How to be a great host (at Ignite)

Seattle Ignite, an evening of fast presentations similiar to Pecha Kucha, runs like clockwork. As the original and longest running Ignite event, the dedicated team of volunteers has done nearly 20 events with thousands of attendees, and many events were simultaneously live-streamed to the world.

One link in the chain is the host. They have to get up on stage and tie all the pieces together for the audience. I had the chance to host Ignite 17 and here’s what I learned from my experience, as well as from watching Brady Forest countless times. It’s what I’d recommend to future hosts.

Before the event

  1. Go watch someone else host. There are many little things the host needs to do that most don’t notice. Go watch your local ignite and pay attention to everything the host does.
  2. Point speakers at good advice for how to prepare. There are good posts with many tips. Seattle Ignite now even does live coaching with speakers a week before the event. The speakers are the talent – you’re a fool if you don’t do everything you can to help them prepare well and to be comfortable and relaxed when they arrive at the event.
  3. Confirm the speaker order with the Slide Wrangler (the person who will control the slides during the presentations). The slides win any debates – you don’t want a speaker up there when someone elses’s slides are showing. Make sure you know what the slides think the order is (Ideally there is one single mega deck preloaded with the correct order so no switching decks is required).
  4. Know the seating plan. Speakers need to be lined up, in order, near the stage. Make sure whoever controls the layout of the room is reserving enough chairs for all the speakers.

At the event

  1. Get there early and say hi to all the volunteers. This is both polite, but gives you a heads up on any issues. As the host, you will be the person who has to explain, or respond to, anything that goes wrong in front of the crowd. You want to know what’s coming.
  2. Speakers are depending on you. Most of them will be nervous. They need someone to tell them where to be and what to do. That is your job as host. You are not just host for the audience, you are also the host for the performers. Make sure they have what they need. A nice touch is to have a box of bottled water in the speaker waiting area – it’s a common pre-speaking request.
  3. 30 minutes before start, assemble all the speakers. Use the PA to ask all speakers to come to the stage. Introduce yourself and have a short meeting that covers: a) the order they’ll be speaking b) where they are supposed to sit c) a walk of the stage they’ll be speaking on d) how awesome they are and how supportive the audience will be (lie if necessary).
  4. Make sure you ask speakers how to pronounce their names. Have a pad of paper listing the speaker order, and when you ask them how to pronounce, write it down. You won’t remember otherwise. Plan to take that paper with you up on stage.
  5. Make sure to give them a tour of the stage. By letting them walk on the stage you calm their nerves. Their bodies get to see what it will actually be like when they speak. if you don’t do this, they have to deal with the sensory surprise of what the lights, audience, etc. feel like. You don’t want to surprise your speakers.
  6. If there are special instructions for where to stand, tell them. If the event is videotaped, wise videographers put a X, or other marker on the stage to let speakers know where to be. Speakers won’t know what it’s for if you don’t tell them.
  7. If there is a confidence monitor for them to use, tell them what it is. It helps speakers if they can see their own slides as they are talking. Most speakers will never have seen a confidence monitor before, so you’ll need to explain that it will indicate the current slide the audience sees, but will be too small to read.

During the Ignite

  1. Have intro slides that explain the format. Many people will never have been to an Ignite before. Have an opening talk (preferably done as an ignite talk) that covers the basics. Here’s the slide deck I used at Seattle Ignite.
  2. Your job is game show host. The host is there to add positive consistency to the event. You don’t need to do much, other than be happy, energetic, and enthusiastic for the speakers.
  3. Make the transitions as smooth as possible. The reason for having speakers sit in order, near the stage, is to accelerate the transitions. Getting speakers on and off stage is dead time. You don’t want dead time. 30 – 45 seconds is enough to get the last speaker off, do a clean intro of the next speaker, and to get them on stage.
  4. Be prepared to introduce people’s names and topics. On your host sheet that you bring on stage, list their name, pronunciation guide, and their topic. You should be able to say something brief and positive about each speaker. Have some variety of intros prepared as they can get repetitive: “I’m so excited”, “This should be a great talk on”, “this might be my favorite”, etc.
  5. Milk the audience for applause. It’s fair for each speaker to get some applause as they take the stage and when they leave. Some audiences are lazy – it’s up to you to remind them.
  6. If there is a break, let people know how long. It’s wise to break the event into two parts, with half the speakers in each part. If you do break, remind people how much time they have, where the restrooms or snacks are, etc. If you break, you should repeat the call for speakers 15 minutes before the 2nd half, to make sure they are all there and seated in the right place.

After the Ignite

  1.  Thank your speakers. Ignite events often create community and you can help this by emailing your speakers to thank them for participating. Remind them if any videos or slides will be posted online so they can help spread the word. Create a ignite-speakers mailing list, so alumni can stay in touch. This can be helpful in finding future speakers or doing other events.
  2. Have a debrief dinner with the other volunteers. Get together a few days later to review what went well and what could have gone better. Use this info in planning your next ignite.
  3. Come back here and add your own tips. What other tricks do you learn that other hosts should know? Come back here and leave a comment.
  (Photo by Shawn Murphy)

2 Responses to “How to be a great host (at Ignite)”

  1. Aaron Hockley

    I’ve found it interesting that Portland goes host-less. There’s a host to quickly kick things off but then the slideshows run uninterrupted, with a 15 second transition slide between each show.

    Reply
    • Scott

      Sadly I’ve never made it to Portland Ignite, but I’ve heard great things.

      I’m sure there are many different ways hosting is done – I hope this post will help people share what they’ve tried and why.

      Reply

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