the stage as an MC?


As a business person, you can bring a more rounded approach, by dipping into the growing store of experiences that you have had throughout your business life. It’s great to start off an event, as an MC typically has the role of doing, by relating a personal anecdote tying in with the theme of the occasion and setting it off on a great note.

And as you weave the different sections of the event together, you might offer a nugget of advice that dovetails in with a speaker’s presentation, an experience which underscores their main points or an interesting segue between two speakers.

This will help you uncover what resonates with audiences and will draw on all the little bits of speaking we entrepreneurs have to do: introductions, elevator pitches, networking… For all those occasions, you have to have an interesting, intriguing way of encapsulating something relevant about you.

For example, I opened the event in Bristol with a no-holds-barred account of my first foray into the world of exporting. I went on to relay a list of agencies that could help the audience to get started and a couple of tips that would be invaluable to them as soon as they step off that plane.


Maintain the vibe


As a speaker, of course you should always, always have your audience in mind: what can you do for them, how can you bring value, how can you make it worth their while to be listening to you. But it’s still mostly about you – your theme, your expertise, what you want to talk about because you think it would be useful or helpful for the audience.

The role of an MC couldn’t be more different: you main concern is to make the panel worth everyone’s while by bringing it all together. Instead of being totally focused on the content of your speech (if you were a speaker), you have to make sure that the experience as a whole is a great one.

You have to add depth by thinking of ways in which you can reinforce and illustrate what the speaker has just said, by thinking about the angle they’re coming from, how what has just been said relates to the next section, etc.

If “MC” makes you think of “DJ”, it’s because the two acronyms have a lot in common: you are responsible for maintaining a good vibe and avoiding “down times” when the attention of the audience wanders.


Be the timekeeper


One of the biggest issue you will have to manage as an MC is time. Some speakers will run over – or will try to, and you will have to find a firm, gentle way of putting a stop to that. You will have to make sure everybody keeps on schedule, without turning into a drill sergeant.

You will have to seamlessly manage transitions between a speech and the questions, between the questions and the next speech, between coffee breaks and networking breaks, and getting everyone back into the room for the next session. It requires a lot of tact and authority.

At Cantillon, there was a packed schedule with high profile guest speakers, a wide range of topics and a room that was filled to capacity. It was down to the organisers and the MC to make sure that everybody had the best experience by gauging subtle feedback the room.


Watch to learn


If this sounds like something you would love to do, the best way to train and learn is to keenly observe how other people do it, because each person has a different style. Some can be relaxed and look as if it’s all coming off the cuff. Others can be more strict and competently have everything under control. Preparation is key. For example a high-pressure moment is question time. We have all been in a conference where the speaker asks “Are there any questions?”, and the first person hugs the microphone for a good ten minutes…

Some people can ramble; or sometimes it’s the speaker themselves who just can’t stop when they answer. In another scenario, the person asking the question has an objection and asks a second question – and before you know it the question-and-answer has turned into a two-person conversation!

Your job as an MC is to avoid that – but you have to cut it short without seeming to interrupt! I once managed to steer the Q&A back on track by intervening just as the person was taking a breath… I also remember a masterful MC watching closely as the exchange between the speaker and a member of the audience threatened to turn sour. They made light of it, and seamlessly moved on to the next question, to the relief of everybody in the room.

Of course you have to have a plan (that is, one or two questions of your own) if there are no questions when the speaker is finished. At the launch of Erasmus Entrepreneur, I asked the first question: what were the barriers to entry for engaging with such an amazing program? Several members of the audience picked up on the answer and had their own queries, which led to a lively closing plenary.

It can be unnerving to ask the first question when you’re in the audience. As an MC, it’s your job to facilitate an environment to encourage that – leading by example is often the best way.

Finally, it’s crucial to round the event off with some sincere thank-yous, an appropriate quote perhaps, a suggested list of actions for the audience or a promise on your own part to do something about what you learned that day.

Some MCs think of themselves as gap-fillers and their sole purpose is to introduce the next speaker by reading out a biography. I firmly believe that it’s much, much more than that. It’s true that just managing transitions and moods is a huge task in and of itself. But the best MCs are those who add value – the conference or panel would be less enjoyable if they weren’t a part of it.

It’s an extremely demanding role, because you have to be “on” all the time, from even before the conference begins, to some time after it ends. You can’t zone out or think “This speaker isn’t relevant to my life/ business/ situation” because you will have to provide a summary and lead into the next speech. Summarizing is a skill in itself, as you can’t just rattle off a list of points the speaker made: you have to put it in perspective and enhance it.

That’s why I love being an MC almost as much as I love being a speaker – it puts you in a unique position to draw on a wide range of skills and it gives you the opportunity to contribute getting an event from good to great.

Visit Susan HayesCulleton Profession Speaker and Master of Ceremonies page

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By Susan September 11, 2013 09:18