MC-ing and speaking: it’s a matter of time

What’s the most important thing an MC can bring to your event? Humour? Some sort of spark? There’s actually something a lot more important.

Years of experience tell me that if the speakers are any good, my most important duty is to bring the event in on time. I found this particularly at an event at which I MC’d last week, on contact centres. One of the panels had to be scrapped because two people didn’t show up. If they hadn’t already seen the agenda, the audience would never have known.

Here are a few tips for making an event run to time:

  • Have an emergency speech in your back pocket. Last week I knew one of the other speakers would be highly knowledgeable so we stretched his Q and A session and also had a longer lunch break to cover the absence of the panel; the audience went away happy.
  • Brief speakers in advance so that they understand they mustn’t overrun. Years ago I was speaking at a conference and the guy before me went 15 minutes over time, just before lunch. He even said “I know I’m over time but this is important”. Not to the audience it isn’t, matey. They have expectations and they are much more important than us in a conference. I cut a bit out of my own presentation, we finished on time and the audience and organisers were pleased.
  • Also brief the MC. I was once speaking at a very swish restaurant where the fish starters were going to be served at 1.00 precisely. I had my timings carefully mapped out and the MC, in fact the MD of my client, decided to get everyone in the room to introduce themselves. This took 40 minutes. I did what I could and invited the staff to serve while I was speaking but they were reluctant; talk on the way out wasn’t about my scintillating speech but about how surprising it was that such an establishment would serve such dried-up fish. Seriously, ruin people’s lunch and they’ll remember it a lot longer than they remember your messages.
  • My speaker friend Graham Jones once advised me that the speakers and MC were less important than the coffee. This isn’t 100 per cent right but we’re certainly less important than the networking opportunities, which is why a lot of people bother to turn up to our events at all. Respect those breaks at all costs and you should be fine.

After all that, by all means put the humour, the spark, whatever you want to call it, into your presentation or MC-ing. Just don’t forget the people you’re there for and what they need from you.

Do you need a professional host for your event? I can help – contact me by emailing here.

Mistakes to avoid when you’re speaking

I’ve done a fair bit of MC-ing just lately and most of the speakers have been very good. One or two, however, have made some crushing errors and the audience has ended up rather like my cat, Sammy, who you can see above. (Ace photographer, me). So, since it’s a load more fun picking holes than celebrating good practice, let’s start with some of the howlers I’ve seen:

  • Start by asking whether everyone can hear you. Sounds harmless, and yet if you do that while you’re speaking, you’ve just told the sound crew you don’t trust them to do their job. You’ve also told the audience you don’t trust your team.
  • Start by saying “I don’t know anything about your industry…” well go and find out. It’s often the celebrity speakers who offer this little gem; frankly they’re being paid enough to open Google up on their computer to have a read. If you have a lesson that’s salient, just say it – qualifying it by that you don’t know the industry tells the audience you’re just there for the cheque.
  • Try not to sell from the stage, or be subtle (and brief) if you do. The number of people who stand there and say “this is what my company does and why we’re the best” is embarrassing. People who already wanted to know will already be in touch. People who don’t will not respond. Tell them something of value and establish you’re worth speaking to and they’ll probably come and speak to you.
  • Take part in a panel and deliver only scripted responses, pre-agreed, backed by PowerPoint. There is nothing wrong with being scripted and delivering a presentation. It doesn’t work when you’re trying to persuade the audience it’s spontaneous.
  • Agree to a half-hour slot but prepare ten minutes and assume the audience will fill in the rest by asking questions. Even if they’re interested, they may be stunned into silence by the fact that you’ve just stopped.

I’ve also seen some excellent practice going on:

  • I like it when MCs start with an anecdote or quick point that acknowledges the location of the talk. That subtly tells the audience that you’ve done your preparation for them, that day.
  • It’s been good when participants have visibly listened to others on a panel rather than looked the other way. The audience doesn’t just see the person speaking at the time, they see a tableau. You’re part of the picture on stage – make it look good.
  • It works when speakers finish with a call to action rather than a summary. Yes, there’s a lot to be said for “tell them what you’re going to say, say it and tell them what you’ve just said” – but if it can be spun in an active way, so much the better.

Do you need help with your presentation skills, or an MC at your forthcoming event? I can help – fill in the form below or email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Presenters and trainers: watch your timing

Presenters, speakers and trainers all share one thing in common and we hate it: we are, as my friend and fellow speaker Graham Jones has been known to advise people, less important than the coffee. I’ve borne this in mind every time I get to present or MC something and it’s advice that’s never let me down.

Here are a couple of stories that illustrate why it’s important.

A couple of years ago I was editing something called “UC Insight” – a good gig – and a company asked me to come and give a talk over dinner at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. The fee was acceptable and I thought, terrific, Ramsay restaurant, pleasant people, this can’t go wrong.

The waiting staff told me timing would be tight because the starter was fish, being kept warm underneath those lights they have at the serving stations of restaurants. That was fine, I reasoned – I knew my timings.

Then the MD of the host company, whose job it was to introduce me, stood up and announced that he’d only been told he was speaking at midday. So, he thought, it would be a good idea if the entire room full of people introduced themselves.

Oh God.

There were about 40 people. All of them took about a minute. You can do the maths. Remember the fish was being timed around my 30 minutes, not his 40 intros plus my time. I cut it as decently short as I could but he insisted on a Q and A session…I’ll just tell you that a large number of guests were quite bewildered that someone like Gordon Ramsay would allow such dry fish to be served. Sadly there wasn’t a great deal I could do about it. Presenters should always talk to the catering staff.

Component speeches

After that experience I started to watch some of the better presenters more closely. I realised a lot of them, particularly the MC variety, actually broke their presentations down into chunks – a story here, a bit of content there…they could add or subtract bits at will. I adopted the technique fairly promptly.

It came in very handy when I was speaking at another communications event. My job was to give a 40-minute overview but the speaker before me overran, initially by ten minutes, at which point he announced “I think I’m over my time but this is important…”

(That’s a very good thing never to say, by the way – you might think it’s important but the other speakers may be important too; “this is important…” has that element of “knickers to everyone else, I’m staying on stage”.)

I was the last speaker before lunch. People look forward to lunch at corporate events, it’s a chance to get away from the speakers. The catering staff were, once again, serving hot food which needed to be eaten fresh, and they had their shifts and other duties to think about.

So I dropped a couple of my stories and did a 25-minute overview. The organiser came over during lunch and said how lucky it was that I’d underprepared so we were back on schedule. She went away too quickly for me to tell her otherwise, sadly – but believe me, it wasn’t an accident.

Presenters need realism

People get ratty when they’re hungry and irritable if they start to dehydrate. Most conference organisers have thought about attention spans, pee breaks, catering and networking opportunities in advance. If you’re speaking and especially if you’re facilitating, you need to understand these things and fit in as part of the event rather than as a star turn who can take an extra half an hour if they feel like it.

My job when I’m MC-ing is to see that people get their coffee and the staff get to clear up without working late – and to make sure nobody notices that’s what I’m doing!

Learnings from Tweetchats

Yesterday I hosted a Tweetchat for a client. The idea is simple: you set aside an hour, adopt a hashtag and talk about your given subject. Ideally you use a platform like, which automates the hashtag for you. I had three experts on hand and it went well.

Some things to bear in mind if you want to do this yourself:

  • I grant you this will sound like vested interests talking, but it really does help to have someone on hand whose sole focus is to keep the thing going, fill in any lulls and ensure people are welcomed. If you’re the subject of the chat, you won’t have time.
  • Preparation is everything. In previous Tweetchats I’ve started off asking the experts to introduce themselves and there was a pause while they typed their responses. It can’t be difficult to type yourself a quick intro so that you can cut and paste it onto Twitter and get the intros out of the way swiftly – and establish some sort of pace for the event.
  • Likewise, send a few questions to the moderator in advance. He/she can cut and paste these to fill any lulls and it will take only a second, maintaining the impetus. Oh and for goodness’ sake read the questions carefully rather than decide on the day that they look peculiar or are difficult to answer. On at least one occasion I’ve managed to stump an expert with a question that they (or more likely their agency) had sent me only the previous week.
  • If you’re sending a question to the moderator in advance, have a cut and paste answer ready rather than allow for another pause. Try to leave the answer open to some debate – your objective is to engage with people and get them talking.
  • You’re likely to be on a conference call with the moderator while the thing is running. Stuff can happen in the background so if you need to have a conversation with someone else, put yourself on mute rather than distract everyone else. Also, listen to what the other people are saying: on more than one occasion I’ve drawn people’s attention to a question, someone has confirmed they’re answering it and a minute later someone else has asked whether anyone has seen the question we’d just spent time discussing…

And if you’re the moderator, remember your job is logistics and being alert to the imperative that everybody has to have their questions answered. The hour will zip past unless there’s a lull – in which case three seconds’ pause will feel like a lifetime…

Do you need help with Tweetchats or any other element of communication? Let’s talk – email me by clicking here.

Cyber Monday offer – 20% off media training

A lot of people I know have become very cynical about this Cyber Monday/Black Friday thing. I’ve never seen the point of writing something off before you’ve tried it, so I’ve decided to put my own offer together.

If you’re thinking you or a client need some help with the media – whether it’s with writing contributed articles, interview sessions with feedback or crisis management – and are happy to take it during December, I will offer 20% off my usual prices.

So for a basic session my fee during December 2015 will be £480 plus VAT rather than my usual £600 plus VAT. Add-ons such as follow-up calls are available.

The service will be unchanged. You will get:

  • Telephone consultation to make sure I deliver the session you need
  • Half day session at your premises or at a venue I will book (and pass on the costs to you subject to 20% VAT, or you can organise the venue if you prefer)
  • Interview practice sessions and feedback
  • Video footage of your interview (a new addition to my service, for which I have not increased the fee)
  • A free copy of my e-book on media and presentation tips, 150 pages long

I’m compromising on price for this promotion but not on completeness of the offering.

If you think this might be appropriate for your company or, if you’re in PR, a client’s company, you can contact me by clicking here or calling 07973 278780.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you.


Learnings from New York

So I was in New York this week, as you’ll have gathered from the picture above. That’s Central Park and it could be the Trump Tower in the background.

I was chairing a round table discussion for Professional Outsourcing Magazine, which I edit. We run these in London frequently, an invited group of experts come to hear a speaker over dinner. It went well but there were a number of learnings about working in America for the first time – I thought they may help if you’re presenting over there for the first time:

  • It’s well understood that in spite of the language commonality and shared ancestry, modern America isn’t simply a bigger version of modern UK. So when the main speaker, based in New York, said “let’s make this interactive”, they really went for it. In the UK I find getting people to participate is a slow start, then they go for it – it wasn’t like that over there.
  • The drop-out rate for evening events appears to be the same in the US as it is for the UK – we’d planned accordingly and still had a full house.
  • If you’re planning an event over a meal, it’s important to find out what time the local participants will expect to eat. In the UK we’re fine with a 6.00pm-and-onwards arrival, drinks, sitting down to the speaker at 6.30, Q and A at 7.15 and the first course arriving towards 8. Our feedback from our American planner was that we couldn’t possibly hold off until 8 to start the food, people would be hungry.
  • For this reason as well as many others, having someone local working with you is essential. Read up all you want, only someone steeped in the culture will know about all of the smaller points.

Oddly it was the second-last point that took me by surprise, which is crazy when you consider that I know perfectly well that (for example) Spanish people will expect to eat at around 9pm. Why should someone on another continent keep similar hours to ours?

It went well – as you’ll gather we had someone local which I believe is essential. Our next stop (other than the regular London events) will be Chicago – and I’m not taking it for granted that they will have the same expectations as their New York counterparts.

Do you need a facilitator for a round table event? I can help, drop me a mail by clicking here and we’ll talk.

To tie or not to tie

I had a great time media training Jellyfish last week – lovely people and one of their clients, Hari Ghotra, a chef who makes (as I discovered last night) very good curry kits.

It was a media company so I should have guessed – I was the only person wearing a tie (not the one in the picture above which is an old one, don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly put on a load of weight!). And a suit. But was this so wrong? Let me add that they said nothing at all to make me feel uncomfortable. This Daily Telegraph piece certainly suggests wearing a tie is essential for a man in business, but I do wonder.

The Telegraph points to a number of companies that actively discourage tie-wearing. Google, Amazon and a few others will actively dissuade the tie-wearers among us.


This, frankly, is where I draw the line. You can turn up to a meeting with me wearing what you like and I won’t bat an eyelid, I promise. It’s entirely up to you.

I will object, though, if you try to tell me what to wear. And if I decide I look better tailored than casual, that’s probably what I’ll do.

I suppose I’m just being lazy. Historically, business attire has been very easy for men and less so for women. Granted in the summer it can get uncomfortably hot but essentially, if you’re a bloke, “put on a suit and tie” is a passport to acceptance just about anywhere. Well-fitted is best and a lively tie is better than a boring one (be careful though: an old friend had a wedding anniversary once and wore the Scooby Doo tie he’d been given to church that morning, only to be greeted with the news that Princess Diana had died that morning).

If you have an important client (hint: every client is important) or if you’re being put in front of an audience, a tie is a signal not that you’re serious or competent but that you’re taking them seriously, you’re playing the game and making an effort for them.

It’s no substitute for content or manner, of course. But I don’t think I’m going to go tieless habitually just yet when there’s a client involved.