Corporate Game Show Emcee: Star of the Show, or Facilitator of Fun? show host corporate event

One of the things I’ve hammered away at for years here on my blog, as well as during my sales pitch, is the importance of having a professional emcee to host a corporate trivia event. Unlike bar quiz nights, where folks from the neighborhood are enjoying some informal competition and the chance to win a beer tab, when the event is part of a company outing, executive retreat, client loyalty program, employee party or similar function, the stakes are higher.

MUCH higher.

You simply cannot entrust an untested pub quiz host to get up in front of a group of colleagues, executives, clients or other key stakeholders. To do so is, in my mind, irresponsible and in poor judgment. After all, how much experience does Quizmaster “Wild Bob” from down the street have with corporate audiences? Can he be relied upon to run the event smoothly and efficiently, and to be unflinchingly professional from beginning to end? Ultimately, can he be trusted to represent you, the planner? Because that’s what it comes down to, you know: YOUR professional reputation.

It is for this reason that I ONLY hire professionals to lead TrivWorks events. Whether for an informal after-work gathering, or a full-blown corporate game show for a conference or retreat, I will only send a seasoned pro to lead your event – never a bar host, actor, aspiring comedian or similar performer with limited relevant experience. You’re entrusting me to deliver a high-quality service, and I in turn can only depend upon true professionals to represent me and my brand in the marketplace.

The question arises, then: now that we’ve got a professional emcee, does that mean he or she is the main event?

As I’ve blogged about many times before, the emcee is by far the most critical factor to determining whether a gig will be a massive success, or a colossal failure. The most beautifully-crafted custom content, elegant venue and eager audience will mean nothing if the person on the microphone:

  • Has no idea what they’re doing
  • Isn’t professional
  • Doesn’t have a sense of timing, pacing or how to run a team trivia contest
  • Can’t read the room and react in real-time

I’m going to throw another caveat here as well: the event won’t be a success if the emcee is all about him/herself.

The first rule of corporate event entertainment is this: the event is about the audience, not about the entertainer. There’s a fine line between performance and showboating; between keeping the room’s energy high, and directing all of the attention towards yourself. I myself know this from experience. As a young quizmaster working bars in Manhattan in the mid-late 2000s, I was considered one of the greatest trivia night hosts in New York City (don’t just take my word for it – I was written up as such in Time Out New York, New York Magazine,, Gothamist and countless other media outlets).

The problem? I was all about me.

The crowds –literally over 100 people each week at the Upper East Side Irish pub I emceed at every Tuesday night for five years – were there for one reason only: to see me. I was the draw, the reason people would come from not just the neighborhood, but from other boroughs and even NEW JERSEY. They loved my style, my wit, my choice of trivia questions, my sense of humor; on days when I couldn’t make it, I’d hear about how much I was missed. Strangers would literally stop me on the street and say, “Hey! You’re the trivia guy!” I was a minor celebrity on the quiz night circuit.

I was the star of the show. Great for pub quiz – bad for corporate events.

Why is that? I’ll say it again: because the event isn’t about the host, it’s about the audience. Period.

When a client hires me to produce their company event entertainment or trivia team building activity, they’re expecting me to send a professional host to:

  • Lead the event
  • Ask the questions
  • Announce the answers
  • Provide interstitial entertainment

That’s what they want. They are NOT looking for me to send a “star” who will be the center of attention for two hours.

Now, that said I DO have some hosting options which are designed to bring a bit of star power to the event. In addition to my standard corporate emcees (among whom I include myself), I partner with a select number of “Special Talent” emcees to lead gigs. These include celebrity comedians Christian Finnegan and Ophira Eisenberg, NY1 anchor and game show host Pat Kiernan, illusionist/mentalist Ryan Oakes, “America’s Trivia Guy” Gene Jones, and musical improv comedy troupe Broadway’s Next Hit Musical (Follow this link for another useful article on these unique hosting options).

If you are bringing in one of my “Special Talent” emcees to host, then yes, the situation changes a bit. You and your audience are expecting something more than just asking trivia questions and facilitating interstitial entertainment. Rather, you ARE expecting to have a “star,” someone who can make the experience even more fun and memorable through their unique skills, talents, or even mere presence.

Does having a “star” emcee the event make the overall experience any more engaging than a regular emcee? No. You’ll still get the same number of team trivia questions, and the same amount of audience interaction in between the full-room rounds (it may take the form of coming onstage to participate in an illusion with Ryan, perhaps, or maybe being quizzed by Gene Jones during one of his special “Gimme a Hint” sessions where he asks audience individual audience members to provide a category, which he then instantly draws a question about from his photographic memory).

But unless the client has paid a premium to specifically bring in special talent, the emcee’s role should be limited to A) keeping things fun and lively; B) the game moving smoothly; and C) announcing questions/answers, in a professional manner.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

I know there are other professional trivia emcees for corporate events out there who feel otherwise. They feel that THEY are the main event, and thus build their services as such. I respect this approach, I really do – in fact, there are a lot of clients out there who DO want this type of person leading their program. TV game shows remain as popular as ever, and in addition to the old standbys there are always new shows being announced all the time (like this one). Some clients want the guy who shows up with the sparkly blazer and plastic smile, the clichéd announcer’s voice, who willfully assumes the role of what we all think about leading one of these things on TV – in which case, they should go with another vendor instead of me.

It’s really fine, but that’s not what I do, nor what I think the host’s role should be.

In my mind, the emcee is a person who:

  • Is refined, well-groomed with polished, professional appearance – typically business attire
  • Carries himself/herself in a confident and dignified manner
  • Understands the role he or she is meant to play

Each case is different, and there’s always a bit of adaptation to the room when things get started. Sometimes we’ll go in there expecting it to be a quiet crowd, when what they’re actually looking for is a lot of spontaneous humor and crowd work. Other times we may expect a wild audience, only to find the energy lacking and we need to raise it up a notch – what several of my colleagues with improv backgrounds call “bringing your own wave.”

But regardless of the event or the emcee – even a celebrity or other special talent – the focus should always, always be on the audience. I’ve been particularly careful in selecting hosts who understand this implicitly, who know that this isn’t just another chance to perform and be in front of a live crowd. However, I haven’t always been successful.

A few years ago, I wrote another related post telling a truly horrible story about somebody I hired to lead a trivia gig once. You can read the full post here, however in a nutshell I was recommended somebody who seemed on paper to be a great fit: long resume of corporate game show emcee experience, even a stint hosting on actual TV. He also had large-room experience, so I took a chance and assigned him to co-host a 300-person event with me – my first for an extremely well-known media company.

It didn’t go so well.

From the moment I hired him, he started peppering me with ideas and requests for ways he could enhance the event – most of which somehow involved him telling stories or anecdotes about himself. I was exceptionally clear from the start that while I appreciated his excitement and enthusiasm, the focus should really be on the attendees, rather than on him. I asked that he not tell any stories about himself, and he told me he understood.

Can you guess what happened? Yeah, I’m sure you can…

He got through the first round of trivia questions okay, but before announcing the answers, he said, “I just have a quick story to tell you guys…” He then proceeded to drone on for a full 5 minutes, telling some boring story about something I have no idea what, only I remember it somehow involved a midget prostitute.

Yes, you read that correctly. Are you getting an idea of how bad this was yet?

He’d lost the crowd well before the story ended. They were talking among themselves – audibly – and eventually even started booing. 300 people, at a TrivWorks event I’d spent months putting together with the client – booing. Fortunately, I was there to take over and close the event on a higher note, but the damage had most surely been done; I was never asked to produce an event for this client again.

The moral of the story, and the point I wish to leave you with, is that it is the host’s duty to ALWAYS put the client and the crowd first. This isn’t some ego thing, a way for somebody to scratch their performance bug and hold a microphone in front of a captive audience. It’s an extremely important event for a group of extremely important people, and must be respected as such.

For further reading on thus subject, I invite you to read another article I wrote which may be found here:

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