4 Qualities to Look for in an Emcee

You are organising an event. Juggling through the myriad of decisions you have to make. Looking for the perfect speakers and working the logistics of getting them to your event. Then there is the venue, promotion, guests, and the list goes on and on. Last minute you realize you need a person to fill in the role of emcee (MC, master of ceremony, or host). It’s just someone that introduces the main speakers-anyone can do that, right? Well, doing that is tantamount to preparing a full-course meal with top grade ingredients and forgetting to season it. It is a missed opportunity. A good emcee is like salt, they are present in the amount of a sprinkle but they make the flavours pop. The flavours being the speakers you so painstakingly researched, selected, and (sometimes) paid dearly for. Selecting an emcee is just as important as finding your perfect keynote speakers.

We have all attended an event where we’ve lost interest and started distracting ourselves with what our neighbors were wearing, what’s on the menu, or how many people would have to get up to let you go to the toilet. It is impossible to command everyone’s attention 100% of the time but a good emcee will ensure your audience is always engaged even through the technical difficulties. They will ensure the energy levels of your audience are at a constant high and ready for the next speaker. When I say “constant high” it does not mean the audience is frenzied as if in a One Direction concert, but sufficiently energized to maintain focus on the stage. The level of energy will vary depending on the type of event it is. An academic conference will likely require a lower energy level than an end of year Christmas business event but regardless there has to be some energy available for focus. 

Energy for focus is affected by many things: hunger, breaks, length of talks, type of talks, time of day, length of event (hours vs. multi-day). Your emcee is responsible to keep this in mind and adjust their role on stage based on all of these parameters. Ultimately, the emcee will interact as little or as much as necessary until they feel the audience is energized and receptive enough to receive the next speaker. They ensure that every speaker has an attentive audience. Sometimes, there are speakers that just put the audience to sleep, that is where the emcee’s job is very important. They revive your audience and prepare them for the next speaker, giving them a fair chance at being listened to attentively. This is very important if you have your big keynote speaker at the end of an afternoon filled with talks.

4 Qualities to Look for in a Good Emcee

Hopefully now I have convinced you of the importance of a good emcee. You may be asking yourself: where do I even look for an emcee? I have seen emcees from a couple of backgrounds: journalistic and performative. I personally cannot say if one is better than the other. I think which you select depends more on what kind of event you’re organising. Are you looking for a casual fun evening or is it a serious event with in-depth discussions. Having said this, I wouldn’t rule out an emcee that can be funny for a serious event. A bit of levity always helps through a day of dense content. Nonetheless, there are a few things to look out for in any emcee no matter which kind of event you are planning. These are four key qualities we think a good emcee should have:

  1. they are good  listeners;
  2. they are good conversationalists (very closely linked to quality no.1);
  3. they are comfortable improvising; and
  4. they are comfortable with silence.

You can find performers who are really funny or experts who are very knowledgeable, but if they are not good listeners they will not be able to react to your audience’s needs or worse, miss interesting discussion opportunities.  During any live event there are unplanned moments where relevant topics arise from the speakers and the audience. A good emcee should be able to identify them promptly and give them space to develop further. There are hosts that enjoy talking about their own experiences a bit too much, taking  away time from your speakers. 

The second point, being a good conversationalist, is important to keep things moving, whether it is talking to your speakers during a panel, or talking to the audience while a technical issue is being resolved. An emcee who is a good conversationalist will make any interaction look easy and comfortable. This puts your audience at ease and even helps them forget they are waiting for the second microphone to start working. 

The next point, being comfortable improvising, doesn’t mean they have to be improv artists. A lot of the time having a plan for possible scenarios is enough. An emcee that prepares on the event’s subject will be able to make the most of spontaneous opportunities. A professional emcee will also have enough experience to know how to handle surprises that even preparation on the topic could have prepared them, such as tech malfunction or reviving any stunted discussions. 

The last point may seem counterintuitive: being comfortable with silence. An emcee is meant to maintain the pace of an event, avoiding lulls where the audience can lose interest and focus, so why is silence important? Well, this is particularly important when they interact with your speakers. Take a moment to remember the last time you ever remained silent in a conversation? The other person usually feels uncomfortable and tries to fill the silence. This is what you want to instigate in your speaker, you want them to fill the silence, not the host. A host who fills the silence instead of the speaker is like cheating your audience from their promised experience. Ultimately, the emcee has to show good judgment of when to turn-on their fill-in-the-silence powers. You can usually tell they have this quality when you are interviewing them because they are good conversationalists. If you are still not certain when you have found a good emcee, then keep on reading for some examples.

Some Examples of Good Emcees

Emma hosting the InsectSpace Symposium in 2018.

Here are a few examples to get you started from the TV hosting world. We asked EEH Production’s founder and professional emcee, Emma Holmes, what were some of her favourite TV hosts. With over 160 live shows and professional events under her belt she is a good person to ask. Her top three TV-show hosts included Paul O’Grady. Graham Norton, and Trevor Noah.

Paul O’grady is the host on “The Paul O’grady Show” and “Paul O’grady: For the Love of Dogs.” He is known for his quick wit and good-natured humour. He uses humour to pull out more information from his guests. You can check out this interview with Taylor Swift where you can appreciate his use of humour to make Taylor feel comfortable. Once she is at ease he gives her the space and time to tell her own stories. His use of good-natured humour allows the guest to let down their guard and show a bit of their own sense of humour and personality. Everyone loves an honest compliment and an emcee who is comfortable doing this will instantly win likeability points with your audience.

Graham Norton from the “Graham Norton Show” allows his guests to shine with their own stories and also uses humour to instigate his guests to share more. Additionally, there is the added bonus of the interactions between the guests. That is something to keep in mind when you have multiple speakers such as in a panel. You can discuss with your emcee on how to instigate interactions between the panelists if that is something you would like. 

Finally, “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”, which is mostly scripted so it might be difficult to judge Noah’s live-hosting skills but his interviewing skills give you a glimpse of what he must be like. You can watch him as he tactfully adjusts his questions based on the answers his guests provide. This can only be done if you are a great listener, a good conversationalist, and have plenty of background (i.e. preparation) on the subject.

In short, when looking for an emcee, have a conversation style interview with your candidate(s). Look for a good listener and conversationalist that responds to your comments in a relevant manner. A look at their past experiences will give you an idea of what their style can be (funny, serious, or both). Tell them what you want to achieve with your event. What kind of mood you want your audience to be in. Is the event meant to inspire, provoke, or educate. They usually have lots of experience with different kinds of events and can be a valuable source of suggestions as to how to achieve these things.

About the Author


Sarah Haimes

Is an avid nature lover and scientist who is always looking for ways to combine arts and science for educational purposes (and for fun).