Tag Archives: MC

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!

MCs and Compères – give it some thought

I go to a number of conferences for my work, and I MC or compère a few. I’m gearing up for another now and here are some of the things I’ve seen going wrong at others – I’ll be watching for them:

  • No-shows from speakers. How many times have you had a speaker agree to turn up and find something better to do on the day? Or not turn up because of illness, or a misunderstanding? Your MC had better have an emergency keynote speech in his or her back pocket. It might not be utterly brilliant but if it fills the gap and offers something of value, the audience will be happy enough and won’t know there was a disaster behind the scenes.
  • Lack of audience control. I attended a conference last year hosted by a brilliant businesswoman – no, she was highly reputable – whose idea of getting the audience’s attention after coffee was to stand there with the microphone going “Ssh” repeatedly. The audience behaved eventually but they weren’t happy. Microphone close to the mouth and “Ladies and gentlemen we are about to start again, please take your places” is better – the voice fills the auditorium but you’re speaking quietly so it sounds respectful.
  • Timings. Oh good grief, timings. I’ve been up as “next speaker” to find the speaker before me overrunning by five minutes and announcing “I know I’m overrunning but this next bit’s important” and going on for another 20. Of course I cut my speech down – I don’t think I’m important as speaker, however I think the fact that people will find their lunch ruined or the coffee cold is vital. That’s what they’ll Tweet about and never mind the “importance” of a speaker of whom they’d never heard before they turned up. The MC on the day just sat there.
  • Timings 2: Controlling speakers is difficult and the audience can think it’s hilarious. A few years ago I was chairing one of the streams at Social Media World Forum, and we had the CEO of a guitar company as a speaker. We knew we were in trouble when a) his PR team told me it was my job to get him upstairs to a panel discussion for midday (my job??? Hello, you’re his PR team..?) and b) he started his speech talking about Elvis and Johnny Cash and how they never had social media. Ten minutes after he was supposed to finish I had to intercede, reminding him he had a panel: “But I’m not finished with these folks,” he told me. He reluctantly came off stage and I thought he was going to the other hall, but he stopped again: “Can we get a photo together..?” so we had to stop for a pic. I need hardly add that the audience in my auditorium loved every second of my discomfort; the audience waiting for him in the panel session might have felt very differently.
  • AV: I’m not an AV man but a competent MC absolutely keeps an eye on the AV people, brings coffees, makes sure they’re happy – they can make a good conference spectacular. I was at an event this year at which the speakers were on a low stage so difficult to see already and the lighting was poor so they were quite indistinct. The hosts had saved money by bringing their own audio kit and from the back the sound was indistinct. It’s an old trope but if you think it’s expensive to use a professional, see what it costs you (at least in terms of reputation) if you don’t.

That’s why I have my seven-point system as an MC when I’m working on an event. If you’d like me to come and help with yours, have a look at my Speaker/MC/Compere page by clicking here or just drop me a line by clicking here and we’ll talk.