Off the Cuff – How To Be A Great Emcee

Improv Rules

“It takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

-Mark Twain

The greatest emcees are masters at ad-libbing, spontaneous yammer, and off-the-cuff entertainment. 

You might think, hey, I’m no Robin Williams – I could never master off-the-cuff humor. But you’d be wrong!

See Related: Notecards And Prompters – How To Be A Great Emcee

Even Robin Williams Prepared Improv

One of the greatest comedians of the last 50 years, Robin Williams was known for his uncanny ability to improvise humor in any scene to get a laugh. But what a lot of people don’t know is that Williams collected jokes, quotations, stories, comedy bits, and anything he found funny from listening, performing, or engaging with others in a massive notebook. He would always bring this notebook with him to events and review it before he hit the stage for a scene.

Though the order in which he presented his material would always change and he had no precise setlist that he followed, he was drawing upon his humor and the humor of others and delivering it as though it was magically happening in real-time. With just a couple of improv rules, you can do the same thing.

Planned Spontaneity (With Basic Rules, Of Course)

The best off-the-cuff (in the moment and “unprepared”) humor is actually pre-planned to some extent. This means that you can come up with the best remarks in the moment after you have done your research. 

Humor Comes from Homework

In preparation for your big event, you should try to answer the following questions:

What do they love to say?

We covered much of this in an earlier chapter about researching your client or partner. Suffice it to say, you want to become super familiar with the company’s pet phrases, cliches, key sayings, mottos, or anything that captures in a couple of sentences the unique spirit of the organization. 

Improv scene rules person idea fail matter more work guess happen character funny rule improv scene rules person idea fail matter happen character scene rules playing childrenTaking the time to be curious and discover what the organization believes in and/or stands by will not only help you generate relevant off-the-cuff banter and improv, but it will also go a long way in helping you connect with the audience through humor. 

Who do they love to have fun with?

Make sure you know the names and faces of key leaders within the organization. It’s best if you confirm that they are indeed in the audience or at the event so that when you reference them, there’s electricity because they are in the house. 

Your jokes will have a greater impact if everyone involved is there to experience them. 

Can you poke fun at the pain?

Be careful here, but also know that pain is almost always at the root of good humor. Here’s an example:

If there is a coffee machine that notoriously breaks down, it’s probably safe to bet that you can have some fun and get a laugh by talking about that. 

Poking fun at the company’s competitors is often another good move that typically goes over well if handled playfully.  

Check with the meeting planner or the internal event organizer before you work out material along those lines. 

Bottom line:

If in doubt, leave it out. 

The key comment I want to make about the above three questions is this: They set you up so that you already know the kinds of topics, names, and sore spots that make for good, clean fun. 

Getting ready helps you feel ready in the moment. 

Call Backs Rock!

If I could only choose one improv rule or technique for ensuring laughter that feels off the cuff, it would be this: listening carefully to what happens during a program and calling back to it repeatedly throughout the rest of the session. 

This is the same principle for the improv rules of a scene: listening to your partner, drawing on their ideas, and being able to focus a laugh on an exact callback moment.

I’ll give you an example of this that happened to me.

I was emceeing an international convention in Philadelphia. There were representatives from Europe, Asia, and North America in the audience. This was a very high-profile event. 

When I was introduced, I started walking up to the stage and I accidentally tripped. The audience didn’t know whether to laugh or not (they did not laugh). The second time I went up, I nearly tripped on the same step– this was also quite visible to the audience. 

Improv scene rules person idea character rule playing beginning play scenes absolutely reality free first thing free play improv scene rules person idea play scenes ruleWhen the next presenter was speaking I was in a bit of a panic, thinking to myself, wow, in my nervousness I have tripped nearly twice now.

Guess what I did? I did it again. However, this time I did it on purpose. This became the third call back to my awkwardness. It got a huge laugh and let the audience know that I was able to laugh at myself. To them, it felt like I had been tripping on purpose the entire time. This leads us to the power of improvisation.

Bonus: Microphones – How To Be A Great Emcee

Improve Your Emcee Ability via Improv Rules & Techniques 

Here are three of the best rules of improv:

1. The first rule in an improv scene: Agreement means “yes and.”

Most people think that comedy comes from conflict, but off-the-cuff humor – and the first rule of improv – is actually rooted in agreement. How does this work? 

It means that as the host, your job is to never negate what is happening on the platform. You want to notice, react, and say yes, which means accepting what has been created and then moving forward in another direction. 

Here’s an example:

Let’s say someone hands you an award and you or he/she accidentally drops it. Rather than react by apologizing, say yes – agree with it, listen to what’s just happened, and add something to it. For example, you might drop it and say something like, “Well we’re doing better because in rehearsal that landed on my foot.”

Rather than trying to force an awkward cover-up that comes off like you’re performing a scene, improvisation helps to relieve the tension and lighten the mood with some laughter from the audience. 

2. The next rule of an improv scene: Affirm mistakes.

When we’re in the spotlight, we are tempted to want to look perfect. Though it is normal to feel this way, this actually has the opposite effect on audience members. What they’re looking to connect with is our humanity, so you want to affirm mistakes – especially your own. 

This is one of the basic rules of improv. It allows us to fail without actually failing. This way, improvisation becomes your partner.

One of the things I like to do during a program is to tell a little self-deprecating story about my own work before I introduce a prominent speaker

Here’s an example:

When I started the organization cleancomedians.com I came up with our motto, “Humor doesn’t have to be filthy to be funny.” I was very excited about this and printed up about 100 brochures and mailed them to corporations, theaters, and even churches. But there was a typo: instead of saying, “It doesn’t have to be filthy to be funny,” it said, “Clean Comedians Association: professional entertainers who believe humor doesn’t have to be funny.”  

This gets a big laugh from the audience and lets them know I am willing to laugh at myself and laugh with them. How is this off the cuff and rooted in the rules of improv?

Well, I can use a line like this in a transitional moment or when talking about how great our next partner or speaker is and how that’s in contrast to my own business background. Of course, you’ll need to tailor your anecdotes to fit the theme or context of the event you are emceeing. 

But improvisation and the rules of improv can teach you to partner with your mistakes; not be defined by them.

One more thought on affirming mistakes:

Problems will happen in a program. Rather than ignoring them, accept and affirm them as if they were your partner in a scene.

Improv scene rules person idea rule scenes story partner office teacher taught students comment conversation aware focus meetings ideas explain idea rules partner story curiousHere’s a case in point: Let’s say someone’s phone goes off loudly while you’re speaking. Rather than ignoring it or criticizing the owner of the phone, you might say something like, “And just like Tina said, we hope you answer the call that our CEO invited us to answer and win the quarter sales award.” 

Here, you see two things at play: 1) Just like in a scene, you’re utilizing the rules of improv by saying yes to the phone call and running with it. And 2) you’re embracing the mistake as if it were a partner in a scene.

The phone call shouldn’t have happened. But it did. Rather than ignore it, utilizes these improv rules to set the scene the way you want it to be. Speak to the mistake like it were a partner. And run with it as you do.

3. As with all rules of improv: Amplify what’s fun.

The best entertainment is usually an exaggeration of reality. One of the ways you can tap into off-the-cuff humor is by taking something that was a small success in your meeting and making it a bigger one.

Here’s an example:

If the CEO does a fun little dance move when he’s talking about hitting the company’s annual revenue goal, you might say something later in the program like “And Ken Thompson will be leading a workshop on how to dance after you hit your sales goal.”

This might not seem particularly funny as you read this, but trust me – in the context of a meeting, when you’re amplifying something they already enjoyed, they will enjoy it even more. 

This also acts as a way to call back a funny moment – again, as if it were a partner to your scene. Speak to it and amplify it like you would when writing your own scene.

Handling Hecklers While Still Being Likable 

If you experience a heckler in your audience, don’t worry. You have the microphone and you’re in control of the scene and the stage.

This is a delicate balance here. You don’t want to be rude, but the audience is rooting for you to win this little battle and keep the scene program moving. 

Respond to the heckler in a way that is funny, but not personally insulting. You may say something like “Well apparently someone from ABC Lumber (this would be the name of a competitor) was able to get a ticket to our meeting.” 

Obviously, do not attack someone’s race, height, weight, gender, et cetera. 

Hecklers are usually not mean – they are often just being silly or perhaps they have had too much to drink. You want to top them without going over the top. 

Again, act like they are a partner in your scene. Let them inform the scene, then gracefully bow them out as partner as you move the program along.

Have Some Tricks Up Your Sleeve

With my background as a magician, I can do this literally. I normally carry a deck of cards in my jacket so that if the time is right, I can do a bit of magic. You can carry tricks up your sleeve in a metaphorical sense. Here are some entertaining ways you can do this: 

1. Fun props

I sometimes carry a mini wallet with me (about 25% of the size of a normal men’s wallet), and when I’m introducing a financial expert I’ll say, “I’m not as good at managing funds as Julie Smith is. In fact, this is my wallet.” I’ll hold up the mini wallet for everyone to see and I get a great laugh, again at myself. 

You can find a ton of fun props at your local dollar store and use them as giveaway items. Have a few in your pocket or your purse or just off the stage that you can grab if the time feels right.

2. Lines you can use again and again

The best corporate emcees and entertainers aren’t presenting brand-new material all the time. They’re doing old improv material for new audiences. This means that you might have a choice line, joke, or phrase you can apply to the event that feels fresh and off the cuff to the audience. 

Scene rules idea rule partner students conversation aware focus ideas talk speak job conversations listening improvisation setting watch laugh best ways voice listen sitMy friend Bob Westfall is a genius at helping nonprofits raise money for their wonderful charities. His organization, Westfall Gold, has helped nonprofits raise nearly $200,000,000. He once shared with me a line he likes to use before giving a presentation about how donors can support a faith-based nonprofit. He said, “I’ve been asked to deliver the sermon on the amount.”

If an audience has never heard it, a line like this is quite hilarious. Having a few choice one-liners like this and using them at the right time is the mark of an outstanding emcee. 

3. Share a personal story 

Remember that failing is funny – perhaps not at the time you’re experiencing the failure, but later it can make for a charming anecdote. Like the example I used earlier about launching Clean Comedians, you can share stories from your work or personal life. 

You might recount for the audience stories about your efforts at dieting, developing a new habit, becoming better at certain disciplines, or learning a new hobby or craft. No matter what you choose to share, the goal is connecting with the audience. This is very important to understand when it comes to managing an audience. When your off-the-cuff humor also serves as a window into how you have overcome challenges in your life, the audience will not only laugh– they will be able to relate to you more. 

Trust Yourself Moving Forward

Finally, the most important tool you have as a master of ceremonies is your intuition. Learning to trust your gut will strengthen you in all aspects of hosting a major event. 

Always keep things appropriate and professional. But when the opportunity strikes, don’t be afraid to express your point of view and unique personality in a fun and relatable way. I think you’ll find that your wonderful, off-the-cuff dynamic will impact your audience in ways they’ll never forget. 

This is an excerpt from Adam Christing‘s forthcoming book, “How To Be A Great Emcee: The A to Z Guide to Hosting Events” by America’s #1 Master of Ceremonies. Follow along as new chapters get posted to this blog category each week.