Since 1996 I’ve been a professional conference speaker and MC. Most speakers arrive at the event an hour or so before their speech then leave quite quickly afterwards. I have always found it imperative to attend as much of the event as possible before my talk, so I can soak up everything possible about the industry, the people and their challenges before my speech. This helps to tailor it on the fly to suit the audience. Ideally, I’d start with attending the welcome event the night before the conference kicks off because this informal environment gives an excellent chance to get to know the audience directly. As an MC, of course, you’re much more involved in the entire conference. I enjoy the process of meeting with the organisers, understanding their event goals, conducting short interviews with the speakers to ensure I have the most purposeful introduction for them and researching the audience to ensure I have the right ice-breakers and activities for them. The most common thing people say when they find out I am a professional speaker/MC is: ‘Oh no – I hate speaking in public! I don’t know how you do that!’ My answer for speakers is this: If you are completely terrified of getting up on that stage to deliver your speech, just ask the organiser to have someone like the MC or an executive of the organisation interview on stage. You provide a bunch of questions for the ‘interviewer’ which will draw out your main points, and conduct the entire speech as an interview. See – you feel better already, right? If you’re MCing, here are my tips:
Always have something up your sleeve
When a speaker is running late or there are technical difficulties, you‟ll be the one keeping the audience happy while they wait. Having an Icebreaker activity ready can save the day. For example, ask people to partner up with someone and find out 1 thing they’ve got in common plus 1 thing about them that is unique to their partner. OR ask people to imagine they were someone else for a day. Then get them to partner up and introduce themselves to each other, in character – as that person: ‘Hi I’m an airline pilot’ or ‘Hi, I’m Oprah’ and have a short conversation together.
Do your research.
Speak to each of the speakers at least a few weeks before the event. If you are not able to contact them directly, ask the conference organiser to pass on a list of questions from you. I find it really effective to get the speakers to answer a series of similar questions but ones that are unrelated to the conference, like: a) When you were little, you wanted to be…. b) The first album you bought was… c) If you could have one super power, what would it be? You might not use all of these answers, but as you are introducing the speaker, (or in your outro) it will be effective if you tied one of them in. It is always a good idea to Google each speaker too – you can find out some great up-to-date stuff about them that they might not have in their bio/intro. (keep it professional!)
Check on the Social Media activity
If you’re up to speed with Twitter, ask your conference organiser whether there is a hashtag in use for the Conference. If there is: get into the backchannel by adding your (relevant) comments using the hashtag. If there is not : ask them if it’s ok that you create one and have them let the conference audience know what it is at regular intervals through the conference. Regularly throughout the conference, let the audience know what’s happening on Twitter in relation to the conference. Pose questions from the tweetstream to the speakers.
Give extra value
Sometimes the conference could use some extra material they could use to promote the conference and sell more tickets. Offer to interview some of the speakers over Skype and record it for the Conference website. It‟s a great way to give potential delegates a taste of what they’ll get at the Conference.
Be calm, nice, kind, helpful and resourceful
The most common comments I get in my MC testimonials are that I was an extra pair of hands for the Conference organiser. That I helped the event to run smoothly. That I was unflappable. These things are often more important to the organiser than the work you do on stage as an MC. Even if you are freaking out about timing or AV issues it is your job to SLOW down and LOWER your voice when conversing with the conference organiser.