Hosting an event of any size is serious business. Your role matters. Whether a gathering of your own, a client or a trusted friend, there are ways to screw it up and there are ways to make it soar. How you show up on the day sets the tone for the proceedings. It affects the impression guests have of the event. It dictates their actions thereafter. No pressure.
Oli Barrett MBE knows a thing or two about hosting. As a connector, chair, compere and MC, Barrett is regularly hired to host events from small intimate gatherings to arena-sized awards dos. After his first job at Walt Disney World, Barrett became a Butlins Redcoat, before quickly being promoted to MC. Now he hosts all sorts of live events, podcasts and virtual gatherings and has created courses to help others follow his methods. Barrett’s favourite quote? “Life is a search for people,” by Theodore Zeldin.
I asked Barrett his five steps to being a great host, no matter the event.
1. Understand the event’s purpose
Context is key and events have agendas. The agenda has a reason, so find it out. Barrett advised this question is asked of yourself and the event organisers, “Apart from saying the event was excellent, what do we want the guests to feel, say and do when the event is over?” This helps get, “into the why of the gathering.” Why it really matters. What it’s really about.
Without a why, the proceedings will lack direction. It will be trickier to find the common thread and harder to conclude with a bow. “Find out the purpose from the perspective of the organiser and the audience,” said Barrett. “Because they might be different.” Either way, knowing the why means you will know it has been achieved, when your actions throughout the event will have made it so.
2. Make guests feel comfortable
The more comfortable the guests, the better the experience. The more relaxed they are, the louder they laugh at jokes, the more they contribute authentically and the less they overthink or hide behind a false persona. Barrett knows that, as a host, you may not have absolute power, but “you will almost always have the ability and the potential to influence.” Take this influence seriously. “Where needed, shift the mood of the room,” he said. You can reframe a point, redirect the conversation or simply add a few lines that get everyone back on the same page.
To do this, said Barrett, “listen, listen, listen.” Not only will this mean you know where to interject and what to say to productively move the event along, but it can trigger, “the best insights of the day, arising from a spontaneous follow up question rather than something you’ve prepared in advance.” Put in maximum effort to appear effortless.
3. Do your research
If it’s your event, study the guest list. Take guests one by one and make a note of who they are and what’s important to them. If it’s not your event, “ask for the list (without email addresses) so you know who is in the room.” Barrett says this step is crucial. “Deep and thorough background reading helps you to build great conversations and rapport on the day.”
Don’t just stop there. Deep dive into the guests to build your bank of knowledge to ask them relevant questions and play to their strengths. “Check out their Twitter, LinkedIn and especially YouTube. Use Google searches to find fresh stories and insights.” Understand who they are and what they’re about, so you can give them a chance to shine.
4. Treat everyone as a VVIP
If they are at the event, they matter. Barrett advised you, “treat everyone (especially the crew) as a VVIP.” Dismiss no one. Every person that crosses your path is on your team with making this occasion great, so act accordingly. Get a variety of perspectives, including asking to, “see the event space as soon as possible” and view the stage “from the furthest back seats so you know how to connect with the whole room.”
Don’t stop there. Barrett wants you to, “Meet Mr Grumpy.” Find the grumpiest looking person in the room and chat to them. Use your background research to get on their level and put them at ease. “They always turn out to be lovely,” he said. “This will set your mind at rest about any negative energy in the space” so you can continue with your role.
5. Bring your best self
While you’re looking after everyone else, don’t neglect number one. Barrett knows a few tactics you can try, that work for him. “Consider a new pair of shoes or new shirt to help you feel great on the day,” he said, before warning, “If wearing new shoes, consider wearing two pairs of socks!” The more comfortable, relaxed and assured you feel, the more this channels into quick thinking and sharp insights.
“Practice, whenever you can,” is Barrett’s next advice. “Create your own gathering and cast yourself in a hosting role.” Consider investing in professional help, by “getting a speaking coach or working with an agency.” Finally, ask for feedback and ask three times. “This allows you to move past the niceties and onto what you really need to know to improve.” Then use what you learn to level up for next time.
Know what you’re there to do and why it matters before putting every guest at ease. Prepare in advance by checking them out, and treat everyone like they are important. Finally, lay the groundwork with your practice and invest in your appearance, comfort and professional abilities. Five steps to hosting a brilliant event that guests will be reliving for years to come.