What makes a good conference host?
In my previous post I discussed the different types of event that require a “host” – and the terminology that the role involves. Here are some considerations as to what makes a good conference host!
A simple word – with many manifestations! Yet we all know when we meet someone who has “presence”! It encapsulates charisma, positive body language, confidence, authority, poise, charm, “elan” and a sureness that instantly puts an audience at ease – knowing you are in control and they are in “safe hands”! These characteristics of course do not only apply to your time “on stage” – but “off stage” and in all dealings with the PCO (Professional Conference Organiser), the client and of course the audience! Journalist Malcolm Gladwell wrote how we make decisions about people in the blink of an eye based on many subtle cues – and contrary to popular opinion first impressions are often right! In other words – you’re always “on”!
In addition – a host needs to be calm and unflappable in the face of unplanned events, last minute changes, prima donna speakers and technology failures! Especially when everyone is under pressure and passions are high!
Put another way – when it comes to planning and preparation a good conference host will show an obsessive attention to detail that leaves no stone unturned in the quest for perfection! I like to check and double-check everything – including sound, lighting, stage access, speaker intros and pronounciation of names – as well and trying to imagine how to deal with the “unexpected” – power cuts, fire alarms, speaker no-shows and so on! All eventualities must be covered – and the host should be totally immersed in the event to ensure they are on top of their “brief”. For this reason they should be involved in the build-up to the event and not simply turn up “on the day” to begin their duties.
“Jokes” are rarely appropriate at a conference – at an awards dinner yes – it that’s your style. Yet it is possible to have a “humorous demeanour” and lightness of touch without resorting to funny stories. A host with a serious face and self-important bearing (think Headmaster!) can put a dampener on proceedings right from the start. Yet all it takes is often a ready smile and a cheerful “aura” to raise the energy and put an audience at ease so that they can relax and enjoy the event. All conferences should be enjoyable as well as informative – and as host you are responsible for setting the tone!
Of course you will have written out (and learnt!) your welcome preamble, your introductions and general admin announcements, yet it is important not to appear “over scripted”. A host’s ability to be “in the moment” and react to situations as they arise and to be able to “improvise” is crucial. One way in which I always do this is to listen very carefully to each speaker’s presentation – and before introducing the next speaker to make some brief remark or observation on what I have just heard, or to summarise and draw a conclusion – provided the content was not too technical! Even if it is – there is always “something” you can say to let the audience know you have been listening and that you are “on the ball”!
A good conference host will take the time to learn as much as possible about the client’s business so that he or she will be well informed and able to understand the issues they face. They should also know everything about the audience, learn some names (read how I learnt all 120 names of the delegates at a conference here!) and chat to them in order to be able to sprinkle “in the moment” comments into any pre-prepared links. I always make a point of circulating and talking to delegates (i.e. the “troops” – not just the senior management or conference organisers) at mealtimes and refreshment breaks – asking them general questions like what they hope to gain from the event, and what problems they would like to see addressed. In other words – a good host needs to interact, listen, absorb and assimilate!
In the next series of posts I will deconstruct my involvement in hosting some recent conferences – and give you a sneak peek “behind the scenes”! See here Hosting a conference: Pt 1
If you are looking for a conference host to ensure the success of your next event – please get in touch!