Professional Emcees Tell It Like It Is

The following is a transcription of an episode of Speakernomics podcast filmed live on stage at the National Speakers Association “Influence 2021” conference in Las Vegas.

Thom (00:11):

Professional Emcees Give One Tip

From Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, this is Speakernomics, the official podcast of the National Speakers Association. My name is Thom Singer and I have the absolute honor to host this new show that NSA launched in 2021, and this is the podcast on how to become a better speaker and grow your business.

Today, we’re going to talk about how to be a more effective master of ceremonies. Joining me today is the crew who has served as the hosts, the emcees, the wow, the driver, the whole thing of Influence 2021, Eliz Greene, Omekongo Dibinga, Patty Hendrickson, and Jeff Civillico. To get started, would each of you please give the audience one tip on how to be great as a master of ceremonies. Eliz?

Eliz (01:19):

Emceeing is a marathon and you have to train for it.

Thom (01:24):

Omekongo?

Omekongo (01:25):

I think every emcee should learn how to rap. Okay, okay, but seriously, I think the most important thing is to not make yourself the story.

Thom (01:34):

Patty?

Patty (01:35):

As an emcee, always find out the pot of gold that your guest has and drive the conversation so their best shines through.

Thom (01:43):

And Jeff.

Jeff (01:46):

Position yourself to the planner as so crucial before, during, and after the event that they could not possibly think about doing the event next year without you.

Photo by Jacob Tyler Dunn | www.JacobTylerDunn.com

Thom (01:56):

Wow. These are four fantastic tips, and we’re going to have some fun today. We’re going to have some fun in this episode unpacking those tips. But before we get started, everyone who has had the pleasure to be here at Caesar’s Palace, live in the ballroom or watching this conference via the live stream, they all know Omekongo, Patty, and Jeff, who have served on stage.

But you may not know Eliz Greene, who has been behind the scenes as part of the planning committee for Influence 2021. And Eliz, you came up with sort of a framework for the different roles, the different skill sets that it takes to be an emcee, and each of these three are filling one of those roles and you fill the other role as a producer. Could you describe sort of the four types of emcees?

Eliz (02:43):

Four Type of Professional Emcees

Absolutely. One of the things that I have enjoyed so much about being on the Influence committee is it has been a remarkable opportunity to rethink how conferences work. As [inaudible 00:02:56] already said, we have rethought and re-planned over and over again as we experienced these last two years and especially the last 15 months. But we decided that a team of emcees would really demonstrate these different roles.

So, Patty is our driver and it’s probably the most familiar role. She’s there to make sure that we’re pulling that thread of education throughout, that the theme is recognize, that all of that happens. Omekongo is here connecting attendees to one another, the virtual audience to the in-person audience, and us to that content.

I’m not sure I actually have to explain what a wow emcee does.

Jeff (03:42):

Wow. I take my role very seriously.

Eliz (03:43):

So for those of you who might be listening on the Speakernomics podcast, Jeff has come out in a dinosaur slippers.

Jeff (03:52):

Patty’s idea.

Eliz (03:53):

Big, pink dinosaur slippers, but delivering that entertainment.

I am backstage, as Tom said, as the producer emcee. I have had the opportunity to really work with NSA like I would with a client, developing the show flow, consulting on speakers, doing that sort of thing, and then have supported these three backstage. Now, to be fair, one person could do all of these roles. It would be exhausting, but you could. And as an emcee, we all may do all of these roles, but there may be things that we are stronger in and we focus on those and we choose to do those more often.

Thom (04:33):

So Jeff, let’s start with you. Your tip was become a partner with the meeting planner. Let’s unpack that a little bit. What do you mean by that?

Jeff (04:41):

Event Emcees Become a Partner with the Meeting Planner

Sure, Thom. So, I think so oftentimes the emcee is thought of as an afterthought. It’s like, “Oh, we’ve got 100K for four speakers. Cool. What’s your emcee budget?” You’d like to go to Orlando for like the 400th time and a swag bag.

Thom (04:54):

I-95, yeah.

Jeff (04:55):

But if you think about the emcees on stage at a three-day conference, you’re onstage like 24 hours, five days gone from home with travel, rehearsals. There’s a lot of time, a lot of value to that. So, I try to do everything to fight against that mentality of the planner side to be like, “Wow, Jeff was super helpful before, during and after the conference.” So before, that’s being available, being more of an event consultant.

Big time for virtual, that was huge, because nobody knew what they were doing, and so they would come to me for help and say, “You have a studio. How do we do this?” So you’re available for consulting. You’re helping them with scripting, run of show, pre-show videos. I give, like, three teaser videos to every client, like announcement. What are you waiting for? Buy your tickets, last chance. Posting on social. I always post on LinkedIn and share all these things that might not be in the contract, but I’ve kind of fully embraced the role of promoting and helping to produce the event.

On site, you don’t want to be annoying. You’ve got to ride the line, because the producer, it’s their show. But you want them to know that you’re there if they need that help. Sometimes they do and they will tag you in. Always be prepared to kind of have something to go off when things go wrong, because they will. Again, to kind of help save the day.

Then do a debrief. I set that I’m going to have a debrief with the client before. So it’s not like, “Oh, we’ve got a debrief of what happened.” No, no. Even if the debrief is just, everything is great. We’d love to have you back. That sets that ahead of time, that you’re kind of a full cycle service event provider. That’s how I try to do it.

Photo by Jacob Tyler Dunn | www.JacobTylerDunn.com

Thom (06:30):

Anybody have anything to add to that?

Patty (06:33):

I love the debrief idea.

Thom (06:35):

Yeah, the debrief idea is really good, and the one thing about being a master of ceremonies, because I do a lot of that work, is unlike a keynoter, they often want the emcee back next year if you do a great job. It could be two, three, four, and five years with one client.

Jeff (06:49):

Yeah, and I have a lot of clients that will literally come to me and say, “Hey, you’ve seen everybody. We need somebody who does X, Y, Z. It’s customer service. We need somebody with entertainment. We need a humorist.” I always have my people that I recommend. So when you gain that trust with a client, you build that level of rapport. That’s a big deal because they’re literally asking you, “Help us create and shape this event.” It’s powerful.

Thom (07:10):

Nice. Patty, repeat your tip and tell everybody why that’s so important.

Patty (07:15):

My tip is to whoever I’m going to be spotlighting that I know them as well as I can. My job is to make them shine, not me. As the emcee, I am the lowest grade on the pay scale here. I mean money-wise, attention time-wise, because yeah. But if I do that and that person has a good experience with me, when they walk back to that meeting planner, they say, “Patty, she made me feel so comfortable. It was really nice with these great Zoom calls ahead of time. We had fun. I showed up and I knew what I should do.” I’m doing my job if I do that.

Eliz (07:51):

If I can add just one thing.

Thom (07:51):

Absolutely.

Eliz (07:53):

That is really important when you are working with speakers who are not professional speakers. If you can help prepare those industry people to do well on stage, you are a hero to your client.

Thom (08:10):

Omekongo, your tip again, and let everybody know why it’s so important.

Omekongo (08:14):

My tip was to make sure that you don’t make it all about you. Some people get on stage and it’s all about them. Jeff.

Jeff (08:23):

You’re calling me out, man. You’re call me out.

Omekongo (08:25):

It just slipped. [crosstalk 00:08:27] Practice that. But my fault, some things just come out. But a lot of times I’ve seen situations where people have looked at being an emcee as an opportunity to promote themselves. So, they look at ways to sneak in their website or their book or their social media. When you look at it as an opportunity to do that, you are not focused on everything that Jeff was saying earlier about being about the client.

So, how are you going to engage in calls, make the teaser videos and all little sides of things where you’re just looking at ways to promote who you are. A journalist, rule number one, don’t become the story. So we have to make sure that what we’re doing is a service to the organization and people are going to want to find you if you represent them well anyway. So, I think that’s extremely important. Don’t look at it as a gig for self-promotion. Look at it as a way to help the organization.

Thom (09:22):

Anybody want to add to that?

Jeff (09:24):

No comment.

Thom (09:29):

I agree. Eliz, your tip, and why is it so important?

Eliz (09:34):

Emceeing is a Marathon

Emceeing is a marathon and you have to train for it. I have two pieces of that. The first is there is so much work to doing this job well that is never, ever seen. The preparation, the production calls, all of the things that we do to make sure that we’re ready, that then we get to the event, and it is really nonstop, especially if you’re not on a team. If it’s all you, it is nonstop and it’s exhausting. So, you have to physically be ready to not sleep a lot and attend all the social events and all of those things in order to do that part of the job well.

The other point to my tip is you can’t just put emcee on your LinkedIn profile.

Omekongo (10:27):

That’s real. That was a good one. That was a good one.

Eliz (10:31):

These are skills that are developed and just like a speaker who goes in and claims to be a keynote or a whatever and isn’t ready for that stage sometimes spoils it for the people who are prepared. If you’re going emcee, make sure that you are prepared for that stage, and there’s lots of ways to do that. Just like when we’re building our speaking business, find the Optimist’s club or the Rotary or the charities in town and hone your skills. Toastmasters. There’s lots of different ways to hone those skills so that when you do take the stage, you are ready and you are a credit to the professional speakers.

Omekongo (11:21):

I would add to that, you just said it, that one word that I caught was research. Study that organization is extremely important. You can’t just hop on the plane and just show up and just rinse, repeat. That’s not how it works. They can get anybody to do that. So, you’re saying really do that work to look into the organization. It’s extremely important.

Jeff (11:41):

I would just say, I freaked out when you said that, because it’s so true, especially your virtual. Everybody was like, “And I emcee.” And I was like, “Oh, you do?” Because everybody was hurting, and I get it, but it was kind of funny. It’s like, “Oh, what are you emceeing? What have you hosted?” So, yes, I do think that’s really important, to kind of give it the respect it deserves.

Thom (12:00):

So, one of the things that I’ve found in being an emcee is that it is a surprise the first couple of times you do it, and you guys have all talked about it, how much work it is. Like, how many hours it is and how long you are away from home. I started being an emcee 10 years ago when I still had middle school-aged children. When you land an emcee gig, it’s not like a keynote where you can fly in and do it with one night away from your family. Or if you live close, you could do it with no nights away from your family. It’s five, sometimes six nights away, and that was really surprising for me when I got into that. What are some of the other things that have surprised each of you about the world of being a master of ceremonies?

Jeff (12:39):

Professional Emcees Need to Be Able to Adapt

I’ll jump in, sure. So, things go wrong all the time at events, and not major things. The stage falls down, yada, yada, but we’re talking, hey, we need… You think, “Oh, we’re going to finish early. That’s good.” Right? Actually, no, because they’re prepping dinner in the foyer and we actually can’t leave here until 6:00 or whatever. Or the last speaker ran crazy early or went long. So, I think it surprised me how adaptable you need it to be. So, something that I do is I always have a couple things ready to go. Obviously, I’m an entertainer, so those are bits, routines, things I know that are easy, that I can just pull up. But anyone can do that. I always tell people, “Go to gratitude.” If you’re like, “What do I do on stage?” Thank people.

So let’s say you’ve got another minute or two to kill. Hey, let’s thank everybody that went into setting up this beautiful ballroom. All the food servers, this amazing technical team, let them hear you. All these planners. You could literally just thank people. That’s always a good thing to do. Show some gratitude. So I think that’s one as well, just to kind of throw it out there. I know just another example is social. We had said, this team said, “Hey, if we need to kill some time, just throw up the chat. Just throw it up there.” And I’ll say, “Oh, hey, let’s take a look and see what people are talking about.” We could go on that for five, 10 minutes to cover. So, if you always have a couple of things ready for when something goes wrong, you will not be caught off guard. You will make it just seem like part of the show, which is obviously the goal.

Patty (14:07):

I’ve been surprised on one thing, that media planners don’t understand this emcee role yet. You need to be a part of that show flow. You’ve got to block that piece with them so they understand the other elements of who needs to be where. Multiple scheduling will make your life a living nightmare. And if a media planner knows what you need, you’ll be so much more successful and they’ll think, “Oh, you thought of everything.”

Omekongo (14:37):

I think that it’s also important that we’re coming and willing to do the work and work hard and be there for days, but you also have to be comfortable and confident in saying no in things that you may be asked to do that you’re really not comfortable doing, or you may not even know how to do. What if you represent a certain religion and they’re asking you, can you say a prayer that represents a different faith, and you have no idea what it is? Or you just simply have a different value idea than what you’re being asked to do.

You have to say that, “I can’t do that. I’m not comfortable doing that. We didn’t discuss that.” Because if you’re going up there looking uncomfortable like that, number one, you’re going to look bad, and then they’re going to look bad. And obviously talking about something relating to religion is the easiest example for us to understand.

But they may ask you to do other things. They may ask you to move stuff and you may have a physical condition that doesn’t allow you to do that. If you just say, “Oh, well, this is just part of the job,” and then you end up hurting yourself, all of those things are possible. So you have to remember, no is a complete sentence. Though we’re there to work and do everything for them, that’s my sister-in-law. I’ve got to give her props on that one. You can’t jump out of the things that you are not comfortable doing because it’s going to make you look bad and it’s going to make them look bad as well.

Eliz (15:59):

I think the thing that surprised me the most as we transferred last year from in-person events and hybrid, I mean, we’ve done hybrid for years. I was surprised at how much work a virtual conference to emcee, and especially to produce a virtual conference is an incredible amount of work. And oh, did I under price it.

Thom (16:33):

Virtual Event Emcees – Not Just a “Nice to Have”

So, Jeff brought up the point that a lot of people decided, “Hey, I’m now an emcee,” because the virtual world came in and simultaneously a lot of meeting planners discovered, wow, an emcee isn’t just nice to have, especially in the virtual world, it takes a lot of pressure off of our team if we have someone who’s running the show on screen, who has those specific skills. So, since a lot of our peers have come in to become emcees, what are some other tips you would give people to, okay, you’ve made this leap. Here’s how you can be really, really effective. So, let’s just kind of go down the line. Eliz, I’ll start with you.

Eliz (17:11):

I think the way I measure success, especially in the production piece, but my favorite roles to play are the production and driver emcee piece. If, at the end of the conference, my meeting professional has been able to have a sandwich and maybe slept, that’s a success because that means I have been doing my job. I have handled all those things that come up. You mentioned we’re 10 minutes ahead and we can’t go to dinner yet. Y’all, that happened last night.

Thom (17:46):

That was yesterday.

Eliz (17:48):

In case were wondering, the rap that Omekongo did yesterday, what? You had five minutes’ notice on that?

Omekongo (18:00):

Yeah. Exciting.

Eliz (18:01):

It’s like, yeah, right?

Thom (18:01):

Give it up. Nice applause for Omekongo.

Eliz (18:06):

So, for us, fill in five minutes, we can do that. But our meeting professionals don’t know that. They don’t know that yes, we can do that. Anytime we can save that stress, because stress, of course is my thing, anytime we can save stress for our meeting professional partners, that’s a win.

Omekongo (18:28):

I think one of the things that we should consider as we work to stand out, and Jeff’s talking about everyone’s online saying they can do it, is that none of us really just wake up and say we want to be an emcee. We’ve had experience doing it somewhere. Maybe in our schools or in our community organizations. You want to start figuring out ways to capture yourself emceeing so you can actually show it. If you don’t have the ability to do that, get testimonials from the people that you’ve emceed for.

Again, something you may have did at the kids’ prom. You were a chaperone and you ran the events. Graduation, commencements, whatever. Start getting those testimonials and put them up there so people can see that you are different from the people who are just saying, “Yeah, I’m an emcee now.” That can also help you start to distinguish yourself from other people out there.

Patty (19:18):

When the pandemic first hit, I reached out to clients and said, “How could I help you?” They were struggling because they had big conferences coming up. So, I was asked to produce, drive these events. When I would do one association, my folks would reach out to other states. So, what I did was I started capturing pieces. So, they knew I had this judges panel that would come on and do this 45 minute piece of it. They kept asking for that. So, I was building this show for them with people I knew, but this all happened because, oh, that was a good idea. We captured that. I encourage those state associations and say, “Well, will you please tell your friends that this was good?” That’s how my business kept rocking during the pandemic.

Jeff (20:07):

Awesome. I’ll give a shout out to Darren LaCroix, Stage Time. I mean, you’ve got to do it. So if you have to do it, but on top of that, yeah, you have to do it, but then be better than what they were expecting. Because again, the bar, I think, I’m not talking the NSA bar here. The bar for other events, emceeing is pretty low, because they’re like, “Oh yeah, Johnny, he’s a hoot.” Like, “Johnny can emcee.” But they’re not expecting Johnny to have a monologue and have bits and routines and have things that he planned with graphics and slides. It’s, “Whoa, you took that to another level.”

So, you’ve got to do it, and as Omekongo pointed out, there’s a lot of opportunities to do it. Schools, churches, everything. There’s tons of free events, fundraisers, they all need emcees. Again, don’t just show up and read the script. Plan it. Write bits, material. You don’t have to juggle or whatever. You can do humorous slides, social media content, whatever. But put thought into it and be much better than they were expecting, I think is a tip.

Tom, do you mind if I throw in one thing first? Can I throw in one more thing?

Thom (21:11):

Of course you can, Jeff.

Jeff (21:12):

I appreciate you. Both socks and these slippers-

Thom (21:17):

Together? I’ll trade you shoes. I’ll wear the slippers the rest of the day.

Jeff (21:21):

I don’t want to wear your nasty socks.

Eliz (21:24):

Thom has some lovely striped, multi-colored socks, for those listening along at home.

Jeff (21:28):

It’s a podcast.

Thom (21:29):

I forgot we were doing a podcast, Jeff.

Jeff (21:31):

That’s all right.

Thom (21:31):

I was going to say that.

Jeff (21:34):

So, we talk about just throwing on the emcee role/emcee whatever. So, one thing that I’ve noticed is in the past, I used to have to convince buyers of the value of an emcee, those live events. Virtual events now, all I had to do was be the person they were looking for other than someone else, because to your point, they were like, “We can’t do this. We need an emcee.” So, that’s a huge opportunity, because I believe I’ve already seen it with my calendar with Fall and beyond. With live events and hybrid events, now they’re like, “Oh yeah, an emcee.” Just like what Zoom did, it made it a thing. I think now there’s going to be a really big opportunity for emcees that started with virtual, because we were scared. We didn’t know how to do this. Can you help?

Thom (22:17):

It’s been a real sea change, and one of the big things I’ve seen is other speakers telling the clients, “Oh, I know some great emcees.”

Jeff (22:25):

Exactly.

Thom (22:25):

“Can I introduce them to you?” I’ve seen that’s been a really big help. We have just a couple minutes left in this live show that’s becoming an episode of Speakernomics. So really quick, I’m going to tell a quick story and I want each of you to really fast, biggest horror story when you’ve been an emcee.

For me, it was a large event with about 4,000 people. Keynote speaker had 45 minutes, and then there was another speaker following who was supposed to be backstage 15 minutes before they were miked up. The speaker went 14 minutes, not 45, finished and said, “Thank you very much.” As he exited, I grabbed him in the wings and said, “Will you come out for Q and A with me?” And he said, “My English isn’t good enough, no.” And he ran. He ran from me and I had to go out and fill 20 minutes as a sudden keynoter. So, that was my biggest whoa. Really quick, yours, Omekongo?

Omekongo (23:16):

My biggest thing was being at an event and I’m a French speaker, but I am not skilled in being a French translator. There was someone speaking at a conference, and this is when I talk about, y’all say, you’ve got to know when to say no and when to say when. They were like, “We need someone to translate for this person.” They were like, “Well, he speaks French.” So I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Being a woman, there were gender things in terms of what was, and I didn’t know to just translate directly. So she will say like, “As a woman,” and I will say like, “As a woman, but I’m a man,” stuff like that. So, that was a weird experience. You just never know. But if I’d said no, I wouldn’t have had that experience.

Thom (24:02):

So, Patty or Eliz, do you have one? We’re short on time, so I’m just going to go to one of you.

Patty (24:02):

I think-

Thom (24:06):

Or Jeff, did you?

Jeff (24:06):

Professional Emcees are Often Asked to Save the Day

I have one if nobody else. Are you sure? All right. In this very room, I was hosting a Sprint GM conference a couple years ago, and everybody was in colored tee-shirts based on their region. So, the president was hosting the meeting. The CEO flew in on his private jet, must be nice, and literally went around and wrote people’s names that were in the casino as he was coming up, who was supposed to be in the session. So, they were having a fireside chat, and then I was supposed to kind of re-introduce the president to do her big talk. At the fireside chat, he concluded. He pretty much was reaming Sprint for not being great and was like, “Case in point, we’re having this amazing conference. We fly out here and X number of you were gambling.” And he fired onstage-

Thom (24:56):

Oh my God.

Jeff (24:57):

12 people. It was brutal, but also kind of savage. It was like, oh no. Because they were gambling. They paid me. So anyway, after that, the meeting planner was like, “Do something.” The president was freaking out because she was supposed to give a whole talk. So anyway, I told them I was going to go out and entertain. I came out and I was like, “I need a volunteer.” But I did the best I could, and I did a full comedy show after this horrible, horrible moment, and it was brutal.

Photo by Jacob Tyler Dunn | www.JacobTylerDunn.com

Thom (25:31):

So, for those of you who want to become an emcee, please remember Jeff Civillico’s story. You could have to fill time after people are fired. So, Eliz, Omekongo, Patty, and Jeff, thank you so much for being guests on Speakernomics Unplugged, live in the ballroom at Caesar’s Palace, and thank you to everybody who tuned in. Thank you to everybody who tuned in either here in the ballroom, on the live stream, or if you’re listening to this on the podcast, thank you so much. Be sure to subscribe to Speakernomics, the official podcast of the National Speakers Association, and always remember the motto of this show. Speak, get paid, repeat.

Eliz (26:15):

Excellent.

Patty (26:15):

All right. Thank you, Thom. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, this was fun. Thank you for letting us play together on stage. I have the names of the individuals who won the Friend Fest drawing. If your name is called, you get to go outside to the swag table and get your swag. Dr. Helen [Turnball 00:26:42], Patrick Nelson, [Cheryl Bendelglass 00:26:47], yay. Jan Spence. [Herrin Eddington 00:26:52], [Elan Glasser 00:26:52], Mark [Wesapetway 00:56:47], and Patrick [Deanato 00:26:52]. Ladies and gentlemen, we will meet back here in 15.

Eliz (27:06):

Thanks, everybody.

Thom (27:07):

Thank you.

Jeff (27:07):

Thank you.

Thom (27:09):

And nobody got fired.

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