Part of the MC’s role at a seminar or conference is to be skilful in constructing meanings for the event and the experiences of the audience. The audience brings to any event their own meanings based on previous experiences and these meanings will affect their behaviour.
If they’re accustomed to events not starting on time they’ll turn up late. If they think it’s ok to answer a mobile phone during someone’s presentation, they’ll do so If they think it’s ok to hog question time, they will. If they’ve heard the speaker before, they’ll have preconceived ideas about their skill and relevance.
What the MC has to do, and this is part of managing the process, is to create meanings for the experiences the audience will have. The better you are at establishing those meanings, the more likely you’ll reduce some of the hiccups that can occur during an event.
So what you have to do is tell people what things mean and establish the ground rules beforehand. Now you may not be able to achieve consistency across your whole audience, but you can establish expectations.
Here are some tips for managing what things mean for people.
1. Starting time.
How long you wait for people to arrive can be a tricky moment for an MC. Do you reward those who arrive on time or do you condone lateness. I’ve been to seminars where the MC will pop in and say, there’s just a few more coming up the lift so we’ll give it another few minutes. I’m left wondering about the courtesy of this approach. Yes, it can be a pain to start and then have more people arrive. But it might have been courteous to at least seek the views of those who arrived early and are waiting for a punctual start.
2. Housekeeping details
While setting the housekeeping details may seem boring it is an essential part of establishing expectations. You may find later you need the influence of the audience on offenders. For example, if people are asked to turn off mobile phones, and someone proceeds to let theirs ring and worse, answer it and hold a conversation, as I’ve seen some people do, chances are people nearby may exert some disciplining influence to indicate that this is unacceptable behaviour.
Introducing a speaker is another part of managing meaning because what is said in that introduction will establish expectations for the audience. Make sure you have a written introduction for each speaker, either one you’ve prepared or one obtained from the speaker. It should be short, relevant, informative and delivered with enthusiasm.
4. Time management
Most seminars and conferences don’t have much scope for running late. As MC you must be skilled at keeping to time. If the program is running overtime some people will start to become anxious about this. The next speaker will likely become anxious and the general tone of the event may suffer unless you exercise leadership and manage this process.
Establish before you start, with both speakers and audience, that time is important. Fairness means that each speaker gets their allotted time. Audiences get a chance to ask questions and participate. But everyone is expected to respect time. Establishing this expectation up front means you can legitimately intervene when problems surface.
Dealing with speakers’ expectations is critical. Even if the organisers have assured you that speakers have agreed to speak to time, it is well worth meeting speakers before your session and making it clear that you take your role seriously and keeping to time is important. If there are several speakers you may wish to use a signal to indicate when time is up, perhaps with a five minute warning. Worst case is to intervene with the microphone. You may have to cut questions if the speaker goes over time. Or obtain the audience’s permission to go into the break.
There are many other subtle details that you need to attend to when MCing a meeting, seminar or conference. They don’t sound much in isolation, but if you’ve ever seen someone ignore these details you’ll have observed detrimental the impact on the event.