When You’re the Emcee

Hosting a literary reading? Here’s poet Richard Allen Taylor on the fine points of being the emcee.

Emcees worry about making the colossal gaffe. Just ask Steve Harvey, who famously announced the wrong winner in the Miss Universe pageant. A friend of mine, John B, made a less colossal mistake when he served as emcee for his organization. He started to say, “Let’s give Betty a warm round of applause,” but tried to switch over to “Let’s give her a hand.” The crossed wires of tongue and brain resulted in giving Betty “a warm round of hand,” which had the audience snickering and staring at their palms, trying to imagine how that bizarre suggestion might work out for Betty. As good emcees do, both Harvey and John B. recovered; they apologized and moved on.

So, you’ve been tapped as the Master of Ceremonies—the “emcee”—at your group’s open mic poetry reading. Maybe you’ve done it before, perhaps many times. Maybe it’s your first time. Whether serving as emcee is routine for you or new and intimidating, be assured, you will make mistakes, and your response should be, like Steve Harvey and John B., to apologize and move on. Usually, the audience will understand and sympathize.

Being an emcee boils down to two key objectives: (1) control the flow of the meeting; keep the program moving according to plan (or script), and (2) create a welcoming, enjoyable atmosphere. It’s really a matter of melding the “etiquette” of meeting leadership with common sense and the drive to get things done on time and in an orderly fashion.

One of the more important duties of the emcee is to introduce readers. Here’s an outline of the technique I prefer:

  1. From the mic (or the stage, podium or lectern), introduce the reader by name; use a brief bio if time permits. If the person is the “featured reader,” use a longer introduction. Avoid making any derogatory jokes or remarks about the person being introduced or any member of the audience.
  2. Lead the applause as the reader approaches the mic.
  3. Don’t leave the mic “empty.” Hold your position until the reader arrives. An empty stage may create unwelcome tension.
  4. Offer a brief greeting, and a handshake unless it would be awkward to do so.
  5. Adjust the mic position if needed for the reader’s height.
  6. Step aside and take a seat near the mic. This will allow you to quickly re-take control of the meeting when the reader is finished.
  7. Lead the applause as the reader returns to his or her seat.

Yes, you might be accustomed to a less “formal” approach.  I’ve seen open mic events where the emcee sat in the back of the room and announced each reader, or drew three names at a time, read them aloud, and counted on the readers to make their way to and from the mic without the fanfare of individual recognition or welcoming. These methods work, but to me seem less “personal” than the process described above. If you must use a shortcut method, you still can create that very important “welcoming atmosphere” by greeting participants as they arrive and by thanking them for sharing their poems at the end of the program.

Do well, and the audience will appreciate your efforts. You might even get a warm round of hand.

Richard Allen Taylor is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Armed and Luminous (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2016). Taylor’s poems, articles and reviews have appeared in Rattle, Comstock Review, The Pedestal, Iodine Poetry Journal, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Toastmaster Magazine and South Carolina Review, among others. Taylor currently serves as review editor for The Main Street Rag and formerly co-edited Kakalak. After retiring from his 44-year business career in 2013, Taylor earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2015.