If anyone knows you are a Toastmaster, chances are you sooner or later will be invited to act as master of ceremonies at a retirement, reunion or award banquet. Often, these affairs are enjoyed by the person being honored, but are just a matter of fulfilling obligations for those who attend. However, with the help of proper planning and some basic Toastmasters skills, you can turn a ho-hum presentation into a great program that's fun for everyone involved. Here are a few pointers to get you started:
• Be prepared. Don't even think about "winging it." People attending this affair expect to be entertained. And even if they don't know what to expect, no one wants to be bored. The program requires planning and coordination, so start early to gather information, choose speakers and develop a theme.
• Choose good speakers. You'll undoubtedly be approached by volunteers who value their stories of the past and insist on sharing them. You can only hope they are great storytellers. By sticking to a limited number of speakers, you'll have a way out by saying, "We'd love to hear you speak, but the program is already full."
Then there are those who should be asked to speak as a matter of protocol. They may not have anything interesting to say, but their position warrants the invitation. By talking to all presenters ahead of time, you'll get a general idea of what each presenter plans to do and you can hope to ward off embarrassing comments at showtime. Find out who will present gifts, recite poetry, tell jokes or share a story. Encourage all presenters to write out what they have to say and practice their delivery. Unfortunately, not everyone has had Toastmasters training and you may need to offer some pointers.
• Set time limits. Give each speaker a time limit and make sure they understand the need to stay on schedule. Never trust a presenter's "good judgment" - encourage them to time their speech to make sure it fits the limit. Explain the timing signals and reach an agreement on how to warn speakers when their time is almost up. Flashing colored lights obviously is too conspicuous. A popular method is for the emcee to walk toward the front of the room a few minutes before the speaker needs to wrap up. This looks professional and shows the audience that you are in control and everything is carefully planned.
A more drastic alternative is to walk toward the podium, wait for a good ending and then quickly start the applause. This is tricky and must be done without embarrassing the speaker or making it look like he or she was cut off. However, this won't be necessary if the ground rules are clear from the start.
• Check your bag of tricks. As host for the evening, you are the mortar that will hold the show together. Even if every speaker lacks pizzazz, the burden is on you to make the show enjoyable.
Consider using as much program variety as possible. Use props, slides or video equipment; music or other sound effects; and add sparkle to your comments by incorporating quotes, poetry and humor. Make sure any presentation of plaques, gifts or awards is done efficiently. Collect every possible scrap of information about the honoree and look for unique ways of presenting the information. Remember, you can always eliminate extra material, but be armed with a bag full of tricks, just in case you'll need them.
• Allow the audience to participate. Plan an activity that includes the audience - it may be as simple as asking people to stand and be recognized according to the location from which they traveled or how many years they've known the honoree. Depending on the nature of the program, there may be cheering or chanting and the audience may even be asked to create other sound effects for added excitement.
• Use notecards to plan your program. Write every story, joke, activity and idea on individual file cards. As the planning progresses, all these cards will become fillers, transitions and energizers. Spread out the fun; take everything you have and put it together so that there is variety and energy throughout the program. If you fear a few less than thrilling program events, compensate by making other activities stand out. Don't include yourself on the program as a speaker but rather put all your material to use in energizing, making transitions and cementing the other parts together.
• Schedule time for the unexpected. If slides will be shown, if there will be discussion, singing or a question-and-answer segment, make sure to allow enough time and stick to that schedule. You don't want a great program cut short by activities running overtime.
• Listen for appropriate transitions. As the program progresses, listen carefully to each speaker for cues that will help you with smooth transitions. Use something the previous speaker said or did to segue into your next portion, if possible.
• Give them all you've got. Take the stage with gusto and flair. Treat the event as if it were the grandest of occasions, regardless of the event's importance or the number of people in attendance. Never apologize or show concern that the audience is small. Let them know you have prepared a great show just for them.
• Be generous with praise. Lavish your appreciation on each presenter and the audience. Be animated in leading the clapping for each speaker, so that there are no "dead" spots. Give brief, lively introductions to encourage the upcoming speaker to keep up the pace.
• Dress up. If no request was made for formal attire, try to dress a cut above the audience. After all, you are the master of ceremonies and should look like someone special.
• Send them away hungry. Like a hostess serving a fine meal, the master of ceremonies plans carefully, serves the portions evenly and caters to a variety of tastes. The audience will be satisfied, or even wishing for more. You don't want them to leave miserably stuffed, but rather pleasantly filled. Better to send them away wishing there were just one more course than to see them twisting uncomfortably in their seats, counting the minutes to the end.
• Enjoy the compliments. You have the power to turn a potentially long, boring presentation into a fun and festive event. If you succeed, many people will stay to thank you and ask you to do it again. All you have to do is accept their compliments and have your business cards ready!