Category Archives: speaking

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.

How do you deal with nerves before a press interview?

Tomorrow I’ll be presenting at the Professional Speaking Association’s spring convention and nerves may be an issue. People often ask how I deal with them and the answer is that I don’t, always. It’s not even a big piece of presentation.

Whether you’re about to be interviewed by the press or waiting to go on stage, nerves can be a problem. Here are five points to help you manage them:

  • Embrace them. Nerves basically mean you want to give of your very best, make a good impression and deliver what the person or people in front of you want. You’re not arrogant enough to take your ability to do so for granted. Good. Your nerves are a reminder that you respect the audience and want to give them something good.
  • One theory a comedy mentor once relayed to me is that we go back to our instincts often. We’re still cavemen underneath it all, so where there’s a crowd, we expect to be facing the same way. At a press conference or anywhere there’s an audience, the crowd faces us. Instinctively, at some level, we think they’re going to kill us. They’re honestly not. Recognising where your nerves come from is one way of combating them.
  • A good way to overcome nerves is by preparing. First, make a list of the questions you’re anticipating and make sure you have answers. Second, make a list of all the stuff you’re hoping they won’t ask – and have an answer for those too. If they don’t come up, that’s fine.
  • Remember the people asking the questions may not have a particular agenda other than finding stuff out. I once did a media training session in which I kicked off by asking one of the delegates: “Tell me about yourself and your organisation.” She freaked out, asked to stop the interview, and asked why I wanted to know anything about her. In fact I was just warming up, a name and job title would have answered my question perfectly, but in her mind there was a dangerous agenda being set. Watch out for overthinking and assuming there’s going to be this big agenda before you’ve even started.
  • Don’t give interviews or presentations for which you’re unprepared. Now, “prepared” could mean a bit of deliberate prep for the interview backed by 25 years in your industry, but make sure you’re the genuine expert in what you’re speaking about. The people to whom you’re speaking will then want to hear from you and no matter how hostile they may look (and a straight face from someone who’s just paying attention can look very hostile if you’re feeling tense), they’re mostly on your side.

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!

How do you introduce someone in a podcast interview?

I train people to interview others as well as to be interviewed themselves (generally not the same people, you understand). Something that’s changed over the last few years is that journalists are presenting their own interviews as podcasts. There are some things they could do to improve the result without much hard work.

For a start, if you’re marketing it as a podcast, consider publicising it as a radio show instead. Depending on your market you might well find some of your target listeners are put off by “podcast”, believing they need some sort of technical skill in order to hear it. They don’t care about whether it actually reaches them over radio waves; tell them it’s a radio show and they’ll get it.

Heeeere’s Guy! Start an interview strongly

I listened to a pretty good one the other day. The content was terrific. A lively interviewee and the interviewer knew when to shut up and let her speak (maybe a little too much for my tastes but he or she – I’m not disclosing identities – was perfectly clear that the guest was the star). That put it in the top niche of podcasts already as quite a number are ego exercises for the presenter, and I speak as someone who ran his own a few years back!

However, in this instance the presenter was too self-effacing. You wouldn’t have known their name from the show they put on, it was straight into “with me is…” and then bang, on with the interview. Always start off by introducing yourself.

Introduce the interviewee

The guest introduction was also low-key. The beginning of a show is always the attention-grabber, so here are a few pointers:

  • Don’t announce the name immediately. I’ve introduced people on stage before and their agents have sent me intros that begin “NAME is an Olympic athlete, who has scaled Kilimanjaro, tunnelled underneath Everest and played the lead role in Bugs Bunny the Musical for 15 years.” I always leave the name until last, so it’s “My guest today is an Olympic athlete, who has scaled (etc…) – a warm welcome to NAME GOES HERE”. You’re actually building up to something with an intro like this.
  • Ask your guest or their agent how they like to be introduced. Your idea of their professional highlights may not be theirs. And do make sure you introduce them. You might think it goes without saying that everyone will know who they are. You’d be surprised at the number of people who may not.
  • Raise your voice, in tone if not in volume, when you get to the interviewee’s name. It signals to the audience that someone good is about to speak, and that you’re excited about it. If you’re presenting live, they’ll know it’s time to applaud.

Interviewing isn’t as easy as it looks. You need to know when to shut up, when to probe a bit, when to interrupt and also to manage the timings. Get off to a strong start, though, and you’ll at least have their attention.

Do you need help with interviewing techniques? Contact me and we’ll talk. If you want to know more about how I can add value introducing people and generally MC-ing your corporate event, check my speaker and MC page.

Katie Hopkins: publicity master?

This week, a group of students at Brunel University first stood up and turned their backs on, then walked out on former candidate on “The Apprentice” and now columnist Katy Hopkins.

Hopkins has built herself quite a reputation. She is right wing and has made numerous controversial comments about refugees, women, overweight people…I could go on. She behaved pretty badly during “The Apprentice”, trying to plot the downfall of a couple of the candidates. And failing.

She is also a master at publicising herself and making a great deal out of what appears simply to be a particular outlook on life.

If I were here I’d be thanking those students at the moment. Look at what it’s done for her. She would have been unlikely to get into the Guardian and the Independent without their actions, these papers are not her spiritual home. She would also not have had the ammunition to launch an attack on universities and freedom of speech in her Daily Mail column, in which she has some justification for accusing the students of having closed minds and not researching other speakers with the same diligence. There’s an important lesson about handing people the moral high ground in there.

How do you solve a problem like Katie

It’s an old difficulty: how do you efficiently protest against someone without drawing attention to their views? There are a number of ways, and the students in this instance blew most of them.

First, you ignore the speaker. Just don’t invite them to speak and they won’t force themselves on you.

Second, if your uni or other organisation has invited them to speak and you object, don’t go. An empty or poorly-attended hall is not a news story.

Third, if you do turn up and want to object, give the speaker a chance to make his or her point first. Whatever objections you have, walking out before he or she has spoken is always going to look unreasonable. Putting a film of it on YouTube is going to hit the papers – Hopkins can probably charge a larger fee as a result of the last couple of days’ notoriety.

What Katie should do next

On the other hand, you might be the Katie figure rather than the listener in this case. If I were advising her or someone like her, I’d suggest:

  • Turn up to anything to which you’re invited and get a friendly colleague along with a camcorder, DSLR, phone with good video recording or something like that. Get any protest on disk.
  • Stay calm and be reasonable. Don’t allow yourself to look flustered. It’s your right to express an opinion in a democracy and the fact that I wouldn’t vote for you/buy your newspaper/whatever takes nothing away from that right.
  • If there’s a walkout, make it a bigger news story than it is – as indeed Hopkins appears to have done. Wait and see whether someone uploads their own footage for sharing, and use the copy you’ve made only if they fail to do so – so it doesn’t look like self-publicity.

I hold no brief for Katy Hopkins. The audience, however, has handed her an incredible win. I suspect this wasn’t their intention.

Do you need help handling an awkward audience during your business presentations? I can help – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

I've just entered the UK Blog Awards #UKBA16

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.