“Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.”
-From the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
Events are a lot like life. You never know what’s going to happen next, even when you think you do. Part of becoming a great emcee is learning how to handle unexpected situations.
Here’s the good news: When you learn how to do this, you will not only enjoy the events more, but you’ll also receive lots of praise for being an exceptional master of ceremonies.
The question is not, “What should I do if unexpected things happen during a meeting?” The question is, “What should I do when unexpected things happen during a meeting?”
Trust me, things will go wrong. Not every time – but I would say most of the time that I have hosted (well over a thousand events), something unplanned has occurred. What I’ve become great at is handling the three keys to dealing with these occurrences:
- Audience orientation
Let’s go over them now.
See Related: Transitions – How To Be A Great Emcee
Three Keys to Handling Unexpected Situations During an Event
Just as the serenity prayer has helped guide people into a state of peace of mind (Lord, help me to accept the things I cannot change), so can the art of acceptance help you gracefully navigate unexpected events that may arise onstage.
Practicing acceptance is not the same as agreeing with what is happening, nor does it mean you have to enjoy it. It simply means you understand that life is full of surprises. It’s part of what makes life– and a great meeting– wonderful.
So, what do I mean by accepting? It comes down to this: live in the present during a meeting.
When something happens, don’t panic– go with the flow.
2. Audience orientation
You can’t make a pivot until you recognize what just happened. Have you noticed that this is one of the keys that keep coming up in chapter after chapter? That’s because you should always be thinking about what is going on in terms of how the audience experiences it.
Here’s an important point: Sometimes the audience isn’t even aware that something unexpected has occurred. There may be no need to acknowledge the fact that you missed part of an important introduction, or that you presented the awards out of order. Don’t draw the attendees’ attention to something that you don’t need to draw their attention to.
Of course, sometimes things happen that are blatantly obvious to the audience. You must decide in the moment: is this worth pointing out or should we just move forward?
Here’s how I decide if something has become a distraction: I acknowledge it and move on to the next thing. If it has not become a distraction, I tend to let it go and keep moving forward.
My question is always this: has this affected the audience, and do I need to do something about it?
Just like a good improv player will say, “Yes, and…,” handling an unexpected situation is not about canceling what just occurred, but adding on to it.
Let me give you a specific example. One time I called an audience member onto the platform to be part of a funny skit. He tripped and fell onto the stage. The audience gasped; they were concerned about him, as was I. An amateur emcee would have just asked him if he was okay and moved on as if nothing happened. But as a professional, I wanted to look out for him and the audience. So, I took an extra minute to make sure that he was okay– and to let the audience know that he was okay.
With his permission, we carried on with the skit. In fact, he felt fine participating in the sketch. And when we were done, he earned a thunderous round of applause.
I acknowledged what had occurred and added on by giving him a chance to continue with the piece. And then I added on a big round of applause from the audience.
Look for ways to build onto something that happens unexpectedly rather than negating it.
Now that we have covered how to handle unexpected events, let’s talk about some of the most common ones that happen.
Ten Unexpected Events and How to Handle Them
1. The speaker goes way over time
I wish I could tell you that this is a rare occurrence, but I would say that nearly half the time you’ll find that a speaker runs too long. If this happens, there are a few things you can do:
- You can try to artfully get his or her attention and remind them that they need to wrap up.
- If they go way too long, you can gradually creep closer to them on the platform so they get the message… “Oh, I need to wrap up.”
- You can try to make up time later in the program by cutting transitions shorter or asking the event manager if something could be dropped, like a video or certain announcements.
2. A key presenter doesn’t show up
Remember the entertainment maxim, “The show must go on.” Keep in mind that in some cases, the audience may be completely unaware that the presenter didn’t show up.
This is a wonderful situation because you can move on with the program and not make references to the person’s absence at all. Other times, it’s very obvious. If so, you have a few options:
- You can “fill.” That means doing more time, like sharing a joke, interviewing attendees, adding in an icebreaker, performing a magic trick, or using another talent that you possess.
- Another option is to simply cut this particular session shorter.
- When appropriate, it might be helpful to say something like, “Unfortunately, our keynote speaker has been impacted by the airline, but we hope to plug them in later during our conference.”
The key is to remember that you are the guide for the audience. With that in mind, take things as they come and deal with them as best you can.
3. The audio cuts out completely
In most situations, there’s not much you can do except get a sense in real time if the audio technician has the situation under control. Sometimes I will look at them, and I can just tell that they’re scrambling to deal with a problem at the soundboard. In that case, I will move to another mic, e.g., the podium mic.
In other situations, I will just speak with my natural voice and attempt to be heard by all. One tip for doing this is to speak to the back of the room, not the front of the room. You never want to yell or strain your voice, but you want to project so that everyone can hear you.
In most cases, the audio will come back on. When this happens, thank the audio tech for getting everything up and running again and moving on.
4. There is a video glitch
Unfortunately, this happens more often than you might expect. Either a video doesn’t play at all, or it gets stuck somewhere in the middle. First of all, make sure you’re not backstage or somewhere where you don’t realize what’s going on.
If it does happen, you must decide (perhaps in conversation with the AV person): Is this something that’s about to be fixed right away, and can we let it go? Or do I need to fill?
If your impression is that they’re going to fix it– but they might need a minute or two, this is the opportunity for you to share a favorite joke or walk into the audience with a handheld microphone and give away a prize.
For example: “I’m going to give away a Starbucks gift card to the person who flew the furthest to be here with us today.”
If you get the impression that the video simply will not play, you have a decision to make. Do you want to fill the time? Your best bet is probably to say something like, “We’re going to do our best to get you that video later in our program– and speaking of the program, we want to get right back to our exciting guest speaker. Let me introduce him now.”
5. Somebody falls or gets hurt
First, make sure they’re okay! In some cases, you simply need to stop the program and ask for medical attention. This occurred recently at an event that I emceed, and the room was evacuated. And as the MC, my job was not to keep the program going but to get the person to safety and carefully guide the audience through the proper exit procedure.
Important note: As the host, your responsibility is to look out for everyone. This includes the person who was hurt as well as the audience.
One time an alarm went off in a ballroom where I was emceeing an event, and it was clear that we were required to exit the building. So, I just carefully said, “Please exit the room. We will inform you when we can reconvene here, but let’s quickly and smoothly exit the room at this time. Thank you.”
Another note: As the master of ceremonies, you need to be the last to leave. Make sure everyone gets out okay.
Most of the time when someone falls, they are fine and it’s just an issue of nerves. By being present and making the best call as you see fit, you can determine whether to move on or stop the program.
6. Something controversial is said or done
Once again, this is a time in which you have to make a call. Think of yourself as a quarterback faced with a game-time decision. Do you want to hand off the ball, pass it, or run with it? Give yourself an extra beat to think about what was said or done and how to best respond once you’ve made your decision.
The best bet is to ignore it if possible and accentuate the positive things the speaker said or did. When this is not possible, simply acknowledge it and move on. If the situation is out of control, take the time to acknowledge what occurred and then regain ownership of the situation.
For example, let’s say someone made a political comment that was disruptive. You might say something like, “Our company values the freedom of speech, and while we don’t all agree on this topic, we appreciate everyone’s right to express themselves. And speaking of expressing ourselves, it’s now my privilege to introduce our CEO, who’s going to share his vision about where the company is headed this year.”
7. An important item is nowhere to be found
Sometimes a trophy, plaque, or special gift gets misplaced. In most cases, the best bet is to move on without the needed prop whenever possible.
For example, I was emceeing an event during which the big trophy was accidentally locked up in the boardroom and not accessible to us on stage. This was a mistake on my part by not eyeballing it before we got into the awards ceremony. Sometimes as MC, you simply can’t think of everything.
So, what I did in this situation is what you should probably do: move on.
I presented the award and told them that a very special trophy was coming their way and that we would be showing the audience a photo of this great time at the next session.
8. An audience member interrupts the program
This happens quite frequently. The best way to handle this is with a bit of positive humor.
There’s an old joke that sometimes fits this situation…
“Hey, thanks for sharing. When you go to the movies, do you talk to the screen?”
However, most of the time it’s best to simply ignore it because the audience wants to ignore it and move on with the rest of the event.
If you determine that the audience member has caused a terrible ruckus, it’s best to acknowledge it and build a bridge to what’s coming next.
9. An emergency occurs
I’ve been onstage when earthquakes have hit and power outages have occurred. A friend of mine was working as a host when one of the program’s attendees literally died in the audience.
Your best option in a situation like this is to do what’s best for the safety of all concerned. Sometimes it’s appropriate to say something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, please stay seated for a moment and I will tell you what to do next,” then get with the meeting producer, hotel manager et cetera, and determine the best course of action.
Keep in mind that an emergency in some people’s minds is not an actual emergency. One time recently, I had an attendee come up and slip me a note saying that we just had an earthquake. I didn’t feel it. And most of the audience members didn’t feel it. So, I didn’t announce anything about it because it was actually just a small trembling.
Always do what’s best for the time being, and always keep the audience’s well-being in mind.
10. You mess up
Well, it’s bound to happen. You’re a human being and even a great emcee will make mistakes.
Here are a few that I’ve made: I’ve mispronounced a speaker’s name, forgotten to make a key introduction, and presented awards out of order. I’ve also forgotten to queue up an important video. The list goes on and on.
When this happens (and it will happen), simply acknowledge your mistake and do your best to move on. Self-deprecating humor is helpful here. You might say something like, “Well, next time maybe they’ll hire a professional master of ceremonies,” Making a statement like this makes you look more professional…and more human.
Here’s an example of how I messed up and what I did to recover.
One time, I was introducing a very prominent leader of a nonprofit organization. Instead of calling him Tim, I called him Tom. I did not catch this until after he was on stage speaking. Believe me, I was sweating out his presentation, unsure about what I was going to say.
I decided to not make a big deal out of it, yet I wanted to acknowledge it. Here’s what I said:
“Tom, I may have forgotten your name, but I’ll never forget your story. Thanks so much for sharing.” This was a way of acknowledging my mistake while affirming him as a leader.
The unexpected is bound to happen as long as we are living on planet earth. But don’t worry– if you remember the three key rules of acceptance, audience orientation, and the power of the add-on, you’ll be just fine. Every ship hits stormy waters at some time or another. Your job as the master of ceremonies is to right the ship and keep it headed toward its proper destination. You’ll do great as long as you keep everyone on board!
Keep Reading: Virtual Meetings – How To Be A Great Emcee
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.