How to be a good event MC

A special public speaking challenge is to be the emcee (MC), or host, of an event. Unlike giving a talk where you are the star, the primary job of the emcee is to help the whole event function well. It requires a different framework for thinking about what success looks like. Instead of just delivering a good lecture, your job is to do everything you can to make sure everyone who gets on stage is set up to do well too.

I’ve been the emcee for Ignite Seattle for a few years, and have spoken at hundreds of events with other emcees, and here is the best advice I can offer.

1. Watch as many MCs as you can. The more you see, the more data you’ll have to compare about what works well and what doesn’t, or which choices they make and how effective or not they are. What you are looking for is how they use their public speaking skills to keep people engaged, to set up other speakers or performers for success, and how the good ones never take too much of the limelight away from the rest of the show. In a way a talk show host is an emcee, but their shows are usually branded around them as the primary star. Even so, they are hosts to their guests, and you can watch them to see how they set up their guests to do well. Even something as simple as asking the audience for rounds of applause when a performer is done makes a big difference.

2. Serve the audience and the other performers.  The MC is the one person that is on stage the most, or most often, and they set the tone for everything else. To serve the audience means to keep things lively, to give them energy, and to never let things get boring or drag on too long. Ask the other performers at your event and the organizers for their suggestions: “What can I do as MC to make you more successful/comfortable?” or “what are you concerned about that maybe I can help with?” Even if you don’t get an answer, just by asking you’re showing that you care, which can make a difference. 

3. Double check the pronunciations of the names you will have to say. Ask them how to say it, and say it back, until you get it right. Don’t be afraid to confirm this as many times as you need. I’ve occasionally made mistakes here and it can be understandably upsetting to some people. Have a simple sheet of paper with pronunciation notes that you take to the stage, perhaps with their names written out phonetically, so it’s easy to get it right.

4. Don’t make yourself the star. It’s easy to fall into the trap of letting yourself be the center of attention since you’re so visible. But MC means Master of Ceremonies – you’re supposed to be the master of all the things that are happening. The goal should be people leave thinking “that was a great event/night/experience” rather than “the MC was so cool” – of course the latter might contribute to the former but you should be part of the show, rather than the show. 

5. Have fun. You set the tone for everyone – if you’re having fun in a relatable way, they’ll follow your lead. If you seem truly enthusiastic, they’ll notice and follow along. 

6. Get there early and talk to people. Before you get on stage you have a chance to seed the audience with your vibe and energy. You have the power to welcome people and make them feel comfortable, especially if they’re new and it’s their first time. Even if you do this for just 5 or 10 people, once you get on stage and start you’ll get a little more energy back from them since they already know you. 

7. Stay after and talk to people. Ask what their favorite and least favorite things were. Ask if they have suggestions for how to make the show better. And make sure to thank them for coming. Much like how a host of a party says goodbye to everyone and makes sure they leave on a good note, the MC should do the same. 

8. Be ready to save the day if something goes wrong. If the power goes out, a performer makes a mistake, there’s a heckler in the audience, or a hundred other things that could happen, you are the adult in the room and have the power to define for everyone else what to make of it. If you handle these situations with clarity and grace the audience will follow along and it won’t be a big deal. This includes speakers who run on too long, or audience members who rant instead of asking a question (in both cases the audience wants you to intercede).  

9. Experiment with audience interaction.  Improv experience definitely helps here, but it takes practice to know how to get the audience to do what you want, and how pushy you can be without being annoying. Every time you MC I’d try something a little different – maybe invite someone on stage? Maybe have the whole crowd play a short and simple game? Some will go well and some won’t but you’ll get a feel for what works for you. Also, sometimes trying the same interaction with different audiences: it can be the only way to get comfortable with a kind of interaction as it takes a few tries to get the kinks out. 

It’s important to realize audience interaction can be tricky because you’re never entirely sure what they are going to do. For example, here’s a game I played with a crowd of 1500 people (jump to 18:50). It went fine until the end. Although I’d done the game before, I didn’t realize people could cheat if they chose to, and they did, so I had to improvise a way to end it. If ever I do this again I now know to modify the rules so everyone has to make visible their choice before I say the answer.


I wrote up notes on specific advice for MC’ing Ignite. Some of the advice is relevant only to Ignite format (20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds) events.

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