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.
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.
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!