I was asked again to emcee for Swingin’ At the Savoy this past weekend and was delighted as always to be the voice of an annual event that has come to mean so much to me. I’m always working on being a better announcer and a large weekend event is a special kind of energy. If an emcee is a lead, then an audience is the best follow, capable of great sensitivity, enthusiasm, and energy that a fellow dancer can harness and release back out to them. In light of Sam’s post on female emcees and women speakers, and some of the conversation I had with great dancers and teachers during the SATS weekend, I thought I would post some thoughts on how I have developed my own emcee skillz. Maybe it will help women out there re-envision themselves as the type of person who could hold a crowd. Or maybe you have some great thoughts of your own, who knows?
DEVELOP A PERSONA
Some people think that to become a good emcee, they have to become someone else. That cookie cutter idea is exactly how we end up wishing a female acted/presented/spoke just like a male announcer would. Because there are more of them, and we’re used to it.
I do create my own emcee persona, but only so far as I amplify natural characteristics that I think make me an entertaining and clear communicator. I naturally talk very fast, and audiences get lost with fast announcements, so I learned to vary my speed so that not-so-important-you-get-the-gist-info gets sped through while stuff…that….matters…gets spaced out. I have very little filter, and I speak on socially taboo topics easily, so I let myself do all sorts of strange and silly things on the mic that keep announcements fun and unpredictable. I know I’m not a figure of AUTHORITY the way that a better dancer or teacher might be, so I reach out to my audience in the same way I reach out to a group of friends: framing announcements with my own personal thoughts and feelings about why something is important or interesting or exciting. I make weird sound effects when I stumble, or am surprised, or get excited. I don’t filter those. My persona allows an audience to get a chance to feel a connection with ME, and I think that connection makes it possible for them to value what I say. Attendees are ultimately there to do something that you’re interrupting: to dance. And who would you rather interrupted your Netflix binge: a train conductor droning on with a list of upcoming stops, or a good friend who wants to tell you they’re going to a concert in an hour, and oh-my-god, they have an extra ticket for you?!?!?!
LEARN TO CODE
One of the dancers I was talking to over the weekend, Alyssa Glanville, is a Communications major and when I asked her why, she told me that she’s really interested in becoming a good communicator and the skills inherent to communication. There’s a lot of stuff out there on communication, guyz! I’m no major, but I do enjoy reading a lot of popular articles on the interwebs about how we both speak and interpret speech. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that I need to change how I speak all the time, but I do think it helps to drift in and out of speech codes at will. Not only are you able to reach more diverse listeners, but it has helped me to create a more interesting narrative flow. My personal goal is to be able to express both Morgan Freeman levels of gravitas and anime-worthy squeals of delight in the same sentence. For now, I still primarily use codes that I grew up with: nerdy RPG player/anime otaku, east bay suburban public school kid, and asian-american community leader.
RHYTHM AND FLOW
Once you’re comfortable talking to a crowd, it’s time to plug into the energy. This is the hardest thing to describe about my process. There is definitely a rhythm and flow to an audience’s energy, and you have to be sensitive and respectful to it. When you first get on the mic and people are talking to each other, you have to realize that it’s less about ignoring you and more about this wonderful free-floating excitement that they’ve just gotten from the last dance or by seeing a good friend from across the room. You need to give that energy space to breathe and diffuse the same way you let a swingout breathe before bringing it in. You can let them drift back by starting on some not-too-important stuff that is nevertheless somewhat attention getting, or you can lead them in on 1 by performing an attention grabber. Examples of attention grabbers:
Call-and-Response: “When I say ‘Frankie’, you say ‘Manning’!”
Group Rhythm: Stamp or clap a simple rhythm until everyone is doing it with you.
Extended, climactic vocalization: “Let’s get ready to RUUUUUUUUMBLLLLEEEE!!!”
If you’re grabbing attention in a more obvious way, you should be ready to follow it up with something uber-important or exciting. No one likes to be forcibly removed from a conversation just to hear something about where the bathrooms are located.
Once you have their attention, whichever way you go, I personally like setting up a good narrative. Where are the parts where I’m asking them to just listen to me? Which parts can I make participation-based*? When do I lower my volume or increase my volume or talk like I would one-on-one to a good friend, or put on my big girl pants and tell them Something As An Organizer And Enforcer? I like to mix (at most) one to two “announcements” (e.g. there’s an event coming up next week, tickets are now available online) per emcee break. And the emcee break should have an immediate purpose, such as switching from DJ to band or back again; or having a birthday jam; or bringing on a performer, etc. So (a) people are stopping for a reason RIGHT NOW, and by the way, (b) there’s stuff you should know about that impacts you down the line.
My Cardinal Rule: avoid grouping all your announcements all in one clump. It may seem like it saves time, but you actually get less efficient when people aren’t willing to hear what you say. And it’s not like we’re keeping notepads in our pockets, so even if we hear something we like, we can’t remember it by the end of your list!
PARTICIPATION AS ACTIVE LISTENING
*Participation-based announcements are my favorite. This comes from a personal preference of mine where I would rather interact than observe in nearly every situation. And I personally find it hard to move from a fun-dancey-activity thing directly into being a good sponge and sitting on my butt. I used to teach English through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) and two of my weekly classes involved teaching at preschools. When I first walked into that multi-purpose room and saw the floor SEETHING with a roiling mass of 4 to 5-year-olds, I was terrified. But calm, focused attention isn’t what you can expect from a group of pre-schoolers, and to an extent, it’s not what you should be expecting (or even really encouraging) with a room of social dancers. I use many of the techniques I learned on the preschool floor in my MC’ing:
Get them moving: I encourage stretching while I talk. Not only do I think stretching is incredibly important for long-term dance health, but we never seem to teach it otherwise! I will sometimes lead or demonstrate my favorite stretches that help my feet or hamstrings or arms–areas that are most impacted by social dancing.
Some kids won’t be listening…and that’s okay: as long as the majority of them know what to do, the ones that aren’t paying attention will likely get it as they go along. And if not, preschoolers will up and tell the person next to them that they aren’t doing it right. No shame. No shame at all.
Connect intangibles with tangibles: Are we talking about footwear? Let’s look at our shoes. Are we talking about how to ask for a dance? Let’s model it right now. Are we talking about a new dance class next month? Let’s demo it for everyone. Give people ways to grasp your subject beyond auditory consumption: be physical, be visual, ask people to be part of the solution and not just hear what the solution should be.
BONUS ROUND: CODES OF CONDUCT
No one wants to hear negativity on the microphone, especially after you’ve just finished a gorgeously fun, positive dance. So talking about all the horrible ways you can fuck up in the community can be a real downer. As much as possible, I try to emphasize the ways I want people to act (positive) rather than how I don’t want them to act (negative). Based on some study I read awhile back and now can’t find, when people vocalize or write personal statements in regards to behavior (“I won’t cheat”) rather than general statements (“Cheating is not allowed”), it actually drastically reduces the occurrence of the unwanted behavior. In other words, you can make things come true just by being vocal about it. (I’m super interested in how this works out for things like stereotype threat, especially in terms of gendered dance roles, but that’s another post for another time.) So I literally make dancers tell each other (summarized): “I respect you. I respect your body. I respect your choices. Thank you for dancing with me. I am grateful for your time and your joy and your presence.” And I remind them that the code of conduct exists to support that and them, and to help keep each other safe and happy by referring to it or reporting anything that may be dangerous or uncomfortable. Overall, I want dancers to come away from this feeling like they’ve made a friend and an ally on the dance floor in line with the Code of Conduct goals, and not that everyone is a possible source of anxiety or danger.
Like dancing, emceeing is a learned skill. I do think some personalities take to it easier than others, or derive more pleasure from it, but when I see extreme introverts become amazing instructors or shy, retiring people become leaders in our community, I know that almost everyone has the capability. If this is something you want to do, give it a try! Then try again! And take notes. And think about your connection. So basically, exactly what you did to become so awesome at this dance. #allthingsleadbacktolindy