For courage mounteth with occasion.
— William Shakespeare
It's been a long time since any U.S. president has written his own speech on the back of an envelope. The one that started with "Four score and seven..." would probably be changed by today's speech writer to "47 years ago, our ancestors...." A more colorful scribe might make it, "A generation and a half," or "The time it took for a mom and dad and their teenagers to grow up in this country." Another might write, "Seventeen years after the house was paid off...."
Hostesses who entertain much must make up their parties as ministers make up their cabinets, on grounds other than personal liking.
— George Eliot (pseudonym of Marian Evans Cross)
The role of mistress or master of ceremonies (MC) is a tricky one. On the one hand, your job is to keep things moving along in an entertaining way. On the other, it's not about you. It is much like the conductor of an orchestra who stands in front but has nothing to play. He or she is simply instrumental in making music with all the other instruments.
One actress I know was asked at the last minute to step in as MC for a well-known actor who was supposedly stuck on a movie location. She said yes, in part because she believed in the charity but also hoped that this role would bring her some new exposure in Hollywood.
Every bone in her performer's body wanted to disclaim the 12-year-old picture and bio the organizers of the award's luncheon had quickly pulled from the Internet and copied on brightly colored flyers as handouts! After making a conscious decision to make her remarks about the charity rather than herself, she said not a word about the picture nor remark on the no-show MC who had gotten all the polished publicity while taking none of the responsibility for showing up. In fact, throughout the event, she refrained from talking about herself at all. As a result, she did her job superbly, because the charity, not she, was the star of the day. She knew she succeeded because she got lots of kudos.
Also critical was her attention to the script. She had seen too many actors vainly stumble over this kind of script without practice or their reading glasses. So even though she had only received the script the night before, she did not make the mistake of "winging it." While everyone else in Hollywood was networking at the cocktail reception in the foyer outside, our MC sat behind the podium rewriting and rehearsing her script.
And then an interesting thing happened. The organizers were mindful that the luncheon event usually ran way over schedule. By the end, the only audience members left sitting were those who were too polite to leave. What could she do to make sure that the unscripted awardees would say their piece and move on? "I'll come up and hug anyone who goes overtime saying thank you," she good-naturedly threatened the audience.
It was a sweet gesture and certainly not an unappealing prospect coming from her. Throughout the next hour, everyone teased about talking until they got their hugs, but they were brief and to the point and the afternoon ended with a full house, ahead of schedule. The MC's hugs became the running joke through every acceptance speech.
Another time, a lawyer was asked to be the MC at her firm's weekend retreat. Again, it was an opportunity to be showcased. This time, in front of all the senior partners in the firm. She was naturally funny, but scared to death. To help her, we broke it into seven acts or sections like a television show, and wrote introductions and conclusions to each segment. We helped her use the audience and its idiosyncrasies as material, which is a good way of making it about them instead of you.
A sharp tongue is the only edge tool that grows keener with constant use.
— Washington Irving
Knowing the tools of the trade makes all the difference to your abilities as a pro.
Illustrating points with props and pictures sometimes makes a personal story even better. A start-up company was to be one of 75 presenters to a venture capitalist audience. In discussing the watershed moments of his life beforehand, we discovered that he had been an amateur hockey player. We searched sporting-goods stores the night before to find an actual hockey stick. On stage, he captivated the mostly male audience with tales of his hockey career and used the stick as a prop to illustrate the perfect hockey stick curve projection that every investor knows and loves. He became the "guy with the hockey stick" who got all the money because he was unique and memorable. In a word, fact is often better than fiction.
A hand-held mike or podium microphone is directional and need only point at the spoken sound. If the speaker before you is taller or shorter, practice adjusting podium microphones up or down before the audience comes in so it will be a natural adjustment to make when you begin speaking and you don't have to contort your body to obtain optimal acoustics.
All too often, speakers are intimidated by microphones, the TelePrompTer, and even the podium light, and wait till they are speaking to find out what they don't know about the logistics. Technicians, as a rule, or at least the banquet captain, are usually more than happy to work with you, including dimming lights for video projectors. Dimming doesn't mean fading to complete darkness because it's too easy for an audience to fall asleep after wine and a big dinner or lunch when the lights go out.
Still, you must take the initiative to take the stage or walk up to the podium ahead of time. Look out at the room, get the feel of the size, shape, and set-up. Say a few words into the mike. Make sure the podium light works, and if it's not bright enough, bring your reading glasses.
If there's a TelePrompTer, is the screen on a camera in front of you or to the sides? Practice with the operator on your pacing. Enlist his or her expertise in which line to read, slowing you down, and marking the script for emphasis with underlining or spacing or color.
Ask, beforehand, that your podium be stage right -- the audience's left if at all possible (it is the commanding position because English-speaking audience read the front of a room like a newspaper). Further, ask that the mike be disconnectable from the podium so you can leave the podium for questions or switch off the microphone and switch on a wireless hand or head-mounted mike to meet the audience for questions without a barrier between you. Plus, everyone knows stories about people, even the most media-savvy U.S. president, who spoke without thinking that a microphone was on.
Perhaps the greatest invention ever pioneered for putting a speaker in command of his destiny is Microsoft PowerPoint, which provides the capability to design and change your graphics at a moment's notice. Still you've got to do everything you can to make sure your PowerPoint presentation works for you. If possible, have someone there, following along in your script, whose sole responsibility it is to change the screens. Or change them yourself from your laptop on the podium while the audience watches the projection behind you. Just as you don't want to read the script, don't read the slides. Make your talking points simple phrases or bullet points, not sentences and paragraphs. Then use the bullet point in sentences so your audience knows where you are on the slide. As with the script, avoid making last minute PowerPoint changes that will confuse you or force you to read them because you don't know the material yet.
No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle.
— David Hume
In depositions, the emphasis is on a few words. As few as possible. Most lawyers will tell you to just answer the question and not offer any more. Yes and no are very often the place to both start and stop. In other words, don't volunteer or be colorful in your descriptions. And remember that the stenographer doesn't take notes until you begin speaking. So be natural, but you can take a moment to edit yourself before you begin speaking.
It is often said that lawyers never ask questions to which they don't think they already have the answers. Don't surprise your lawyer or help the other side at a deposition or trial by adding things that your lawyer is not expecting. The time to share with your attorney is before you get to the testimony so he or she can accurately make your case.
If you don't follow this advice, you may be guilty of hanging yourself with too much rope of too many words.