How to host an event
“Everybody has a plan. Until they get punched in the face!” Mike Tyson.
So far this year, I’ve been mostly hosting events. Pretty big ones, as it happens. Whereas I’ve spent the last few decades marauding around the events industry as if I’m some kind of Rockstar (although, having said that in jest, check out this from an event at the Hippodrome last year!), I’ve now accidentally become the (ridiculous) face of the Crowdfunding and Alternative Finance worlds, predominantly due to my involvement with Crowdfinders.
Although I like to think I know (almost) everyone and (almost) everything within the wonderfully eclectic world of events, I can’t claim to have the same depth of knowledge and experience within the (heavily regulated) world of corporate finance. And this isn’t just finance – it’s ‘alternative finance’ which is like the Kurt Cobain of finance – exciting, volatile, unpredictable and rule-bending whilst watching the authorities in the rear view mirror, desperately trying to catch up and…erm…regulate them.
The reality is, though, that hosting an event is just hosting an event. You need to be upbeat, enthused, confident, talkative and, above all else, have a genuine empathy with your audience. If you have that, you honestly don’t need much else. Not even a pre-prepared speech. In fact, that just might be the last thing you need!
The late, great, Sir Terry Wogan once gave some sage advice to Chris Evans after a long day of drinking, lunch, golf and dinner (in that order!). It was during this dinner at about 10pm when Chris told Sir Terry that he needed to get home to bed as he was “up at 4.30am to prepare” for his Breakfast show on Radio One. Sir Terry, who had the corresponding show on Radio Two was incredulous. “What on earth are you getting up so early for?” he enquired, to which Chris, equally bemused replied “To prepare for my breakfast show!”. Without missing a beat and in complete seriousness, Sir Terry responded “Chris, they either like you. Or they don’t.”
The same principles can be applied to hosting events. The audience (and the speakers) either like you or they don’t. You have to stick your neck out and become just as much a part of the event as every delegate and keynote speaker is. Listen intently to everything that’s going on around you and integrate that into what you say before, during and throughout the post-talk Q & A sessions and you won’t go far wrong. Oh, and always be prepared to pose the first question, to get the ball rolling. Be interested and enjoy it because that will shine through and enhance the experience for everyone. That’s the best advice I can give.
In the past month I’ve hosted a major two day Business start-up event called The Nest, by Toucan in the Rosewood Hotel incorporating some of the finest and most high profile speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure of introducing and facilitating (including some of the UK’s top investors, the Chairman of ASOS, senior figures from Amazon, the Gates Foundation and the guy who funded high profile brands such as lastminute.com, notonthehighstreet.com, Moshi Monsters and firebox.com amongst many others), the Business Funding Show (with the founders of Innocent Drinks, Just Eat, Cobra Beer and even the most recent winner of the Apprentice and Sir Alan Sugar’s latest business partner) and, more familiarly, hosted an event related talk at the fabulous Summer Event Show in the palatial Merchant Taylor’s Hall.
For all of them, I adopted the same policy which is indicative of my ‘natural’ style. I am prepared (to a point) so that I can make it seem like I’m not as prepared as I actually am (because that’s more spontaneous and engaging – people want things to be teetering on the edge of unpredictability in the same way that people are secretly waiting for a skier to crash in the downhill because it’s more exciting!), I am relaxed, making it as much like a one to one conversation as possible and I always underestimate the intensity and the amount of ‘thinking on my feet’ that’ll be required! That’s an important intentional oversight (which I make every time) because it means you’re on your toes throughout. Things always go wrong during events. Speakers are late, speakers are ill, delegates don’t show up, talks overrun, lapel microphones break (and the sound man tells you to “keep talking” whilst he re-configures the next speaker’s mic) so the more ‘less-prepared’ you are, the better in many ways. At the Toucan event I did an impromptu talk on SEIS and EIS fundraising – which is possibly ridiculous but, having had some recent experience, it was fresh, relevant and lapped up by the audience. As with stand up comedy, it’s 50% planned, 50% improvisation and you need to enjoy that great big unknown. When you host an event, you need to be honest, natural and, as far as possible, funny. In a completely uncontrived way…If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, watch any speech by Boris Johnson. He’s the living embodiment of contrived buffoonery and he’s eternally endearing as a direct result of it. Probably the most popular unpopular Etonian of all time!
Possibly the most exciting event of the year for me is the Cool Venue Awards because it enables me to encapsulate absolutely everything I’ve just talked about. It’s big, brash, fun, unruly, unpredictable, unrestrained, and largely improvised. I also know almost everyone in the audience which helps. Not because I’m more confident or more comfortable when I know most of the 500 people out there, I’m not, because I have a supreme over-riding confidence that’s literally unshakable in any circumstance – and you can’t teach that – you just have to be a bit of a dick, I think! It’s because when you know most of the audience, you can involve them more and therefore engage them more. Everyone loves attention, acceptance and recognition.
I’m often asked where this unabashed confidence has stemmed from and, on reflection, I think it’s three things. Firstly, I went to a brutal boarding school from the age of eight. I loved it and it made me bulletproof (in a posh way, I guess - I’m not claiming I lived through the hardships of a Syrian refugee!). Secondly, I have an unquenchable desire to make a name for myself and be the centre of attention (horrible to admit but 1000% the case). And finally, perhaps it’s because I was the lead singer in a somewhat androgynous band, looked like a woman and was frequently pelted with food, beer and abuse (one of the highlights being “hey lads, look at the singer, it’s Cindy F**king Crawford!”?). Immunity is a powerful thing…
The London PA Awards is a classic example. I’ve sailed pretty close to the wind on this one (just ask David Clubb, the esteemed CEO of Tate Recruitment who has been graceful and dignified in the face of constant goading and unfounded piss-taking from me whilst co-hosting the biggest event in the PA calendar. Or the revered PA from Citi Group whereby I delivered a very ill-advised joke about her being “a bird-lover” because she’d undoubtedly “had a cockatoo in her time”!) yet I somehow got away with it. I think. It’s all about judgement, assessing the audience and pushing things as far as you can without causing a disaster. It’s that unpredictability thing again. And people love it. Most of the time. Without great risk, you can’t ever hope to reap great reward and that’s my motto in every aspect of life. It’s not for everyone but I do believe it is for anyone who’s a megalomaniac and wants to rule the world (in a good way!). You know who you are!
In summary, if you’re hosting an event (and all event hosting is essentially the same), do this:
- Know your audience and the company you’re representing.
- Prepare a bit (but not too much).
- Think of a few jokes but don’t put yourself under pressure to use them.
- Make a few notes on speech-cards but don’t really use them – you know yourself inside out so be yourself and you won’t need notes.
- Be confident or, if you’re not, act confident anyway – fake it ‘til you make it.
- Listen intently to all the talks.
- Make notes while people are talking and make sure you pen a few potential questions in case you need to get that Q & A ball rolling.
- Be a significant part of the event – not just an ‘introducer’ and ‘facilitator’.
- Be natural and as fearless as possible. You are you so watcha gonna do?!
- Use your position to command authority and respect – I can’t tell you how many famous entrepreneurs I’m now in personal contact with because I had the opportunity to host their talks and support them!
- Be graceful, respectful and judge the situation.
- Never think you’re more important than anyone else in the room, but never think you’re in any way less important either!
- Just do it – are you a man or a mouse (or a woman, of course!)