Being a (virtual) track host

Today I have had the pleasure of hosting a lunch and learn session with Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick who can be found at https://www.conversationaltransformation.com/. They wrote the book Agile Conversations . While I enjoyed our conversation at https://thedevopsconference.com, that is not the point of this post. I have tons of experience hosting different events, going way back from being the Master of Ceremonies at the student community, and through my consultancy career with plenty of public speaking and DevOpsDays. And I still screw up with basic stuff, so I thought I’d just try to be explicit about what I would expect the host role to contain.

As we all love maturity models, I have created this track host model so you perhaps can grab something useful for the next time you have to host an event track.

Level 0 – The keeper of time

At the most foundational level you just need to keep the wheels turning in an organized way. The most important public speaking skill is time management.

That means that there are two basic things you have to do:

  • Introduce the speaker – At the right time let the audience know who is speaking and what the title of their talk is.
  • Say thank you – At the right time, let the audience ( and speaker ) know the session is over. Bonus point here for signaling to the speaker five minutes before their time is up. Additional bonus points for doing so both obvious to the speaker and subtly from the perspective of the crowd. Suggest the crowd to give another round of applause.

Level 1 – Herder of cats

Now that you have graduated from level 0, we’re going to up the game in terms of setting the speaker up to succeed.

Before the talk

Before the talk, you want to make sure that you get the speaker to the right place in the right time. As a speaker it is so calming to have someone else take responsibility for making sure that you are in the right place at the right time.

You can also make certain anything they need, help with AV, computers are a bottle of water or anything. Make them feel good. That makes for better presentations.
It can be difficult to provide water if you’re both remote, but at least you can provide a link to the correct stage in the conference platform of choice.

During the talk

It is always good to coordinate with the speaker whether they want to take questions during the talk or after. At larger events it is customary to have Q&A at the end. Though some events are dropping Q&As to avoid too many “This is not so much a question as it is a comment”s. A common timeframe for Q&A is 15 minutes. That likely gives time for something along the lines of two to five questions. Fewer than you think. And remember. You are the keeper of the time. Embrace the awkward and give time for questions to appear, but do not force it, and it is better to end the sessions before time, than to unnecessarily prolong the sessions.

Depending on the size of the crowd you can manage logistics and have runners with microphones. If necessary repeat the audience question in a microphone so there are no doubt as to what has been asked.

After the talk

After the talk, make sure the audience knows what the next thing that will happen at this track is. Perhaps mention other tracks. Again, you are the keeper of time, so you should also inform attendees as to the concrete schedule, and whether we are being it or ahead of it. If there is something important such as lunch or sponsor event, it is your responsibility that the attendees are certain about what they are supposed to be doing at any time.

Level 2 – The Hype-person

The first two levels are about the mechanics about of managing a track – now we come to the style of hosting a track. As the track host you are the glue that ties everything together and sets the tone.

Before the talk

Small talk with the speaker. Ask them if there is anything in particular they want you to mention. Confirm pronunciation of their name. Read up on the speaker. Form an opinion. Ask them if there is anything in particular they want you to advertise.

Let the speaker know basically how you are going to introduce them. Not verbatim, but the gist of it. Praise them for some of their content that you’ve consumed.

Let them know where you are sitting in the audience, and how and when you will signal time to them.

As you introduce the speaker, talk them up. Praise their accomplishments. Do not lie or exaggerate, but make sure that you have covered their bases, so it is unnecessary for them to dump any credentials or anything.

Let the audience know not just that you are excited, but why you are excited about this talk in particular. Make the audience cheer the speaker on as you walk off the stage and give room for this fantastic presenter.

During the talk

Make sure that you pay attention to the speaker, and over emote. Having that one person in the audience that laughs at the right time, nods and generally just is engaged brings so much energy to the speaker that will end up being projected to the audience.

This also feeds you great inspiration for asking the good opening question.

As the Q&A starts, I like asking the first question, or as a speaker getting the first question from the host. Usually, we get safe, interesting and understandable questions from the host, so it sets a nice scene for the rest of the Q&A.

The best questions here are asking for elaboration on a specific point, or mention very briefly how something they said impacted you, if you can lead it towards a question for the speaker. It could also be a tangential point, or something you have seen in the other content the speaker has created that you know they are passionate about. This is the only time where you as the host can toot your own horn. Just don’t make to big a deal about it. If there are no questions you can provide more from your bank of interesting conversation topics, but be careful about not just prolonging the sessions beyond what is useful or interesting.

After the talk

Praise the speaker again. Let the audience know where they can find the speaker on social media. If they have published a book, or have a blog mention this here as well.

Conclusion

Hosting a track is a great way to get practice at public speaking, and getting on bigger stages than your current public speaker journey has taken you to as a presenter, but it is ofter underestimated in terms of the skill and preparation that it takes. I hope this post have been useful, but please reach out and contribute your tips to the maturity model.

Go speak. You have interesting things to say.

Edit: Many small fixes due to the ever awesome and feedbacking Figaw 😀

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