Photo by Ali J Eisner

We talk a lot on this site about music, but less often about some of the important aspects of presenting music. One that’s close to my own heart is hosting shows.

Hosting, in my experience, takes as much preparation and skill as any other form of public performance. The host is responsible for maintaining the energy of the house, and weaving the thread that links all performers, sponsors, presenters and audience together.

Like all the acts that may take to the stage, the host has to be “on”; unlike them, the host has to be “on” throughout the entire performance, and ready to jump in at a moment’s notice to cover gaps or smooth things over.

It’s a tough job, and one I keep learning about. My role models are folks like Shelagh Rogers, Holmes Hooke, Magoo and others on the scene who excel at it. (Most of the mistakes, I’ve made myself.)

Here are ten tips for hosts I’ve picked up along the way.

1. Be yourself.
Who else would you be? Well, you might try to be a big-voiced radio jock, an undiscovered comic, the self-aggrandizing star of the show, an ironic commentator on something you’re way too cool for… Forget it.

Trying to be ANYONE or ANYTHING but likeable little your-name-here will leave you high and dry. Just be you.

2. Be a fan.
The best thing you can do for the show you’re hosting is to let the audience know why it matters. Find what you admire about a given act’s work, and speak to that. (If you can’t find something you like, you may be in the wrong place, and you need to consider that before you take the gig.) If you’re stuck, mention an artist’s schedule, albums or awards.Know what matters, believe it matters, and tell the audience about it.

The audience cares; it’s why they’re there. You, too.

3. Be prepared.
Confession: I rarely take notes with me onto the stage, unless I’m reading off a list of sponsors or something similar. I prefer to be spontaneous. Ironically, to do that you have to be prepared.

That doesn’t mean memorizing a bio; for me, it means simply having in mind three things worth saying about the act I’m introducing, and improvising from there. You can learn those three things while the previous act is on stage, if necessary. But to be in the moment, on stage, requires experience, forethought, and the right attitude.

The more you do to prepare yourself, the more you can simply be yourself. You can’t learn that at the last minute.

4. Be a professional all the way.
A pro doesn’t act like a snob, on stage or off. A pro doesn’t make off-colour jokes. A pro doesn’t make fun of acts or sponsors or presenters. A pro shakes hands, talks to the presenter, the sound crew and the stage crew, asks what’s required, respects the time limits given, and whenever possible, says something meaningful that will enhance the audience’s appreciation of the show.

A pro always puts the show first: dress for success, ask for what you need, communicate well, do a thorough job, smile, and treat everyone well. It pays off, bigtime.

Photo by Robin LeBlanc

5. Get to know the acts you’re introducing.
Because of my work in the scene, I often know the acts I’m introducing, at least by reputation, if not on a personal level. But if I don’t, I make a point of getting to know them, first by doing my research, and second, by reaching out in person.

At Mariposa I even had a mutual friend introduce me to Emmylou Harris backstage so I could tell her I’d be bringing her on, and ask her if there was anything I should or shouldn’t say. That kind of heads-up puts lets artists know what to expect from you. It also reminds everyone that you’re a part of the performance, and that what you do matters to the flow.

6. Less is more.
Wordiness, and excessive praise can both throw an act off their game. You may think you’re flattering, but take my word for it: if you call someone a legend and they don’t see themselves that way it will freak them out and affect their performance. Plus, the audience doesn’t want to be oversold! And don’t forget: if you blab on too much, you’re cutting into the time allotted to the act. Not cool.

Until you’re sure of what you’re doing and can get philosophical or conversational on stage, three bullet points is all the intro just about anybody needs.

7. Know your go-to material
That said, sometimes you have to fill dead air. This is TOUGH, even for people with the gift of the gab. Deep space is nothing compared to the vacuum of being at a loss for words on stage, where every second feels like a millennium. This is when you turn to your go-to material (including some tried and true stories or songs of your own) and be sure you can trust it out there.

By default, you can always thank presenters, sponsors, artists, crew, volunteers and audience; remind people of the placement of the washrooms and the exits; encourage patronage of the merch tent or table, and that sort of thing. You can highlight items from the program, or remind people how important this event is in the local cultural landscape. (It’s still not the time to try out lame jokes or to engage in banter with someone in the front row no one else can hear.) But don’t be afraid to talk when you have to.

If all else fails, sometimes it’s okay to say “this is going to take a few minutes to set up. Get to know your neighbours and we’ll be back shortly.”

8. Take your role seriously.
Hosting, like other jobs in our business, is frequently under-appreciated and under-compensated, but you shouldn’t see your role that way. Make it your goal to show how much the host can enhance the show, and you’ll be amazed what you get back.

At the same time, you need to ask for what you need to do a good job. That means being compensated appropriately, in cash or in whatever form makes most sense, and it means ensuring you have the tools to do the job. That may be a dedicated mic, a stack of printed bios, a place to sit backstage, a warm meal or a warm welcome at the after party. Whatever it is, don’t be shy to ask for it and negotiate what you need.

In return, you must treat your job as an important one and do it to the very best of your ability. Your own pride, at least, demands it, and the audience and the artists require it!

9. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Your role is important to the show, but it’s not about you. To put it bluntly, all you have to do is say a few words and get off the stage. You’ll be mercifully forgotten if you did it badly, and you’ll be kindly remembered if you did it well. Humility will help in either case.

While being the MC is special, and important, face it: you’re probably not who the audience paid to see. Relax. It’s just a show!

10. The audience is your best friend.
Your natural inclination may be to fear the audience. If so, you need to get over it, or get out of hosting, pronto. The truth is, the audience is your best friend. At your say-so they will clap, cheer, stretch, shake hands, shout encouragement, laugh or groan at your jokes, and acknowledge the work of everyone who participated. Plus, they have a vested interest in the show going well. They paid to get in! They don’t want to have a bad time.

And think about it: you, more than any other person on stage, represent the audience. You are one of them! They don’t want you to fail. They are more terrified of public speaking than you are, believe me. They admire what you’re doing even if you think you’re botching it. As long as you stay classy, the audience is on your side, and they will come through with the thing you need most: heartfelt appreciation for a great show.

Which, after all, is why you’re there…

David Newland’s summer hosting (and strumming & singing) schedule includes Elphin Roots Festival, Mariposa Folk Festival, Blue Skies Music Festival, Lunenburg Folk Harbour, Summerfolk, Eaglewood Folk Festival, Shelter Valley Folk Festival, and The Woodshed Sessions.

Photos courtesy Ali J. Eisner and Robin LeBlanc.

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5 comments

  1. avatar
    Shelagh 20 July, 2011 at 16:56

    David,

    While honoured to be considered one of your mentors, YOU teach us.
    I’ll be referring to this post when I lose courage–and I do, sometimes. As you know. Thank you for your incredible generosity. And for some of the best intros I’ve ever heard. Just ask Emmylou.

    Shelagh

  2. avatar
    David S. 20 July, 2011 at 16:58

    You do a great job, David. Good advice!

    “At Mariposa I even had a mutual friend introduce me to Emmylou Harris backstage so I could tell her I’d be bringing her on, and ask her if there was anything I should or shouldn’t say.”

    What was her reply?

  3. avatar
    David Newland 20 July, 2011 at 17:11

    Shelagh: you’re too kind. You host at a level of commitment and a depth of appreciation for the moment that’s beyond this practical little list.

    David: Emmylou was very gracious. She didn’t ask for anything special. We talked a bit about the Canadian Music Week songwriter’s circle. She very humbly said how honoured she was to be there among such great writers. I thanked her for being the one to take the workshop element seriously.

  4. avatar
    Dean Verger 20 July, 2011 at 19:18

    Nicely laid out David. One thing to add, and that is the experience side. The words eventually need to be translated into deeds. And performers are creative on so many levels, including instructions, and guidelines. So, after reading your 10 suggestions, I would add that folks should watch hosts at work, and think about what they liked, and did not like, about the introduction, or the setup, or segue.

    If you liked what you saw, could you add it to your technique (while remembering the edict about being yourself)? Be prepared to learn from others, and to experiment.
    Dean Verger

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