Conference advice from an emcee

Ideas to make your next conference better Hootville’s Brett de Hoedt acts as emcee, facilitator or speaker at a few dozen events a year around Australia and has a few opinions on what makes conferences, awards, forums, work and work well.

Be more than a speech factory: most organising committees play it safe and fill their time with speakers doing lots of speaking. Our advice: mix it up a little. After all; you are trying to create an event, not just a series of talks. Remember – a day of straight talks is awfully similar to reading a book, listening to a podcast or watching YouTube which audiences can get for free in their own time. Experts aren’t hard to find. You need to deliver what only a real-world gathering can.

Interaction: DO NOT expect everyone to sit in the one room and listen all day long. This is an era in which audiences expect to participate from the get-go. 10m of question time at the end of each session is simply not enough. So how can you create some colour and movement?

Concurrent sessions are vital and create multiple options for attendees. One two-day event Brett hosted for the Learn Local metro network in Melbourne had four sessions during which there were nine (count them) different concurrent sessions from which to choose. This information smorgasboard served a crowd of less than 200! No two people needed to experience the same conference and nobody had cause to feel that their interests were ignored. No wonder the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Don’t be afraid to have concurrent session presenters repeat their sessions which allows more people to attend the sessions of their choice. This happens too rarely.

Networking: It hurts Brett to admit it but sometimes audiences just want to talk to each other. “Networking” is constantly given as a reason why people attend events yet many organisers do nothing to facilitate any relationship building. Brett has two great ways for audiences to get to know each other, neither of which involve trust exercises, alcohol or adventure sports. Ask him.

Cameos: Break up the experts with some real people. One way to do this is with short five minute presentations by audience members between the big note presentations. Pick a theme; say Reasons to be cheerful in which audience members give their perspective on something positive in the industry. Other themes might be: Why I work in this industry in which people or teams of colleagues explain some particularly rewarding or funny story that keeps them in the game. Other themes? My three wishes for the sector…   If I knew then what I know now… My career limiting move…These cameos should be short, sharp, humorous and build a stronger bond among the audience by showing that we are all in this together. Promote the opportunities in the program and take some bookings. Offer a bottle of wine for participants. Alternatively you could have your emcee vox pop the audience on such themes but most audiences only contribute so much.

panel discussions host

Various perspectives, more interest.

Panel discussionsBrett is a big fan of the panel discussion in which two, three or four speakers forsake the formal speech and instead share the microphone in a more free flowing, informal style. The direction of the discussion is dictated by the facilitator and audience.

Here’s why Brett likes the panel format:

• It gets the most from weaker speakers who can contribute what they want without the need to create a whole presentation.

• You significantly lower the risk of having 45 precious minutes forever tainted by a dull, repetitive or off-topic speaker.

• Panel discussions allow far greater and more natural interaction between the stage and the audience. How many people want to sit down and shut up for eight hours?

• The right facilitator (we can suggest one) can steer the discussion towards the interesting and the relevant. He or she can also keep speakers honest, asking for clarification or justification. And yes – speakers should not be given a free ride. Audiences deserve some rigour from presenters.

• It’s far less intimidating for speakers, who rarely prepare thoroughly enough.

• It allows you to make nice with more people by inviting them to speak. A cunning ploy. Tips for a good panel discussion:

Brett as MC for conference

Brett wrangles a fiesty candidates debate during the 2010 state election campaign.

Have your audience write down questions beforehand. This creates far more questions because, believe it or not there are a lot of shy people out there with questions on their minds that never make it to their tongues. The MC or facilitator should prepare a couple of questions for each panelist to draw them into the conversation. (A good facilitator can come up with the question on his or her own.) Seek out differing views and a mix of perspectives from when recruiting the panel.

Slow it down: to many programs pack too much content into too little time. This is a form of insurance against boring the audience. We suggest giving serious topics suitable time for presentation and discussion. Does 90m really have to be divided in to two 45m sessions? Try 6om for a major theme and and 30 for a lesser priority.

Twitter: of course your event should have a hashtag. You should probably include instructions from the emcee or in writing about how to use the hashtag for Twitterers who are new to the concept. Read some Tweets out throughout the program but think several times before running them automatically on a screen. People can be very rude on Twitter.

Seating: round tables hugely increase interaction between audience members. It’s also easier to take notes on a table as opposed to your lap. Go for this option if you have it.

Emcee time: organisers often hire an emcee but then allocate no time on the program for the emcee to do her thing. Immediately the program is behind schedule – speakers are asked to compress their material, Q&A time is slashed, breaks (aka networking time) is reduced – nothing is done justice. Urgh. Think about it – if there are six sessions to be introduced and the emcee takes 4m each time that’s close to half an hour, so budget accordingly. No one complains about running early.

Stay on time: Start herding people in early and start the first session in time to send a clear message to stragglers. Stay on time by having an effective way to alert people to move back into your room when sessions start. Few venues have effective PAs but a bell will do.

Video: beat the tyranny of distance by having live presentations via webcam beamed into your event. It’s easy, affordable, expands the pool of potential speakers, saves travel costs and time. Too few events do this.


Hot, strong and plentiful. And yes, we are talking about the coffee.

Morning coffee: don’t skimp on coffee – conferences run on the stuff. Fork out to ensure that good quality coffee is on tap from the first arrival to the last departure.

Housekeeping & Obligations: keep them to a minimum – sponsors, local mayors, minor politicians, exhibitors and the like get too much stagetime. Also; your audience can also find its own loos, exits and lunch so enough with the directions – people just forget them anyway and they are BORING.

Message wall: plaster the walls with some butcher’s papers, pose a question or ask for suggestions around a theme and tel people to scribble their responses at their leisure. Again this solicits contributions from the shy and builds a common identity.

One leftfield session: take a risk with one group session. Provide a speaker or activity that doesn’t directly relate to your sector. You could get the laughter yoga presenter in but Brett was recently very impressed with impro comedy trio Explosive Minds which involve the entire audience into their chaotic mirth and SongDivison which is a band of top-shelf musicians who help the audience create a song with original lyrics which is then performed by everyone. It works and it…well…rocks.

conference organising advice

Care to dance? Why yes.

Do more than dinner: a typical sit down dinner can be a little boring with one’s fate in the hands of one’s tablemates. Consider a stand-up affair with some seating for those so inclined. This lets birds of a feather flock together. Entertainment is expensive and risky but it’s also what makes a night special. We’ve seen too many speeches and formalities kill what should be a relaxing night away from domestic drudgery. We’ve seen trivia quizzes work – the sillier the better. And every group loves to dance. They really do.

2 Responses to Conference advice from an emcee

  1. Ann says:

    Agree with this Brett but with one improviser – the MC has to be totally on the ball and allow space for “weaker” or quieter speakers (with tons to contribute) to actually speak. I’ve been at conferences where some speakers on a panel hog the panel partly due to personality, and perhaps partly due to their relationship with the MC (they seem to know them quiet well).This can means weaker and less confident speakers stay quiet. In the end the audience lack the ability to actually hear all the speakers equally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.