What word do you use for someone who hosts your event, whether it’s a conference, breakout session, panel discussion, awards ceremony, or social event?
I get asked to work a lot in all these roles, but what does each one actually entail, and what skill set should you be looking for when booking someone? There are some clear differences between each role but there are also a lot of overlaps too.
MC and Emcee
“Master of Ceremonies” is the full name of this role, and is normally associated with formal occasions. It has its roots in the church in the 5th century where the Master of Ceremonies would preside over elaborate rituals. Today the role is normally referred to as an MC (or Emcee), especially internationally, and is used for someone who is responsible for introducing and linking the elements of an event. The MC is the glue that keeps everything together and is a guide for the audience for the whole event from beginning to end. They will introduce each speaker or segment and set the tone, ensuring a smooth transition between each element. For, example here where I was the MC for a conference in Zurich.
A professional MC is highly skilled and is the safe pair of hands that promotes the speakers and contributors while keeping to a detailed and specific agenda. The role requires a huge amount of preparation and liaising with the organisers, technical team, and individual speakers. They will be extremely articulate with excellent communication skills as they set the tone for the event. A competent MC will also need to have the ability to think on their feet and be flexible in dealing with any last-minute changes (which inevitably happen) while maintaining a smooth flow of the event.
This term is more widely used in the UK and in many ways is the same as an MC. Its origin comes from an old French word for Godfather and was someone who would speak the words backstage for a performer to act them out. In the music hall era, the Compere would introduce the variety acts and the term is still commonly used in the entertainment industry including television, variety, or quiz shows. The role is also associated with someone who is an entertainer in their own right, usually a comedian on shows like the popular BBC’s “Live at the Apollo”. When I hosted shows and cabarets on cruise ships, I would have been called a compere, although we always used the term MC because of our international audiences.
This is when I introduced Lulu on the maiden voyage of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. The skills required for a great Compere are similar to an MC but they also need to have a strong personality and are usually quick-witted.
This is more of a generic term for someone who is the front person for an event and in my view is fairly close to the role of a compere. A host would typically be the person at an awards ceremony or celebration where their personality will be an important aspect of the event, which is why these roles are often filled by celebrities, although they are not always the most suited, as it is a very specialised skill.
A good example would be when I was asked to host an awards ceremony at the Grosvenor House Hotel on London’s Park Lane. Like an MC and Compere, a host will have the ability to engage an audience while being the face of the event with a sense of occasion and usually a good deal of gravitas.
A moderator is an individual who usually presides over a panel discussion although this could also be an assembly or other event. They guide the discussion where a number of experts present their views or positions on a particular topic. A moderator will often be an expert in the topic area or will have researched it extensively so that they can steer conversations between participants and move discussions from one subject to another. The role of the moderator is to encourage lively debate and exchange of ideas and opinions. They need to be completely neutral while ensuring fairness amongst the panel as well as handling questions and insights from the audience.
A facilitator is responsible for helping people to make decisions and come to shared and agreed conclusions. This role is a position of responsibility that will influence group outcomes and although they will oversee the discussion process, they do not contribute to the outcome. This is a specialised skill that requires detailed and specific industry knowledge as well as strong analytical skills.
It's important to understand that moderators and facilitators are not normally mediators whose role is to explore possible ways to resolve an issue. Likewise, they are not arbitrators who are usually brought to hear evidence and make a decision, typically because the parties have failed to come to an agreement through previous mediation.
Whether you are looking for an MC, Compere, Host, Moderator or Facilitator, clearly there are common skills, but there are equally distinct responsibilities. It’s important to understand the role you are looking to be filled and the skills required.