The emcee of an event is the first person the audience sees at a conference, symposium, awards presentation, fundraiser, or other occasion with multiple participants on stage. Think of the emcee as a ringmaster at a circus, introducing various performers, making announcements, and guiding the program along to a successful conclusion.
Emcee is the phonetic spelling of the acronym M.C. which is short for master of ceremonies or mistress of ceremonies, which sounds awful. The term likely originated with religious rituals in the 17th Century. But emceeing also holds a place in the history of Hip Hop where emceeing or rapping helped the DJ move the crowd at a concert.
The emcee’s role is vital to the outcome of your event but often doesn’t claim the importance it should. Professional event planners understand the weight the emcee carries to ensure the success of a conference. Other organizers may not think of the nuances of doing the job right and pick someone simply because they are funny, glib, have a good speaking voice, look good, or will do it for free.
How do you select an emcee? And if you are tapped to be an emcee, how do you make the most of the opportunity and bring value to the event?
I am in the middle of designing the flow, writing the script, and coaching the speakers for a high-level corporate event. As I write the script that the celebrity emcee will read, I am reminded just how critical the role is to ensure a seamless, meaningful, and memorable event. In many ways, emceeing is an art form.
Emcees serve as hosts welcoming everyone to the convening. They set the tone and tempo and get the show on the road energetically. They ensure smooth transitions from speaker to speaker, keep the program on schedule, cue the audience to applaud, and provide housekeeping details.
In short, the emcee is the connective thread that holds the run-of-show together and makes everyone look good.
Note that there are many excellent paid professional emcees who have mastered their craft. But if you’re asked to be the emcee, here are 11 steps to doing it well.
1. Set the stage
You’re the first person onstage and at the mic. Introduce yourself. Bring your energy, enthusiasm, and smile to get people excited. Don your best executive presence and attire to draw the attention of the audience.
2. Know the run-of-show
Understand the flow, stage blocking, technical cues, who’s up next, and where you might need to stretch and pause. Is there musical entertainment, awards presentations, a keynote speaker, a video?
3. Insist on a tech check
Arrive early and run through your opening remarks and transitions. Scope out the room, seating plan, and where you need to look to connect with the audience.
4. Work from a written script
Write down your introduction and open but don’t read. Internalize it. Know what must be said. Work from note cards if you must, but be engaging, warm, personable, and authentic. If you’re asked to read from a teleprompter, practice many times to get the timing.
5. Get names and titles right
There’s nothing worse than mispronouncing someone’s name. Write down the phonetic pronunciation of complex or foreign names. Talk to the speakers beforehand or a trusted source to get it right. State the person’s preferred title correctly, as well as the company or organization name.
6. Don’t crack jokes
Remember you’re there to be a gracious host and provide a service. Check your ego at the door. The show is not about you.
7. Prepare filler material
Sometimes a speaker is late, there’s a technical glitch, or something interrupts the flow of the program. Prepare some ad lib material you can use that is related to the goal or theme of the event. Or improvise an audience Q+A with the presenters who have already spoken.
8. Make sure your mic is off backstage
Every time you leave the stage, make sure your mic is turned off, even if the tech team said they would do it. Hot mics have ruined the best of programs.
9. Read the audience
Keep the energy high and bring attention back to the stage. Watch for people talking or looking at their phones and say something like, “You can’t afford to miss the next panel.” You could also ask people to stand up, take a deep breath and stretch.
10. End as strong as you started
Craft a strong close. Thank everyone who made the event possible, make announcements and have everyone leave the event happy they attended.
11. Ask for and give feedback
Make helpful suggestions to the event host or producer that will improve the next one. Ask for feedback on your performance so you, too, can improve. If you did your job well, chances are you’ll be asked to emcee again.