076 Thom Singer Part 2: Tips and Techniques for Being a Master of Ceremony

076 Thom Singer Part 2: Tips and Techniques for Being a Master of Ceremony

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This is Part 2 of my interview with Thom Singer. Listen in as he shares tips and techniques for becoming a successful master of ceremony.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Main responsibilities of a master of ceremony. (2:30)
  • 3 ways to better connect with your audience. (20:00)

Find out more about Thom Singer, his Conference Catalyst Program and his podcast “Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do“.

Listen to Part 1 when Thom talks about building a successful network.

00:00 Michael Port: So this is Michael Port and we are back with Part Two of Thom Singer’s episode. We did one episode and then we closed it out and we started chatting and all of a sudden we realized, “Wait! There’s so much that we can share with the listeners on how to be a great MC.” So I brought him back and he’s gonna do just that. Thanks, Thom, for coming back.

00:25 Thom Singer: Thanks for having me back. It’s fun to do more.

00:28 Michael Port: All right, so what’s the deal? How can we become a better MC ’cause it’s probably not something we can just show up and wing.

00:34 Thom Singer: Well, it’s one of those things that when I talk to people who are professional speakers or people who want to become speakers, a lot of them, they’ll get asked, somebody will say, “Hey, can you MC my event?” And they’ll be like, “Oh sure ’cause I speak all the time.” And I’m like, “Whoa.” It is an entirely different skill set to be the master of ceremonies of a big event than it is to be the keynote speaker and it’s not better or worse, it’s just very different in the skill sets that you need to have. And so there’s just certain things you have to think about. Now, some of it is similar, like as a speaker you need to create a great opening to your speech, so I always talk to people when I counsel them on their speaking that you wanna think about the Olympics, they put a lot of time into the opening ceremonies. Well, that’s what you wanna do as the MC. You don’t wanna just come out and say, “Well, the bathrooms are over there. And thank you for being here and we have rubber chicken lunch at noon.” You have to come out and have sort of a story, a way to open it, that ties into whatever the theme of it is and who the speakers are, and every event is different so I can’t tell you what that theme needs to be.

01:37 Thom Singer: But you’ve gotta be able to come out and capture the attention of the audience. The master of ceremonies sets the tone for the whole event. So you have to go into it realizing that it’s not a speech because when you give a speech, and I know people say, “Oh well, I’m a speaker, it’s not about me.” When you’re giving a keynote, part of it is you’re performing, it is about you being captivating on stage. But you have to remember when you’re the master of ceremonies that you’re not really the star of the show. Now you have to have a big personality because like I said your personality sets that tone for the whole event. But at the same time, you have to remember that it’s those speakers that you’re bringing out, it’s the executives from the company or the association and the audience themselves, that’s who the star is. And that’s the hardest thing, I suffer from that. Sometimes when I’m doing it, it is like people take a real liking to me and I forget that it’s not the Thom Show.

02:30 Michael Port: So what are your main responsibilities? When you come out for this opening, what are the main things that you have to address that are logistical or thematic then work them into some sort of compelling opening?

02:45 Thom Singer: Well, obviously, a technical conference is gonna be different than maybe an association conference. It depends on what the association is. Corporate users group is gonna be different, but the similarities are you need to set that tone for what’s gonna happen. You have to take people on a journey and let them know where this event is gonna go the next few days. We’ve all been to events that just sort of happen and when it’s over it’s like, “Oh, it was over.” You need to have that Master of Ceremonies who is going to get people excited about what’s gonna come up. Before and after a speaker, you’ve gotta be able to play up what that person’s gonna do. And you have to be able to sort of recap what everybody just experienced while at the same time not being too hokey. Nobody likes the MC who is a game show host who’s like, “Hey, everybody here we go.” So you have to find that fine line. And a lot of it has to do sort of with your own personality. And then the other thing is, is there’s a lot of housekeeping that has to be done in the fact that people do need to know where lunch is gonna be. If the buses are leaving at 5 o’clock and you have to be in the lobby at 4:45, you have to work that in.

03:49 Thom Singer: But it’s not just a bunch of plain bullet points of, “We’re gonna have lunch and then we get on the buses,” because nobody wants that. It becomes like Charlie Brown’s teacher, “wah, wah-wah, wah-wah.” So you have to be thinking of, “What stories can I tell about this event?” So part of it as the MC is you have to be engaged the entire time. You have to be on, which means even if it’s just a morning general session and in the afternoon is all breakouts and you don’t have any responsibilities, you still have to show up. When people are gonna be on break, you still have to show up at the meals, and the happy hours, and the cocktail parties. And even late at night, you have to hang out in the bar because you have to know what the vibe is of the event because you have to be able to mirror that back to everybody and steer it the way you want.

04:34 Thom Singer: And so lots of times people say, “Oh, I wanna do the MC gig ‘because it’ll pay more.” Well, first of all, it’s not valued necessarily more than a great keynote. So while it might pay a little more ’cause you’re there for three days, it doesn’t pay like three days’ worth of keynotes. So you have to realize that you’re gonna be working a lot more. Because when we do a keynote, we often can come in and speak. And then even if you stay for a little while to talk to people afterwards, you’re not there for three days. I had a friend who, she took on an MC gig, and afterward she called me and said, “You like doing this?” She was exhausted at the end of three days.

05:07 Michael Port: That’s a lot of work.

05:08 Thom Singer: It’s a lot of work.

05:10 Michael Port: And it’s a lot more customization going into the event.

05:14 Thom Singer: Oh yeah. And you have to go to all of the rehearsals. Every time, there’s a sound check for the speaker, you have to be there because you have to meet them. And if you’re the speaker, it’s great because your name is Michael Port. The odds of me mispronouncing that are about zero. However…

05:30 Michael Port: Although I’ve been called Michael Porter, who was a professor at Harvard. I’ve been called Michael Post. So you can screw it up. In fact, the person who called me Michael Post was an anchor from CNN. She was doing the MC-ing, and I don’t think she was thrilled to be there. I think she want to make some extra bucks and figure she’d phone it in, but I won’t mention her name.

05:55 Thom Singer: You bring up an interesting point. First of all, yes, you can screw up anything, but the second thing is, is a lot of people say, “Oh, let’s hire a newscaster to be our MC because they read really well, and then you can give them scripts and they can read the scripts and that’s great.” The problem is is that newscaster probably knows nothing about the industry and probably has put very little time into the preparation. So, the preparation is the key to being MC. You’ve gotta be involved. You’ve gotta be reviewing the scripts that the client is putting together for you. You’ve gotta have the guts to tell them that introduction is too long. And sometimes speakers will come with like four paragraphs. What they want especially more technical speakers like if you’re at a legal conference or a technical conference and the person’s not a professional speaker, they’ll just give you their bio, and you have to be ready to be able to tell them, “I’m not reading four paragraphs. We don’t really care that you did Law Review in 1979, that’s not germane to this conference, and I’m gonna introduce you with your name, your this, and what you’re gonna talk about.”

06:57 Thom Singer: So you also gotta be a little gutsy, because you gotta push back because if they give you four paragraphs, and it’s, “wah, wah-wah, wah-wah,” not only do you have more chance to screw up if you’re not a professional reader. I’m a professional master of ceremonies, not a professional reader, so it’s gotta be short and quippy. But then like you said, you’ve gotta be able to think on your feet and improvise. I recently spoke at a conference where there was a 15-minute speech, a 45-minute speech and a 15-minute speech that made up the general session. And I am in the green room while the main 45-minute keynote is going on, and at about 14 minutes, he says, “Thank you very much, I have a video to show you and that will conclude my speech.” Now I had been there for rehearsal, his video was not 29 minutes, it was a minute and a half. And I’m in the green room, I’m scrambling to make sure that I have, you know, no spinach in my teeth or whatever. I’m running back up there. He came off. The speaker to follow him wasn’t miked up yet because he wasn’t supposed to go on for a half hour. So I walked down on the stage. I tried to get the guy to do Q&A, and he wasn’t interested in doing Q&A. As he walked off the stage, I’m like, “Will you come back out with me?” He said, “No.” Great. So now I’m on stage, I didn’t know what to do.

08:08 Thom Singer: So I pulled up a couple volunteers from the audience and we did a little exercise about networking and, “How do you get the most out of the conference?” And I gave them each a prize. I said, “Oh, I’ll mail you a set of the books that I wrote. Thank you so much for playing.” And they scrambled, and they’re waving from the wings. The guy was miked up. I introduced the next speaker, and as I passed him, I said, “Go long.” And we ended up about 10 minutes short for the whole general session. Nobody noticed. And at the bar that night, I was telling somebody, he had no idea that my little exercise with the two audience members was made up on the spot.

08:39 Michael Port: Sure. And that…

08:40 Thom Singer: That’s what you have to do as an MC.

08:42 Michael Port: So you want to have bits ready to go. You say, “Okay, now… ” If you know, you say, “I now have this thing that I can do in three minutes to seven minutes,” and it’s this kind of introduction, social media game, whatever it is, so that if you need to pull something out you’ve got it. It’s what magicians and street performers do is they can pull bits out, or add bits in, according to how much time they have, what’s going on in the room, and all of it seems really natural like it had never happened before, but it was a bit that they’ve done many times. And I use the term bit, not to say that it’s funny necessarily, like a ha-ha bit, but it is a piece of content or experience that they can pull out if they need it, if they gotta fill 10 minutes.

09:31 Thom Singer: Yeah and sometimes you’re gonna have to fill. And the other thing is, is that you also have to talk to every speaker in advance and you have to talk about the importance of being on time. It drives me crazy that people who’ve been given a half hour think 45 minutes is totally cool. Because the reality is, if you go long as a speaker, you’re stealing that from someone. It’s gonna come out of the bathroom breaks, it’s gonna cause lunch to be late or the next speaker has to shorten. And so, one of the things as an MC I do in those sound checks and maybe in a call before the event is I let people know: “How do you want me to handle it if you run long?” And I set this up with them in advance that, “You’ve been given 45 minutes, there’s three or four minutes there, but once you’re pushing four, five minutes, I have to put a stop to you because it’s unfair to the rest of the conference.” And when you frame it that way, a lot of speakers have never thought about that. They’re like, “Wow, I’ve never thought that I’m being unfair.”

10:24 Thom Singer: And so, you have to set that up with the speaker. And I’ve never before in my life encountered anybody running a half hour short. So now, that’s a new thing I have to talk about is, if you think you’re gonna be short, let me know, so I’m not tripping over my shoelaces. But you become the host of the entire conference, even if you don’t work for that company or that association. And I usually don’t come out of the industries of things I’m master of ceremonies, but I become the host of that three or four-day event.

10:52 Michael Port: And there’s a production element that goes along with it too, because although it may not be your job to make sure everybody’s miked up, you need to make sure that everybody is miked up before they walk out on that stage. So you probably are keeping an eye on a whole slew of different things. You’re keeping an eye on the timekeeper because every once in a while the timekeeper will give a wrong time. I’ve been on stage where five minutes was flashed when there was 20 minutes left. And fortunately, I know where I am in my speech and there is no way that five minutes is left, so I was able to give him a look, and be like, “Mm-mmm, you’re wrong.” And they go, “Oh, shoot.” And they pick up a different piece of paper. So you probably have your eyes in a whole bunch of different… Or your hands in a whole bunch of different pots making sure that everything is going smoothly.

11:40 Thom Singer: Well, you do, you have to have your hands in all the pots, you have to have your eyes open, you have to be talking to the event organizers. And lots of times, these big events have actual producers, yet you have to be respectful of what their job is, but you have to make sure you develop a working relationship. And then, you’ve gotta stay positive no matter what’s going on. Sometimes a speaker will say something, and the audience gets a little offended. Or one time, there was an app and somebody had actually… There was a game and there was a big prize at the end and one of the people had hijacked the app and figured out how to get the most prizes, so I had to come out and basically announce that that person was removed from the app without being offensive, because if you offend any one person in the audience you run the risk of the audience feel you’re schooling all of them. So I had to come out and make a big joke out of it and what we were gonna do, and it got a big laugh. I kind of made the guy a folk hero for being that clever but that clearly he wasn’t gonna win the big prize, and everybody, including the guy, felt the whole bit was funny but I had to keep it on a positive thing. This wasn’t bad that this happened, I had to make it kind of a funny thing.

12:45 Thom Singer: But same thing if somebody does run long, and now we’re gonna have to shorten the break to five minutes to get everybody to breakouts, you gotta keep that in a positive spin. You gotta say something like, “We ran a little bit long, but my God, wasn’t that amazing information? We are so lucky that we got that extra piece of information.” And in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “How dare… That person stole the time?” But I can’t come out and say our last speaker was a jerk and went long. So you gotta keep the energy positive because anything you do, the audience will reflect on. I, one time, was serving as the MC, I was giving out prizes. And there was like a drawing, and there was like a conflict as to who had won the prize, and the audience started booing. And so I made a joke about, “Wow, I’ve been doing this for years, no one’s ever booed the MC.” And then on my feet, I came up with a way of giving out two prizes. Now one of them was something that was my stuff. But I kept it positive and I solved the problem and I think the client was thrilled I did it.

13:43 Michael Port: I would’ve just said, “You get a new car!” And then… [chuckle]

13:47 Thom Singer: Talk to the event organizer.

13:48 Michael Port: Exactly. “I was just told, the producer said I could give out a car, they’ve got the keys and it’s yours.”

13:55 Thom Singer: Find Mary in the back of the room. Bye-bye.

13:56 Michael Port: And then run, really fast.

13:57 Thom Singer: Run! Get to the airport.

14:00 Michael Port: Exactly. I was in many events where people went over and it was very problematic. The one that was the most problematic, most egregious really, was for a big fitness organization. There was about 2,500 people there. It’s a franchise company. And the way that they opened was with six speakers, each doing 20 minutes. Six speakers, each doing 20 minutes. And then each one of us had I think 90 minutes later in the day. And I went first. Guess how long mine was.

14:38 Thom Singer: I bet you were 20 minutes.

14:39 Michael Port: 19 minutes, 46 seconds. And I knew that I’d be anywhere from about 19:10 to 19:50. I knew I’d be in there somewhere. Why? Because it was rehearsed. And I get no pat on the back for this. I’m not special because of this. This is just what you do when you’re a professional. It’s not really a big deal. The woman who went after me? 45 minutes. The guy who went after her? 30 minutes. I’m sitting there in the audience and I didn’t know what to do. I was beside myself. Nobody was taking them off the stage. And so the sixth speaker had to get cut and they were still over time.

15:19 Thom Singer: So I had the great experience one time of getting to interrupt a national hero. So I had the pleasure, and I won’t say who was, but I had the pleasure of being the MC at an event where there was a very famous older individual and he was gonna speak for 25 minutes, and then I was gonna interview him for 30 minutes on stage, and that was what we had set up. And he and I got to have breakfast together that morning and he was great, we had a great time, we really hit it off. I got the kind of the core of what he wanted his message to be, what he wanted to give this audience. But the reason we had set it up this way is because he was older. He had said, “I have a tendency to ramble.” So this was a good idea, was to do the interview. So at about 30 minutes into his 25 minutes, I start walking on stage. And he and I had agreed, “What do you if you go long in your speech?” And he said, “Well, just come up and interrupt, just walk on the stage and I’ll know why you’re there. We’ll go sit on the chairs.” Well, as I walked onto the stage and he’s already five minutes long, he turns to the left and starts talking to the left side of the audience and now I’m over on the right and I’m thinking at any moment he’s gonna turn to speak to the right side of the audience and he will see me.

16:21 Thom Singer: And he went on for another five minutes as I’m inching closer to him. And the whole audience is looking at me like, “What is Thom doing on the stage?” And finally, I said his name and he turned around, and he was, “Oh!” And we went over and sat down and fortunately the Q&A went so well that people were like, “God, I wish you’d interrupted him earlier, it was so great.” But I literally… The whole audience, when I interrupted him ’cause he was famous and he was enthralling, people were like, “Why did he do that?” And I looked at the audience and I said, “You gotta hate being the guy who interrupts an American hero. But we need to do this Q&A and you have all sent in questions via social media that I need to get to.” So I made it back about the audience. We got a good laugh that I’d interrupted the American hero. But that stuff happens but it had to be set up before because otherwise he would’ve been startled as to, “Why are you here?” So the MC’s job is to prevent exactly what you just described.

17:10 Michael Port: So back to the beginning, the housekeeping part of the things. ‘Cause usually, when an MC comes out and says, “Oh, so I have some housekeeping to go over,” everybody just keeps looking at their phones and clicking buttons. Housekeeping means, “Oh, I don’t have to pay attention yet.” So how do you make that stuff interesting? How do you make the bathrooms and their location interesting? And the time of lunch and where you go for lunch, et cetera?

17:39 Thom Singer: So I hit the stage… And my background is I was a keynote speaker before I was ever a master of ceremonies. And one of the mistakes that I think keynote speakers make and you’ve probably seen this a million times is you have a prepared introduction and they say, “Okay, our speaker went to Harvard and Bobby Smith founded this company and took it public and Bobby Smith is married and has three kids. Welcome Bobby Smith.” And everybody claps, “Yeah!” And out comes Bobby, and he says, “Oh, it’s such an honor to be with you. It’s such a pleasure to be here in Orlando. And I went to Harvard and I started this company.” They recite their whole bio that was already read. So one of the things I tell speakers is, “Hit the stage with a story. Don’t come out and say here’s who I am, here’s what I did.” Let the person who introduces you set your credibility, come out, and tell a story. So as the master of ceremonies, I will come out. Usually, if it’s a big conference, they’ll have like a voice of God, “Please welcome your master of ceremonies, Thom Singer.”

18:37 Thom Singer: And I hit the stage and I’ll go out I’ll look at them and I’ll say, “Everything in life is about choices.” And I will go into this story that has to do with making choices, and it’s funny and it’s got colorful language in a good way, and it’s all this different stuff. And I will go through the whole thing, and then I’ve drawn them in. That’s my opening ceremony. I draw them in and then the punchline of that is, “We have a lot of choices and we can choose how we’re gonna behave at this conference, and engaging with each other, and paying attention to the schedule, and getting to the buses in time. That’s a choice that we can all make.” And so I’ve have tied in this story about choices, and I tell them why I told that story and it has to do with all the choices we have to make the next three days.

19:18 Michael Port: Oh, that’s cool. So you can say… Yeah, you can say, “Okay, so you can make a choice like, for example, if you choose to go to the bathroom, which is down the hall to the left. Then when you choose to go to the buses, which of course is out front, right in the… ” You’re incorporating all that in.

19:35 Thom Singer: Yeah, exactly. And so I work it all in as that example. And I’m a master of ceremonies who brings my own content. I’m known as the conference catalyst. My job is to make the networking and the connection and the culture of connecting at an event better. And so with that, I have stories and statistics and exercises that I do. And so even if I’m not giving a keynote, I still work that in as MC.

20:00 Michael Port: So that’s that’s the last question I wanna address. I’ve done MC events for my friends’ weddings, things like that, and it’s always really easy for me because I know everybody so well. And that, I can put together in a few hours, and I can kill it, I can nail it. But going to a company, going to a tech company that I don’t know anything about the industry that they’re in, or what this company’s doing or working on, now that’s a little harder. I could come up with some of my own shtick, but it may not be relevant. So what do you do to really get to know the culture and the industry and the people who are gonna be there, so that you can speak to all of them during the event? What’s your prep like for that?

20:49 Thom Singer: So the first thing is, is that I have to just ask a whole lot of questions of the event organizer when we have a pre-conference call. I need to know, “What are the problems? What are the problems that people face, who are in your audience? What is their daily job like? What’s their average age? What is the… ” If I know the basic demographics and what they do, it makes it a lot easier for me. Because I know if it’s a bunch of people who are in their 50s and 60s and it skews towards men, then it’s a different personality that I sort of wear when I come out than if it’s a bunch of 20 somethings. So I just have to… I have to know sort of the demographic. So I ask a lot of questions.

21:27 Thom Singer: The second thing I do is I try to talk to a couple of attendees. So if it’s an association, I say, “Is there a couple of members who’ve attended the last three years who I can talk to?” And if I can get them on the phone for just 15 minutes and I can find out, “What are the things you like about the conference? What are the things you’d like to be different? Why do people come?” And what’s interesting is you talk two or three people and they’ll tell you two or three different things and so then you have to mold it all together. And then the other thing is showing up early and going to the bar the night before and meeting the people who were actually there, not the ones who were hand-picked, and just asking them about what they expect from the conference. And if I know those things, because my message is all about human engagement, if I know those basic things, then I can customize it as we go.

22:12 Thom Singer: But again, it’s… If you just show up and think you’re gonna recite some lines, you’re gonna be Charlie Brown’s mother and it’s gonna be, “wah, wah-wah, wah-wah, wah-wah.”

22:20 Michael Port: “That was easy.”

22:21 Michael Port: I’ve always wanted to do that. [laughter] I have this “easy” button on my desk and I’ve never put it on the podcast, but I just did. There you go. Very nicely done. Although I do think that the reason you’re going to the bar the night before might not be just to learn about them but I’m not gonna push back on that. I’ll just let that be.

22:40 Thom Singer: Hey, I went to a party school and I put the “party” in “party school.”

22:44 Michael Port: Where did you go?

22:44 Thom Singer: I went to San Diego State University in the ’80s.

22:47 Michael Port: Oh wow.

22:47 Thom Singer: So, now, I mean, you have to have a 4.0 to get into San Diego State now, but 30 years ago?

22:53 Michael Port: Not so much. Hey, listen Thom, thank you so much. Thomsinger.com is where you can go learn more about him. You can go of course to conferencecatalyst.com, also. If you wanna bring him in to be your MC, that would probably be a very good idea. And he writes a great blog by the way, so you can get that at thomsinger.com and his podcast is fantastic called Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do. Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do. So if you are an entrepreneur and you wanna do cool things, listen to his podcast. Thank you so much, Thom. I appreciate it.

23:29 Thom Singer: Thank you.

23:29 Michael Port: All right, everybody, keep thinking big about who you are and what you offer the world. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to be in service of you. I never take it for granted. And I get up every day to work for you. Bye for now.