My family and friends know about my unique job as a corporate trivia emcee, and as such I’m sometimes asked to partake in public speaking roles: giving toasts, introducing events, that sort of thing. I was recently asked to emcee my synagogue’s annual fundraising gala, which was a TON of fun (my 11-year old daughter came up with an “escape room” theme, which we fully embraced – it was a blast!).
There were plenty of other speakers throughout the night: honorees, introducers, clergy, a live auctioneer. My job was merely to keep things moving and on track. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received:
“David,” she said, “You are a FANTASTIC emcee. You’re either an emcee or you’re not, and you, well – you’re one!”
I admit, I was gushing. It’s wonderful to hear things like this, especially because I love what I do. But setting my ego aside for a moment and trying to be objective here, she’s right. It was plainly obvious at the event that there was a difference between when I was at the microphone that evening, and when the other speakers were up there. When I spoke, I commanded attention: people sat up, listened, laughed, were engaged. This wasn’t necessarily the case with the others.
Now, I’m not writing this blog post to brag about what a fabulous public speaker I am (I’ve actually been put in my place before about thinking too highly of my oratory skills, as this previous post details). Rather, I’d like to try and parse out just what makes a professional emcee stand out, versus those who don’t have as much experience in front of audiences as I do. Here are a few of the key factors which I think make a difference.
As a professional trivia host for corporate events, I’m not just a speaker giving a speech. I’m asking the questions, giving the answers, keeping the event moving, and also making sure the overall tone is lighthearted and fun. I can’t do that by standing rigidly behind a lectern.
With mic in hand, I confidently work the stage from one end to another, taking slow, deliberate strides as I do. I make use of my arms and hands to emphasize points, and try to limit the amount of time my eyes are on my notes, to instead look directly out into the audience as I’m speaking. This is nonverbal communication 101.
For people who aren’t accustomed to using a microphone very often (or at all), the natural tendency is to speak like you ordinarily would, knowing that the sound system will amplify your voice. The reality, however, is that depending upon the quality of the PA system, shape/size of the event space, and location of where folks are seated in the room, people will not always hear you clearly, or even at all, unless you “punch it” a bit. To really get folks’ attention, you need to speak in a “bigger,” louder tone than your conversational voice.
Doing this does two things: it helps your voice carry to all corners of the room, and it helps command attention. I am not afraid to raise my voice – even shout at times – in order to drive a well-placed point home, usually resulting in laugher, applause, or other desirable audience reaction.
There’s more tools at the public speaker’s disposal than simply volume and body language. Cadence – the inflection and modulation of your voice – plays a big role here as well. For most people talking into a microphone, there’s a tendency to read whatever’s in front of you, in dry monotone. This is an area where I think if you actually DO use a more conversational tone, you will find the audience is more attentive and engaged.
Don’t be afraid to explore the full range of your voice, and to change things up as you go: speak faster or slower, higher or lower. I know I emphasized projection above, however there may be times when speaking quitter – even whispering – can emphasize a point.
Another common thing folks do when speaking in public is not doing so clearly. Nerves get the best of us—even professionals like me, with decades of public speaking experience. The tendency is to get up there and speak faster than normal, which results in mush.
This takes conscious effort, something I had to be taught to do after taking a public speaking course back in the day. But with practice, if you can master the art of speaking SLOWLY and CLEARLY, you will come across as confident and commanding, and the audience will take notice.
It takes some guts to deviate from the script, which is why most speakers choose not to. However, for professionals like me, or even just folks with a naturally witty or playful sense of humor, if you can spot an opportunity to be spontaneous while speaking, take it!
Don’t be afraid to “work the crowd” a bit. If the unexpected happens while you’re speaking – a glass breaks, the mic squawks, a good-natured heckle comes your way – react to it, and it will humanize the experience for everyone. It’ll also help you relax, which will make your presentation even better!
One note of caution, which you may or may not have heard before: don’t TRY to be funny, if you’re NOT actually funny. This is a common pitfall. Not everyone was born to make people laugh, and just because you’re going to be onstage in front of people, doesn’t mean you have to suddenly be a stand-up comedian. Yes, your joke might land – but if it doesn’t, the audience won’t react well, and you’re going to be mortified.
Connecting With Audience
All of the above can really be distilled to one core concept, which is connecting with the audience. To do so, you must first KNOW your audience. What kind of people are these? Are they familiar to you, and you to them? Are the buttoned up, or more loose? What kind of function is this? Clearly you’re going to speak differently at a company trivia party than you would at a funeral.
There’s an old show business adage, which I learned from illusionist & TrivWorks “Special Talent” emcee Ryan Oakes: If the audience likes YOU, they’ll like what you do. So…be likeable! Smile. Be charming. Look polished, dress respectfully and appropriately for the occasion. And above all, have FUN – because if you’re enjoying yourself, it WILL shine through, and the audience will respond in kind.
Anyway, that’s my two cents based on years and years of public speaking experience as a corporate trivia host. Got any more suggestions for how to improve your microphone skills? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below!