Control the Silence

June 30, 2019

On an episode of Fun Fact back in March, I shared “one weird trick” for how to be an MC. Listeners seemed to find it helpful, so I wanted to write it up in a more referenceable format:

The trick to MCing an event is to control the silence.

Over the years I have MCed my fair share of conferences, meetups, weddings, and other sundry events. Any article on how to MC an event will orient you to the core requirements pretty quickly:

  1. Tell people what to expect.
  2. Keep things moving.
  3. Make it fun.

So that’s the idea. But in order to tell your audience what to expect, you need to know what to expect. As such, a lot of MCing (or emceeing if you’re gonna be like that) involves running around collecting and confirming information about shifting plans.

How long is the break? How do you pronounce the next speaker’s name? Is there wifi? Why should we care about the rando you’ve dragged up to give a demo, toast the groom, or extol the countless virtues of immutable value types? The MC has to know what’s coming.

The next level up is about keeping things moving. Flow. How can you make this event flow smoothly, steering the audience’s attention to where it needs to be? What’s where the idea of controlling the silence becomes really useful.

May I direct your attention

You see, people are going to want to talk. Socializing is a lot of why people come to events, especially those blowhards way at the back. That’s why you need to make it clear to the crowd when it’s talk time, and when it’s pay-attention time.

If your event is well run, they will have some house music playing in the background before and between presentations. If not, you can often rig background music up yourself. House music is nice for getting folks to start talking to one another.

House music is even nicer, though, for getting people to stop talking. When it’s time to intro the next speaker or deliver a status update, just fade out the house music – or, ideally, have a sound tech do this on your signal. The sudden silence will draw everybody’s attention, and your intro blurb (or glib rhetorical question) will shut up the remaining verbal stragglers. You then say your bit, and hand that hard-won energy off to the next speaker by introducing them by name.

The reverse flow happens on the way out: you thank the speaker by name, tell people what to expect next, and then get the house music back on. By controlling the silence – by ensuring there’s only dead air immediately before something interesting is about to happen – you can control the room.

The smooth handoff

There are a couple sub-tricks to keeping folks’ attention as an MC. If it’s time for the next presenter and you jump into introducing them, you might realize post-intro that they’re not actually ready. “Oh, uh, I need to get my laptop set up.” Cue 2 minutes of awkward silence as your speaker fumbles around, inwardly panicking, while the audience slowly starts to talk amongst themselves again. Bad MC, bad! By the time things really are ready to go, the energy and attention have been lost to the wind.

Luckily, there are two simple ways to prevent a botched handoff:

  1. Check with your next-up speaker if they’re good to go before you get the audience’s attention.
  2. If you realize you’ve gotten the audience’s attention too early, and you can’t shuck and jive long enough to fill the gap, just give the attention back. Instead of letting things get awkward, explain that you’ll need a few more minutes and we’ll be going shortly – then get the music back on.

MCing an event isn’t rocket surgery. It does take a bit of practice, but the biggest requirement is simply caring about how things flow, and putting the work in to make them flow well.

Being the steward of an audience’s attention is a privilege. If you treat that attention as a precious resource, then they’ll be willing and ready to give it when you need it.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.