Who wants to be an Emcee?

The author as emcee. Click photo to watch video.

It all started when I was still working in radio and television. I’d been a roaming reporter, a producer, a news anchor, and a presenter. I knew people, and people knew me. What’s more, they trusted me.

One day I got a call from a symposium organizer who wanted to know if I’d be interested in moderating a debate they were organizing. I happened to be available, so I said yes. That two-hour gig made me more money than an entire week on the radio. More importantly, I had so much fun doing it!

The audience seemed to respond well, and one gig led to another, and another. Then a local theater needed an emcee for a gala, and thought I’d be a good fit. A week later I was introducing speakers and performers on a huge stage.

ESCAPING THE STUDIO

What I loved about it was the opportunity to escape from the studio, and be in front of a live audience that responded immediately to what I was saying and doing. That rarely happens in radio (or in voice-overs). Even when taping a TV show, the audience is warmed up ahead of time by some sad comedian, and told when to applaud. There’s nothing spontaneous about it.

As the emcee, I got to set the tone and the energy for whatever event I was involved in, and it brought the extrovert out in me. Eventually, this hosting thing became a nice side hustle and I got more requests than I could handle. I reacted by raising my fee, but that had the opposite effect. Because I was more expensive I became more in demand. Remember that when you’re negotiating your next VO gig!

The truth is, I’m not sure I was that good, but I soon discovered that there simply weren’t too many people who had the guts to address a large crowd. Most folks would probably pee in their pants at the idea of being in the limelight.

As a minister’s son I had had years of practice being in front of the congregation reading from scripture or doing a nativity play. Unknowingly, the Dutch Reformed Church had prepared me for becoming a master of ceremonies.

THE BIGGEST HURDLE

Being an event host is a bit like doing voice-overs: it seems easy until you actually have to do it. Here’s why:

It’s tough to be natural in an unnatural situation.

Most people become extremely self-conscious. They don’t know how to hold their hands, they can’t control their voice, and suddenly the words that come out of their mouths sound silly and insincere.

Now imagine doing all of that on stage, with lots of strangers watching your every move. Are you having fun yet?

So, depending on your mental makeup, this could either be a nightmare scenario or an interesting career opportunity for you. We all know that freelance income fluctuates, and since you’re already using your voice to make a living, why not add some public speaking to your repertoire?

To make sure you’ll get asked back after your first engagement, I’m going to share some tips with you.

HOW TO BE AN AMAZING EMCEE

The number one question people always ask me is this:

“How do you curb your nerves?”

First, you’ve got to know that nerves are normal. They’re a sign that your mind and your body are awake, alert, and willing to do well. Welcome your butterflies and thank them for lifting up your level of energy and excitement. Athletes, actors, and musicians need that extra boost to take their performance to the next level. So do you!

Secondly, the best way to prevent nerves from paralyzing you, is preparation. The next question is: how do you prepare?

When I first started emceeing, I expected the organization that was hiring me to take care of every little detail. Because they knew what was happening, they expected me to know what was happening as well. They thought I’d just go on stage and start talking.

I soon learned that it was my job as host to get as many details about the event and the speakers as possible, at least a few weeks ahead of time. If the organization was unwilling or unable to provide that, I took that as a red flag and I declined the job.

This is also your first opportunity to establish your expertise and your authority by putting your foot down. Even though you don’t organize the event, once the show starts rolling, you will be seen as the person in charge, and you effectively are. At that point you don’t want people to challenge, distract, or confuse you.

So, what sort of information do you need?

GET THE FACTS

Before you even agree to do the job, find out as much as you can about the organization(s) involved. Would you be proud to be associated with them? Even though you have no formal ties with them, you will be seen as representing them on stage. Equally important is to know your audience. You don’t want to talk down to them, or go over their heads.

As you are preparing, dig up some fun facts about the company or charity behind the event, as well as the speakers and the entertainment. That way you’ll always have something to say in case you need to stall for time.

No matter how well-organized an event may be, speakers may arrive late, the band will need a few more minutes to set up, and the prize you were supposed to hand out might vanish. During those times you’ll be glad you have something to talk about.

Be sure you are in command of the basic facts: who will be speaking when, how to pronounce their names, and what their credentials and accomplishments are. In case of performers, get the names of the individual band members, find some career highlights, let the audience know where they can find their music, and where they’ll be performing next. 

Let me stress: don’t trust the organizers to give you all the info you need. Do some digging yourself. Being knowledgeable shows that you’re not just in it for the money. A professional emcee is genuinely interested in the event, the people, and the organizations that take part.

Here’s the thing: if you are interested and involved, you will sound interested and involved, and you are more likely to get the audience interested and involved. I’ve seen emcees that looked like they were only there to collect a paycheck. It’s boring, embarrassing, and insulting.

SPONSORS

These days, most events don’t happen without sponsors. These sponsors don’t throw money at an event just because they’re in a charitable mood. They expect something in return: publicity. Perhaps they’re also a vendor at the conference.

It is your job as an emcee to enthusiastically mention these sponsors multiple times during your time on stage. Be prepared to say something nice about them, and ask the audience to show their appreciation by giving them a round of applause. If the CEO’s of these sponsors are present, acknowledge and thank them as well.

Remember: people like to feel valued and appreciated. CEO’s want to look good in the public eye. If you treat them with respect and present their company or organization in a positive light, chances are that they’ll continue sponsoring the event in years to come. This will make you look good in the eyes of the organization that hired you, and the CEO’s might think of you to emcee their next corporate event. Win – win!

Speaking of those who hired you, even though you are the MASTER of ceremonies, you provide a SERVICE for which you’re getting paid. Act like the confident professional you are, and don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Don’t behave like a jerk or a diva, just because your face is on television, or all over YouTube.

No matter what happens, your job is to make the organization and the organizers look good. If they look good, you look good.

DISASTER STRIKES

If something goes wrong, don’t point it out. Unless the building catches fire, the audience doesn’t need to know. It’s up to you to distract and deflect. Buy time while the problem is being sorted out.

Now, in case of a real emergency, you may have to direct the audience to stay calm and head to the nearest exit. So, make sure you know where those exits are and what is expected of you in those situations. Lives may depend on it.

Another question people always ask is: “What should I wear?”

The short answer is to dress professionally and dress for the occasion. You don’t go to a gala in your jeans, and you don’t wear a tuxedo if you’re moderating an academic panel. If in doubt, ask the organization.

Whatever you wear, make sure it is clean, ironed, and it fits right. Bring some spare clothes in case someone spills a drink on you. And visit your hairdresser before the event. If you look good, you feel good, and you’ll shine on stage.

Realize that the harsh stage lights aren’t always kind to your complexion. In fact, they might make you look downright pale and sickly. To counteract that, always bring some powder foundation and apply it before you go on stage. This tip is for women AND men! Click here for a quick tutorial. You may want to consult with a makeup artist to find out which products are best for you.

Emceeing the Easton Farmers’ Market

TAKE YOUR TIME

This brings me to another point: give yourself enough time to get to the venue and prepare. Professionals are punctual. Require a parking pass or a reserved parking spot so you don’t waste time hunting for one.

Familiarize yourself with the stage and the equipment. Make friends with the sound engineer and do the soundcheck ahead of time. The words “Check, one, two, three,” followed by thumping on the microphone at the beginning of a show, are the sounds of an amateur.

Always bring a clipboard for your notes, or prepared 3 x 5 cards. Never write complete sentences but use keywords so you can speak semi-spontaneously instead of reading to the audience. When you read, you lose eye contact, and you disconnect from those in front of you.

If you’d like to put some personality into your presentations, avoid using clichés such as:

“Without further ado,”

“Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

“Last but not least,” and 

“Boy, are we in for a good time.”

When speaking, make sure you face the audience. That seems to be a given, but I’ve seen quite a few emcees with their backs to the crowd as they were introducing the band behind them on stage.

Even though you may not see your audience very well because of the blinding lights, pretend you do. Let your eyes rest at various spots in the auditorium, including the balcony. This will give people the feeling that you connect with them, no matter where they are sitting.

HOW TO HANDLE THE AUDIENCE

Some jobs will require you to go into the audience to get some reactions or do short interviews. A few pointers:

Never drink any alcohol before, during, or after your gig.

Make sure your breath is fresh. Click here to find out what kind of mouth spray I use. 

Always hold on to your microphone. Once it’s taken from you, you have lost control of the situation.

Never embarrass people by making fun of their appearance or accent. You’re putting them on the spot, so please be respectful.

Be very careful with humor. It could easily backfire. I once cracked a joke about our mayor as I was introducing him, and he was not amused. Later on he called the organization that had asked me to emcee, and filed a complaint. In hindsight I had to agree with him. The joke wasn’t very funny and could easily be misinterpreted.

In doubt, err on the side of caution.

Having said that, no one likes an emcee who’s bone dry and dead serious. So, if you catch yourself saying something that makes the audience laugh, make a mental note. In the beginning of your emcee career, you’re like a comedian doing tryouts to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s an example.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to hand out rewards or prizes to unsuspecting individuals. They walk up to the stage, overwhelmed and incredibly nervous. It’s your job to put them at ease so they’re able to give a short thank you speech. Quite often, these people will be crying their eyes out.

At that point I usually hand them a tissue saying: “Please take this tissue. I’ve only used it once.”

Somehow, that always gets a laugh from the audience and from the person crying. Once they start smiling, I know they’re ready for their acceptance speech.

TAKING CARE OF YOU

I’ve already mentioned the importance of your physical appearance. But there’s more. Being an emcee is a great responsibility that comes with a lot of pressure. You need to keep the show moving and make sure every element begins and ends on time. There are a lot of details to keep track of and people to please. And you have to do it all with a smile.

Some days you can’t wait to go on stage and do your thing. Other days you just want to stay home and relax. Then there are days when everything turns dark when a beloved pet, close friend, or family member ends up in the hospital or worse.

You’re bound by a contract, so the show must go on. Whether you like it or not.

Whatever is going on in your personal life, leave it at the door as soon as you walk in. You have been hired to support the event. Whatever support you need has to be put on hold.

I’ve been in situations where I’d wish I wouldn’t have to be on stage pretending everything is hunky-dory, but you know what? The distraction of being there, helping other people have a good time, helped me deal with my personal issues. For a few hours I could stop obsessing over a stressful situation and focus on the job I had to do. 

That too, is being a professional.

Two months after my stroke

SHOULD YOU DO IT?

If you feel that emceeing is something you could do, you’ve got to do it for the right reasons. For one, you are not the star of the show. You’re on stage to create a welcoming atmosphere in which all participants can shine. Your job is to make other people look good. Sometimes you’re their safety net. Sometimes you’re their cheerleader.

Whatever role you play, you’ve got to be genuinely involved and interested – even when the spotlight is not on you. I’ve seen emcees enthusiastically announce an act, and look completely disinterested and bored off-stage, even making faces at the performers. Things like that upset me more than I’d like to admit.

Good emcees are focused on others. Bad ones are focused on themselves.

Being an emcee is not for the shy. You’ve got to be

comfortable in front of a crowd

comfortable without a script

comfortable under pressure

comfortable dealing with strong personalities

comfortable thinking on your feet

comfortable being you

Now, it is often said that the last thing you leave people with, will be remembered most. So, after you have thanked the participants, the organization, and the audience for their involvement, you leave the stage and thank everyone who has helped you do your job, from the sound engineer, to the floor manager, to the girl who fixed your hair.

Be gracious and grateful. Even though you might feel exhausted and you want to jump in your car, take a few moments to show your appreciation. In our society this sometimes seems like a lost art. Let’s keep it alive!

With that, I want to thank you for reading what turned out to be a rather lengthy blog post.

I hope to see you on stage, some day soon!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal

8 Responses to Who wants to be an Emcee?

  1. T Diaz

    Paul, Paul, Paul, “some sad comedian?” Keep in mind that somebody might consider you “some sad emcee.” I’ve been a long-time subscriber to your blogs and read almost every one of them (except for the ones in Dutch!). You’ve mentioned in previous blogs being, on occasion, considered arrogant by a some. Although I’m guessing that was unintentional on your part, this comment about a “sad comedian” struck me as such, and I found it somewhat off-putting. Otherwise, great article, as always!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for the feedback! I know there are some people who believe I’m a pathetic blogger, a failed voice-over, and an awful emcee. They’ve even suggested I should go back to my own country. That’s all part of sticking ones neck out, and I’ve learned not to get upset about it. I take full credit for my observations and I hope my readers realize they are based on my perceptions which are always prejudiced.

    Having worked in television studios I have met quite a few people who were hired to warm up audiences. None of them ever imagined doing that type of work. They all had dreams of being a stand-up on a huge stage in front of thousands of adoring fans. They wanted to be the guest on the very show they were warming the audience up for. Instead, they were telling the same jokes to a different group of what was generally referred to as “clapping cattle” over and over again.

    Once their work was done, they retreated quietly. The act was over. The smile disappeared from their face. They knew they were never going to be the bride, not even the bridesmaid.

    To me, dashed dreams and missed opportunities are sad. Why? Because some of these people were really good at what they did. They had the potential to be a headliner. It just never materialized while others (often less talented comedians) made boatloads of money with a dumb performance.

    It’s part of the big unfairness that is life.

    [Reply]

    T Diaz Reply:

    Paul,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to clarify for me the intent behind the phrase “sad comedian” based upon what your experience has been, Paul. I really appreciate it. I misread your intent and might have instead asked you what that intent was rather than making an assumption and reacting to it so strongly.

    I can’t speak to the quality of your emceeing or VO work, but pathetic blogger??? NEVER! 🙂

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m so glad you gave me the opportunity to clarify my qualification of a comedian.

    Some of the comments I get on my blog I won’t publish because of the language used. When certain people don’t like what I have to say, they start attaching my character instead of engaging in a debate about content. The comments are usually made anonymously, or the author uses a pseudonym which I no longer allow.

  2. Brad

    Fab stuff here Paul… so spot on!
    Your comments on having a plan and being prepared as the best way to handle nerves is gospel!
    I really enjoy emcee work….or hosting, or moderating panels…and also stand-up comedy.
    For all of those, the only way to handle the nerves and stress is with having a plan.
    Many people think the great comics are just naturally fabulous funny and lovable people…when if fact, they are mostly just experienced, practiced and prepared!
    …Not to mention the YEARS they have put in.
    Love your stuff Paul. Thanks as always for sharing!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re very welcome, Brad. It’s all about fine-tuning and doing things over and over again, making it seem spontaneous. Classical musicians do it too. They rehearse and rehearse until the music is memorized. At the actual performance they make it look like they’re inventing the music on the spot.

    [Reply]

  3. Steve Krumlauf

    Bravo, Paul! An excellent tutorial for anyone who’s ever been or ever will be a master of ceremonies. In fact, you should publish that as a handbook, seriously.

    So, you are what we call here in the colonies a PK, (preacher’s kid.) Who knew? That’s awesome!

    During my television and radio days, I found that emcee gigs came quite often, probably because you are much more visible to the public than you are as a VO voice.

    However, I also found that if you are working for a listener supported TV or radio station, as I did for decades, those who request your services also expect you to do so without pay. There is no money in it. That’s a non negotiable item.

    Your experience before a live audience, Paul, reminded me of the night I introduced Dino, a mega star pianist back in the 70’s and 80’s. He was very much like Liberace, a lot of glitz and glamor. I was on stage with Dino backstage waiting to make his entrance down a long stairway, ala Jacob’s ladder, and as soon as I said, “Heeeeeeeere’s Dino,” the lights would go out, smoke bombs and fireworks would shoot off and the show would roll. It all worked perfectly up until the time World War III broke out and I immediately fell off this very tall stage and my glasses went flying into the orchestra pit. All before 5,000 pairs of eyes. (A note to PITA. No animals or me were injured in the making of this live extravaganza!)

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for sharing a great story, Steve. Glad you survived the great and inimitable Dino.

    Every other week I announce the Easton Farmers’ Market pro bono. It’s my way of giving back to the community, and to support our local farmers and vendors. I must say that I enjoy these four hours in Centre Square more than I do most corporate narrations.

    [Reply]

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