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Audience Management 101 for Emcees


Any stage act or performance will involve an audience. That’s the whole point of the act. Performers know this, and a lot of them react to the audience when they are on stage.

For example, in a dance routine, the dancers cannot move out of their formation to interact with the audience. However, the choreographer usually plans the dance to have certain ‘wow’ points that are most likely to get a reaction from the audience, or at least keep the audience engaged.

Still, wondering how the audience reacts on stage makes a lot of performers nervous. They cannot break the fourth wall to interact with the audience directly. And truth be told, the audience can react in totally unexpected ways – this includes total silence.

That’s where you, the emcee, come in. As the person with the ability to interact with the audience directly, it is your job to manage the audience for the entire event.

You control the audience, not the other way around

The emcee is a leader. You tell the audience what to feel, what to expect and what to do. That is what we call “the power of the mic”.

Audience management is what separates an emcee from a public speaker. It also defines a good emcee.

I’ll give you the essentials for audience management. Let’s start with the most used term in audience management.

Audience energy levels

The first thing to know about audience management is the informal term emcees like to use, called the audience’s “energy level”. The energy level is used to describe the overall feeling of the audience, or the vibe they are giving off.

We usually describe the energy level as “high”, or “low”. The former means that the audience is warmed up and enthusiastic about the event, while the latter means the audience is not participating or just plain uninterested.

Ideally, you’d want an atmosphere with high energy levels, or at least, have an audience that is engaging. It is important to ensure that the energy level isn’t too low or too high.

Now let’s look at a list of pre-event checks for audience management.

Know your audience before the event starts

Before you emcee an event, you will know what it is about, be it a company Dinner and Dance, or a music festival. These two events have completely different audiences, so you will have to adapt to that.

These are some questions you need to ask yourself:

  • What is the event about?
  • Is it a formal or an informal event?
  • Will you have a stage to speak to the audience, or will you be on the ground, at eye level with them?
  • Who will be attending?
  • What is the turnout like? Roughly, what is the size of the crowd?
  • Why are these people attending this event?

Answering these will let you have a good gauge of the audience. That last question, “Why are these people attending?”, is probably most important. It will help figure out the motivation of the crowd.

Let’s use the earlier example of a company Dinner and Dance (DnD). The audience there will be the same throughout the evening. They may be participating or clapping politely, or, they may not be interested in what’s happening on stage. At many company DnDs, the audience comprises employees who are forced to be there. These people could have better things to do on a Friday evening, but are stuck here at the DnD just to please the boss. If the only thing these people can look forward to is the free food at the DnD, you can bet you will have a hard time getting their attention away from their dinner plates.

Let’s look at the atmosphere of a music festival. Let’s say it’s by the street, on a stage near an arts centre. The audience are most likely going to be the general public who are interested in the arts. People can come and go as they please. Although they do not remain there the whole time, people attend because they are interested in these performances. If they are enjoying themselves and are enthusiastic, then you will have an easy job maintaining their energy levels. However, because the audience can come and go as they please, the crowd gets “recycled”. They might not have been around in the earlier part of the event, so you’ll probably have to keep repeating yourself about things like schedule of the event.

Knowing your audience beforehand lets you know what to expect. You can be prepared to do what is necessary to manage them.

Plan the event around the audience

This is an overlooked aspect of being an emcee.

Once you know who is your audience and why they are attending, you should go through the event flow with the event organiser. This is a critical step anyways for many reasons, but in the case of audience management, the key thing is to guess what the audience is thinking or feeling at any point during the event.

Based on the event flow, you will be able to predict the audience’s energy level throughout the event and after certain performances. As with the previous point above, you can prepare yourself to manage the audience throughout the event because you know what to expect.

You also need to look for potential hiccups in the event flow.

For example, if the event involves a lot of sitting and listening to speeches, asking the audience to participate enthusiastically in a game after a speech is going to disrupt the audience’s energy level.

Another example are lucky draws. In Singapore, where I come from, lucky draws are usually the last item on the event schedule. Such event flows are so commonplace that people usually know that lucky draws close events. In open evens, like road shows, attendees will leave after the lucky draw. If an organiser plans to have one or two more items after the lucky draw, it won’t pan out well because the audience would have already started to leave.

Based on the event flow, it will be easy to guess when hiccups in audience management will occur, so don’t be afraid to ask the event organiser to reorder the items. You’ll be doing both yourself and the event organiser a favour. You don’t want to be left to handle a hiccup that you could have prevented.

Warming up the audience

When the audience has just arrived, they are not likely to be enthusiastic about the event. This can happen in events people pay to attend, too.

Fortunately, there are many ways to liven up an audience. You can play games with them, get them to move about, or simply play the right music to set the mood.

The number one tip for warming up an audience is to get them to use their bodies. Find ways or make up games for the audience to move about. Even asking them to “practise clapping” counts. Just keep in mind, the more movement, the better.

One game I like to play is the “Big Wave”. It’s basically where everyone stands up and sits down in sync to make wave-like patterns. This game is good because it’s simple and practically everyone knows how to play it. It also involves movement, participation and co-operation from the audience. More importantly, I can also use it to judge how “warmed up” the audience is. I can tell if they are receptive in their participation, or if they are not. If they are warmed up, it’s good, and if they detest it, then I will have to act accordingly. I could play more games or find something else that the audience will react to.

In formal events, where everyone is expected to pay attention, games and activities involving movement may be discouraged. However, there are other activities you can do. At formal events, I like to ask my audience to introduce themselves to the people sitting next to them. This is good too, because the people are warming up to one another, and not just to you or the event. This is about as high an energy level you need to reach for formal events.

It is incredibly difficult to get unreceptive people excited in the opening stages of the event. A bit of warming up is good enough. As the event progresses, you can continuously and gradually work up their excitement and energy level till the climax of the event.

It is rare that you will get a consistently “cold” audience, though so far, I haven’t found anyone can really deal with such an audience. Such a crowd, though silent, will allow you to continue the event till the end.

Calming an overly excited crowd

Though not as common, this is when the audience’s energy level is too high. However, many emcees consider this a good problem to have. The audience is probably going to follow along with everything you ask them to do, except keep quiet.

I have come across crowds who were too excited about the event. Their cheering and screaming were louder than the speakers. They were making noise lfor a long time, and the show couldn’t go on till they stopped.

What I find effective is making it awkward for them to continue. What I would do is stand with my finger on my lip, or plugged into my ears, then stare at them in that pose till they stopped. Something else of that nature might work for you too.

This is one of the few times where you shouldn’t use the mic to control the crowd. Their voices can overwhelm yours. Instead, let your silence and body language do the trick.

Cure for the silent audience

Sometimes, after a performance or a speech, the audience just remains silent. It can get a little awkward, but there is a simple remedy. Tell the audience to clap, or do whatever action that you feel is appropriate. Clapping is on of those things people do as social animals. If you notice, it’s usually initiated by one or a few people before it spreads to everyone else. It can spread very rapidly or very slowly, but the key is that someone needs to initiate it. In terms of an event, that person can be you, the emcee.

I find that saying, “a round of applause please”, or something similar does the trick.

If people still don’t clap after saying that, you can make a joke out of it. You can say, “Hey, what happened to your hands? Why aren’t they working today?” People will be amused enough to start clapping.

You may face similar situations in which the audience doesn’t laugh or follow an instruction. For example, the crowd might not move when they are asked to. You can deal with it in a similar fashion – just remember the principle here by first asking them to do something, and making it awkward for them if they don’t do it.

Booing, heckling and jeering

An audience that jeers is rare, but not unheard of. When it happens to you, it can take a toll on your confidence level. You’ll wonder why this is happening, or be stunned and unable to think of what to do next.

The first thing to remember is that you are still in control of the event. You always are. To think otherwise is to lose control.

If you think the jeering is uncalled for, do not be afraid to give the audience a piece of your mind. For example, if during a performance, a performer accidentally falls down and the entire act gets boo-ed off the stage, don’t be afraid to tell the audience off. Ask them to be reasonable, appeal to their better nature. You can say, “The performers put a lot of effort into their act, and what happened just now was an accident. It could have happened to anyone, so give them a chance, yeah?” You can then ask the performers to start their act again.

A jeering audience is a real challenge. If you ever faced one and survived, hats off to you. You’ll be able to take on any crowd after that.

Always pay attention to the audience

The emcee will only be on stage between performances, and is backstage the rest of the time. Use this time to rest, but not slack off. Throughout the event, you must always be watching the audience and gauging their energy level.

If you haven’t figured out by now, the audience can do surprising things. Speeches usually decrease the audience’s energy level, but I have seen times when a speech increases the energy level. An exciting performance can decrease the energy level too. You don’t want any surprises when you return to the stage, so don’t slack off.

If the event is already at its halfway mark, you’ll also need to watch the energy level nonetheless. Most events will and should have low energy levels at the beginning, and high energy levels near the close of the event. If you try to give energy levels a boost too early in the event, you might see a dip in the energy levels midway. This could mean the audience is getting a little tired or that the event is too long. This might mean the audience needs a break before you get them excited about the next performance.

Always paying attention to the audience will mean you will be prepared for anything that happens off or on stage.

Conclusion

You can have the most beautiful voice, or know how to entertain an audience with jokes. However, without good audience management as an emcee, you are nothing on stage.

Managing an audience is tough, but essential to any emcee. I have given you the basics, but the only real way to improve is to practice. Professional emcees instinctively know how to read and manage a crowd because they have done it so many times before. They can even predict how the audience react to what is happening on stage or what they plan to say.

So get out there and practice it!

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