Compering – Who’s the Daddy!

I was helping a past trainee with preparing a presentation to be delivered to a conference he is hosting early in the New Year. During our deliberations I remarked on how the conference timetable showed that his Marketing Director would be the conference MC, and I offered guidance on what that would involve.

I was asked only a few weeks ago by a firm of Conference Organisers whether I preferred that term or the word ‘Compere’, and I replied that they were different functions. Their functions are quite well described by their titles.

An MC (Master of Ceremonies) is a cross between a toastmaster and a town-crier – a very visible figure. It is someone whose job it is to bring proceedings to order at appropriate moments. My client (above) has very properly appointed a high-profile personality from the company to manage this function. The nature of the job means (though it goes against the grain to admit it) that what they say could be pre-scripted. It’s relatively easy.

A compere – as anyone with a smattering of French will see in the word – should act as a sort of father. Daddy will look after everything. He (or she – I tend not to waste time smoothing over gender specifics, but with a word like ‘Daddy’ in the frame let’s be clear that women make very good comperes) should be a relatively unobtrusive figure that simply makes everything go smoothly, relaxes the audience, relaxes the speakers and is always ready to grab the wheel and steady the ship should anything go wrong – an omnipresent safe pair of hands. The nature of this job forbids scripting.

I recommend to anyone who aspires to develop himself as a speaker that he should seize every opportunity to act as compere. The skills that are needed, and therefore honed, are plentiful and invaluable.

You are the ‘Humpmaster’. When the event begins everyone in the place is nursing his own hump. All the speakers/performers are edgy; the audience has yet to settle; it is your job to bust all those humps at once. What’s that you say? You have a hump too? Tough! You just have to ignore it, and pretend to the whole world it isn’t there. You’ll be amazed at how this improves your nerve-hiding.

You are the ‘Bridge-builder’. Have you heard or read me going on about the importance of breaking down invisible screens and building a bridge between the platform and the audience? Now you have to build a communal bridge for the whole event. Get good at that, and you’ll never again have problems on your own account.

You are everyone’s support, backstop and trouble-shooter. If you are doing your job properly you never relax: you are constantly looking ahead for possible problems and working out contingency measures. Do I have to lay out how valuable that habit is?

You are the timetable elastic. In between events you have effortlessly to motor-mouth for longer or shorter periods to cater for whatever changeover measures have to take place. The key here is to be armed with stacks of snippets of nice-to-know, inconsequential information that you can wheel out or not as required. Yes: homework!

As far as the audience is concerned you don’t matter. You are never the picture, barely the frame. All that matters is the event as a whole and the next item in it. This is actually quite liberating: you can witter away in a casual fashion, knowing that no one really cares. And that is exactly the right attitude for you to adopt. Surely you’ve spotted the developmental advantage. You are never thinking of yourself: your focus is constantly looking the other way. If you don’t know what I’m going on about here, read my book.

And all without a script. Shooting from the hip.

The better you do it, the easier it looks to everyone else. The greatest compliment they can pay you is to forget to thank you. That means the event proceeded as if on silken rails. I seriously consider the absence of a thank-you as a badge of honour, to such an extent that I itch at the end simply to slide way unnoticed.

This isn’t some phoney Lone Ranger pose – “Who was that masked man?” It’s the Jeeves effect, shimmering in and out.

As you might imagine, all this applies as much to compering a local talent show as a huge international corporate shindig; so get out there and get compering. Do it often, do it well, and progressively great swathes of previous difficulties you experienced on the speaking platform will vanish away.

And, since you ask, yes!  I’m compering Carol concerts, both in stately homes, tomorrow and Tuesday. Why do you think it was prominently in mind to make me think of writing about it?

[added 19/12/12]    P.S. Both those carol concerts have been and gone. I am proud to say that at neither was I publicly thanked.  RESULT!

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