What Makes a Great Master of Ceremonies?

What Makes a Great Master of Ceremonies?

As soon as the sound failed in the opening video, I knew the conference would be rock and roll. Fortunately, I had insisted on an earpiece. I told the hastily assigned director to put the video volume up and he subsequently told me in my earpiece when the last-minute replacement for the opening speaker had entered the room. In fact, he arrived too late to start the conference. It was just as well that I had minutes beforehand lined up the second speaker to open it.

And that is how the day went, constantly adapting the programme when speakers didn’t turn up, physically changing the number of chairs on the stage before each session and repeatedly checking the number of available microphones and whether they worked.

In theory, acting as the Master of Ceremonies,(MC) is less work than moderating panel discussions, which take a lot of preparation to do well. An MC’s job is to make sure the event goes smoothly, linking the sessions and speakers and engaging the audience.

But if there has been no technical rehearsal the day before, and the team is a team of experts in their field but not in organising events – a situation I often face – the MC can find themselves in charge of a salvage operation – papering over the editorial and logistical cracks on the day as best they can.

So, here are my top tips for event organisers on what to look for or do when engaging a Master of Ceremonies:

• Bring in the MC a couple of months beforehand. An MC can advise on the event flow editorial narrative and how to make the programme interactive and varied. As I have said before, it is hard to manage the audience attention span when there is one speech or presentation after another, often with no editorial coherence or one-panel discussion after another, which has the same format. (See my blogs on panel moderation here)
• Brief the MC on the overall purpose of the event, each session’s objectives, and the speakers’ rationale and structure so he or she can clearly communicate this to the audience. The MC is there to serve as a thread linking the content throughout the event.
• Make sure the MC is concise and compelling in his/her remarks. Audiences don’t like verbose MCs that take up too much space. The role is to facilitate, not dominate!
• Engage an MC who can weave a narrative through the event, clearly connecting the speakers and themes of different sessions.
• Check that the MC can improvise when faced with technical challenges or unexpected changes to the programme. Broadcast journalists are usually adept at this as they are used to keeping the show on the road.
• Engage someone with great time management skills as audiences appreciate an event that is kept on track and to time.
• Hire an MC who can handle questions from the audience with aplomb. They must be encouraging yet control the situation if the question is unclear, too long or not a question but a long-winded comment.
• Search for an MC with high energy levels, an ability to connect with the audience and a sense of humour. The latter is particularly important when faced with technical gremlins, speakers that go over time or audience members who can’t ask concise questions.
• Organise a technical rehearsal the day before the event, as anything that can go wrong will go wrong (Murphey’s Law).

Once, a jury member at an awards ceremony I was hosting was on the verge of announcing the winner – not realising that his role was to only talk about the selection process and that it was the European Commissioner – sitting in the front row – who would do the honours.

Fortunately, I managed to stop him before he named the winner – and the award (unlike at that infamous Oscars ceremony) was given to the right person at the right time!

If you would like advice on organising an event, do get in touch, as I run in-person and virtual workshops to ensure your event is engaging and insightful.

SEE, STOP, SAY: How to deliver a speech that captivates

SEE, STOP, SAY: How to deliver a speech that captivates

Most of the people I coach do not write their speeches. They rely on a speechwriter who either fails to capture their voice or delivers a text that has been written to be read, not spoken.

This makes it incredibly difficult to deliver in a natural and convincing way.

Most senior professionals (or leaders) prefer to speak from briefing notes with key points, as this allows them to convey these ideas in their own words.

But sometimes, they have to deliver a keynote speech in a formal setting and cannot go off script.

So how to do you get your points across but not sound scripted?

Speak to the audience, not read to them

Have a look at this extract of a speech that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, recently gave at the Martin Ennals Award Ceremony in Geneva.

I was in the audience as I coached the three awarded human rights defenders for their remarks to the media and at the ceremony.

Cérémonie de remise du Prix Martin Ennals 2023, 16 février 2023, salle communale de Plainpalais. Photo David Wagnières

I was really struck by how naturally the High Commissioner delivered his remarks and felt he was speaking to me and not at me. What was he doing to captivate the audience?

• Firstly, he had a conversational tone as if he was speaking to someone he knew.
• Secondly, he built a connection with his words to the people in the room, praising their tireless efforts to give a voice to the voiceless.
• Thirdly, he matched his tone and words with his body language, making eye contact with the audience.

How often do you see this? I observe a lot of speakers, and believe me, it is very rare. Most of them fail to align their voice, body language and words – and many of them rarely look up when speaking.

If you watch the whole speech of the High Commissioner
you will see that he is looking at the audience as he makes and expands on the same point. He looks down only to remind himself of the next point and then looks up again to deliver it.

It is a technique known as SEE-STOP-SAY and was used by Ronald Reagan, an actor who became a US President. I go into more detail in this blog.

It takes some practice, and the High Commissioner doesn’t always do it. However, he is so much better than the speakers who look up at the audience mid-sentence or at a random moment which has no connection with the thought they want to convey.

I have trained diplomats making speeches in very formal settings, such as the UN Human Rights Council, in this technique, and it really makes the audience sit up and listen. And as for the speaker, it helps them come across as approachable, accessible and authentic – qualities that are key if you want to be a great public speaker.

When Do You Cancel A Panel Discussion?

When Do You Cancel A Panel Discussion?

The head of an organization that last year ran more than 100 panel discussions asked me that question recently. By the way, if you think 100 is a lot, the organization had topped 150 panel discussions in 2020/21!

We all understand the quest for visibility, but sometimes less is more. The organization in question understood this when at COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh last November it had to cancel a panel discussion – one of 15 it was organizing – due to a lack of audience.

Lack of audience

I was told by friends who attended COP 27 that there was marquee after marquee, side event after side event, but many of them were not full. One private company held a panel discussion at which only three people turned up.

This, I would argue, was an event that should have been cancelled, as it is not good for the organiser’s reputation, brings little benefit to the speakers, and is an uncomfortable experience for the audience.

Ironically, this is more likely to happen at big events like COP as there is more competition for attendees. This is having a knock-on impact on panelists in that they are being asked to speak at too many events, and there is not always enough of them to go around. Another international organization fielded requests from 80 side-event organizers for speakers – many of which they could not accept as they didn’t have that number of speakers available.

Lack of speakers

It can be challenging, particularly when organizing week-long events on a specific subject, to find enough speakers as there are sometimes only so many specialists. Organizers then turn to their B and C lists, which means speakers who are not so well-informed and are limited to the points they can or want to talk about.

In the past, speakers have grabbed the opportunity to be on a panel, whether for visibility or vanity, but organisers are reporting a new trend – the great panelist pullout. Panelists are either pulling out – often at the last minute – due to other commitments, suffer from panelist fatigue or because they see the low audience figures registered.

Countering the “cancel culture”

In the competitive world of events, organizers have to design and deliver an event that draws in audiences. Rather than limiting their thinking to speakers or subject, they need, for strategic reasons; to be more audience-centric – what is in it for the audience.

This means designing an event that first considers who are potential audience members and will the subject or theme capture their interest, either through possibly delivering best practices, offering new insights or helping them understand better the issues at stake.

After thinking first about how you will inspire or instruct the audience on topical issues, the next critical step is the casting – speaker selection. What are the criteria for choosing an effective speaker?

My question is always, what does a selected speaker bring to the discussion? Are they good communicators? How will the panelists interact with one another? This means that organisers need ideally to start the process of speaker selection a month to six weeks before the event, rather than leave it to the last moment.

Once you have your speakers, you need to explain to them why they are being invited and the questions they will be asked.

Similarly, organizers should not bring in the moderator in the final stages, but use their expertise in establishing the editorial flow for an engaging discussion even before contacting potential speakers. Many professional moderators are former or current broadcast journalists and know not only how to generate but also design a discussion that is productive and insightful for the audience.

I have reviewed these steps in more depth in previous blogs, but are worth recalling as we look at the weak links in panel organization.

In conclusion and to answer my friend’s question, you will be less likely to be put in the difficult situation of cancelling a panel discussion if it is well thought out, with the right speakers on the right subject at the right time.

Let’s hope in 2023 organizers don’t even have to consider cancelling a panel as they have realized the importance of quality over quantity!

Other blogs to read on organising events:



Speechwriting – How to Capture your Speaker’s Voice

Speechwriting – How to Capture your Speaker’s Voice

One of the most common refrains I hear when coaching senior leaders in public speaking is they have to rewrite most of the speeches drafted for them.

Much of the time the person struggles to deliver the speech because it has not been written for them. In the words of one agency head, “it doesn’t capture my voice.”

I have written many speeches. I see my job as writing the speech that the speaker themselves would write if only they had the time. I have to stand in the shoes of that person and see the world as they see it.

Below are some tips based on how I capture my speakers voice.

Listen to recordings of the speaker at events and conferences. If you are a staff member observe the speaker at town hall meetings or during internal webinars.

Get to know your speaker
You must have access to the speaker so that they are involved in the drafting process. During a phone call or in-person meeting, together, you will first have to define the purpose, audience and argument of the speech. But don’t forget to drill down on the essence of that person – what drives them? What are their beliefs? What type of person are they?

You can often find out a lot about people by asking them about their motivation for doing the job they are doing or the lessons they have learnt through success or failure. These sorts of questions typically elicit stories that give an insight into the person.

Record the conversation so you can play it back and become familiar with their voice

Identify their speaking style

When listening to the recordings from your research and meeting, ask yourself these questions:

1. Is the speech in their mother tongue? Or a foreign language?
2. Are they a fast or slow speaker?
3. Do they prefer long or short sentences?
4. Do they like simple or sophisticated words?
5. Is there style plain or florid?
6. Do they use metaphors and analogies?
7. How do they structure an argument? Do they get to the point and
then explain how and why or do they lead up to the point?

If you are writing for a non-native speaker, then make sure that you don’t use words that that they can’t pronounce. I once had a speaker who could not say the “ch” as in climate change, which was a shame as he was head of an environmental agency. So, we would use climate crisis or emergency instead.

Write for the speaker
It is very tempting to write for yourself, so guard against this by playing the recording of their voice. You need to hear the speaker’s voice in your head as you write. If they use a lot of intensifiers like “really”, “extremely” “hugely” then you need to reflect that, bearing in mind though that they might start to sound like King Charles!

Read it out loud
This may seem to contradict my previous point. But you will soon see if the argument stands up, if the ideas are too repetitive or if the sentences are too long for anyone to say with impact.

A speech is not written in a day. It needs to be honed and validated by the speaker so it not only says what they want to say but also sounds like them.

If you follow these tips you have less of a chance that the speaker will go off script or announce with a flourish that they are discarding the speech you have carefully crafted!

Know Your Audience – the Key to Successful Speeches and Presentations

Know Your Audience – the Key to Successful Speeches and Presentations

What is the first thing you think about when asked to give a presentation or speech?

That is a question I often ask in my presenting and speechwriting workshops.

The answers are often very candid but very wrong. They range from the slides I can recycle from previous presentations to structure and messaging.

You can’t give an impactful presentation or speech until you have worked out who you are talking to. Too many speaking engagements are wasted opportunities because the speaker has not tailored his or her content to the audience. If you give some off-the-shelf presentation, audiences know that you are speaking at them and not to them, and will, often, zone out.

You need to ask yourself three questions:

1. What does my audience know about the topic of my speech?
2. What is their attitude to the topic?
3. How big is the audience, and what is the setting?

Know your audience

The audience will likely be a mix – some know more, others less. In this case, you need to speak so that everyone in the audience understands what you are saying. Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” It is worth taking the time to do this, as the spoken word must be simple as the audience, unlike the written word, must understand it immediately.

Audience attitude

If you are facing a hostile or skeptical audience, you must select your arguments and supporting evidence carefully. I often advise to connect immediately with this type of audience by addressing the concerns they may have. If you work for an oil company and are addressing environmental activists, you have to have the right level of humility, as you can easily be accused of greenwashing.

However, even with a favorable audience, you should think about what motivates them, what arguments they will find convincing and what are their biggest concerns. Here it is vital to tap into what is in it for them in terms of reward or the risk of not doing something.

Size and setting

If the audience is large and the setting formal, the style of your speech is likely to be more formal and rhetorical. If a smaller audience, particularly if you know them well, your tone should reflect this. In any case, you should think conversational rather than declamatory.

The setting – where the presentation takes place – is important as it may give you a way of connecting with the audience by referring to it. Similarly, assess how important the occasion is, as this will impact the tone and style of your speech.

It may seem like a lot of work, but it will pay off as audiences really appreciate a speaker who realizes that a successful presentation or speech must be audience- centric.