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Conference MC-ing tips

👀📎 It looks like you're preparing to MC a conference...

🚨 GIANT DISCLAIMER: This stuff is far from authoritative. But it's what I think works for me, and what I enjoy in an MC when I'm attending a conference.


Biggest tip - enjoy yourself.

I find that trying to relax (yeah, easy to say) and remembering that the audience want you to succeed really helps. When you remember that you're not hosting the Oscars, and that people are very happy with you being human and personable, it gives you license to relax and talk to the room as if everyone is your friend.

Practice all the names

I have a fear of bodging somebody's name when I introduce them. And I've done it many times despite my best efforts. I like to watch youtube videos of all the speakers that I don't already know to get a sense of what they've spoken about in the past, and also to to listen to how they introduce themselves. I practice them out loud and write them down phonetically if they are tricky.

Know more than their bio

Often speakers get introduced by someone reading out their bio. I don't think that this gives the impression that you have enthusiasm for, or awareness of them. Both of which are, I think, valuable for creating trust with the audience and comfort for the speaker. I like to look them up and make some notes based on previous talks, the links on their own sites, or whatever else I can scrounge which goes beyond the bio that the attendees all have and will recognise as being read verbatim when they hear it.

As Jake mentions:

...it shouldn't matter if the speaker has published 18 books, or if they're just an intern starting out their career, their talk content is what matters."

Listing their full resume isn't the point at all. I personally just like to convey that I know who this is, and that I'm not encoutering them for the first time as I read the schedule.

It's also worth double-checking that the job title and company details you have for somebody are still correct. It's nice to make sure that you didn't miss a recent role change.

Another good nugget from Jake relates to not surprising the speaker. I've wandered into this territory before where I've enthused about a speaker in their introduction and mentioned a bunch of things that they were planning to say for themselves in their intro. As he says,

make the speaker aware of the kind of intro they'll get, so they can adjust their own intro accordingly.

That's good. Communicating with the speaker ahead of time so that you can tune your own intro is likely to be easier than them adjusting their own content, what with slides and timings etc.

"No surprises" is probably a good summary.

Avoid "in jokes"

Sometimes when you MC, you might be introducing somebody you know. Perhaps a friend, a colleague, or somebody you shared a nice chat and giggle with at the reception drinks or speakers dinner the night before. While I think it's fine to reference a history or realtionship in an intro for context, It's safer to focus the content of an intro on things that everyone can relate to and not just those who already know you or the speaker.

Private jokes don't mean anything to the vast majority of the audience, and can even alienate you a little by creating a bit of a clique. As Jan thoughtfuly mentions on twitter

Don't assume or rely on "fame"

"This next speaker needs no introduction" is rarely true. Even if it's likely that a lot of people in the room might already know who a given speaker is, there will be some who don't. As Luke observed:

"don't assume the audience knows who the speaker is"

Each speaker deserves a nice introduction. And there will always be some in the audience thinking "who dis?". So even a little background can be a helpful foundation.

Announce and thank people with vigour

I've been introduced quite a few times in ways that I've not been sure if the intro is over or not! I like to be sure that the final thing I say is the name of the speaker. (Not their talk title, although I'll likely mention that and possibly the themes in my intro) Ending the intro on their name seems obvious, but I do this even if I've used their name earlier in the intro. It makes the handover emphatic and acts as an obvious cue for audience applause. Using an intonation which suggests "it's time to clap right now!" is also helpful. Again, it seems obvious but giving the audience clear cues is really helpful.

Prep speakers for Q&A

If there is Q&A that you'll lead or curate, I like to ask the speakers at the speaker dinner or when they are getting mic'd up (but earlier is better, when they have time to think while relaxed), if there is anything they'd like me to ask. Often there are things people can't include due to time and this can be a chance to squeeze that in and also act as a nice softball question.

Some speakers might not want to do Q&A. I like to make sure about that first and steer the event organisers if somebody prefers not to have it.

Housekeeping is good boilerplate

At the oprning of the day, I usually jump quickly into the various housekeeping stuff of toilets, exits, code of conduct quite soon after saying my initial hello and being enthusiastic about the day. It doesn't require much imagination and can help you settle in. Don't forget to introduce yourself too!

Ask the organisers what they need

Along the way, there might be a need to mention sponsors, inform people of food or other things. I like to check in at every break with the organisers to see if there is anything they need me to announce. If there can be a private slack channel or whatsapp group so you can stay in contact with them, all the better. That way you can find our if they need to adjust timings or any other odds and ends as you go.

... most of all though, and to repeat my first point a little, allow yourself to enjoy it. It's so much fun when the speakers and audience are enjoying themselves. Make sure you ride that wave and have fun too!


What have I missed? Got any good tips? I'd love to hear them. Feel free to leave thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

@djm

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commented Jul 29, 2019

Love this Phil, thanks for writing it! ❤️

The only other tip I can think of the top of my head is a small one for Q&A sessions: remind the audience that they should wait for the microphone before asking their question (assuming one exists! A reminder to speak up if not). We've all been to conferences where people didn't, and then the speaker and half the audience didn't hear and then there's the awkward repeating, etc, etc. A reminder usually makes it clear.

@philhawksworth

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commented Jul 29, 2019

Oh that's a good one. Yes @djm, I agree!

If there is audience Q&A (rather than moderated and relayed) it can also be nice to repeat/summarise the question from the audience for the speaker. But I think that depends on how the speaker is most comfortable in the Q&A. Some dive right in and do this anyway. Others might welcome that tiny bit of help to keep it rolling.

@jakearchibald

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commented Jul 30, 2019

I practice [speaker's names] out loud and write them down phonetically if they are tricky.

+1. Also, although it's slightly embarrassing to ask "how do I correctly pronounce your name?" (especially if they're industry-famous), speakers would rather be asked that than have their name said incorrectly for the 1000th time.

Know more than their bio

I do the opposite here, and I don't know if it's better/worse, maybe it's just different. Times I've MC'd I've either told an unrelated story, anecdote, or gotten the audience involved in an interactive quiz between talks, so the speaker introduction is basically "right, let's get on with the next talk, here to talk about [topic], give a big round of applause to [speaker]".

My attitude here is that it shouldn't matter if the speaker has published 18 books, or if they're just an intern starting out their career, their talk content is what matters. If the speaker wants the audience to know about them, they can make that part of their talk. In fact, I've seen speakers slightly flustered as they skip through the first set of slides, as it's content the MC already covered.

I guess the real practical advice here is "make the speaker aware of the kind of intro they'll get, so they can adjust their own intro accordingly".

@philhawksworth

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commented Jul 30, 2019

Excellent points @jakearchibald!

My attitude here is that it shouldn't matter if the speaker has published 18 books, or if they're just an intern starting out their career, their talk content is what matters

Absolutely!

I guess the real practical advice here is "make the speaker aware of the kind of intro they'll get, so they can adjust their own intro accordingly".

Love that. I'm going to absorb some of these points into the list above.

@jevakallio

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commented Jul 30, 2019

@samdbeckham

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commented Jul 30, 2019

Love this list @philhawksworth

One tip I learned the hard way would be to have filler material. This can be something about the after party, talking about the conference hashtag, or some sort of reflection on the day. If you're good at them, have a story or a joke in your back pocket. You never know when you'll have to fill in several minutes because of a technical issue, a nervous speaker, or whatever.

Don't do what I did and end out dancing awkwardly in silence on stage whilst the speaker's mic was tangled in their hair. Don't get me wrong, it was hilarious, but definitely at my own expense.

The second thing I learned, don't take yourself too seriously. The more fun you have up there, the more fun the audience has.

@philhawksworth

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commented Jul 31, 2019

Don't do what I did and end out dancing awkwardly in silence on stage whilst the speaker's mic was tangled in their hair. Don't get me wrong, it was hilarious, but definitely at my own expense.

Crikey!

Yes! I keep a little notebook in my pocket of thoughts that pop into my head throughout the talks, and of various housekeeping, announcements and logistics stuff. Handy to dip into if you need to fill a few minutes while a laptop reboots or someone has a microphone issue.

And I don't think it has to be staggeringly entertaining. Just a calm distraction from the dead air can be fine. And a reminder of, say, where the party will be, or how to get hold of slides after the event, or other housekeeping can serve nicely.

@ahmadawais

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commented Oct 9, 2019

Thank you for all this, @philhawksworth — we should have something like Speaking.io for MC stuff. This type of content is pure gold for new MCs. Especially, this common mistake "don't assume the audience knows who the speaker is".

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