An emcee performs many functions throughout the event — from its beginning to its end.
In some cases, such as this one, an off-stage announcer will introduce the emcee, but the emcee is really the first person to address the audience.
The emcee’s opening remarks need to accomplish two primary goals:
- To focus the audience’s attention. Most audiences haven’t been waiting as long as this one on inaugural day, but they have been waiting for some time. They may be distracted, checking out other people in the audience, reading the program, chatting on their cell phones, or texting someone. Someone other than the main speakers needs to get their attention, quiet them down, and draw their attention to the stage.
- To frame the event. The emcee’s opening remarks set the stage for what is to follow, preparing the audience mentally and emotionally. In as few words as possible the emcee gives the audience a foretaste of what is going to happen and an undestanding of what it means.
The emcee’s opening remarks may address many issues, such as acknowledging dignitaries, listing the agenda, and making announcements (changes to the program, location of restrooms, etc.). But all of those other issues are subservient to the two main functions: focusing and framing.
The emcee’s remarks should be short. They should never call attention to the emcee. They should shine the spotlight on the main speakers.
I think Dianne Feinstein struck just the right note in her speech at Tuesday’s inauguration. In under two and half minutes, she stood up, demanded people’s attention without any fuss or bother, and gave a brief reflection on the meaning of the event.
She acknowedgled Bush and Cheney, Obama and Biden (by title, not by name), and launched right into her remarks. She situated the event both in time (“we come here every four years”) and in place (“here on the national mall”). She then briefly touched on a few themes — democracy, peaceful transition of power, change, and the fulfillment of the dream Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of from the Lincoln monument — that others would develop later. (Emcees have to be careful not to steal the thunder from what the main speakers will say later in the program.)
Here’s the core of what she said:
The freedom of a people to choose its leaders is the root of liberty. In a world where political strife is too often settled with violence, we come here every four years to bestow the power of the presidency upon our democratically elected leader. Those who doubt the supremacy of the ballot over the bullet can never diminish the power engendered by nonviolent struggles for justice and equality, like the one that made this day possible. No triumph tainted by brutality could ever match the sweet victory of this hour and what it means to those who marched and died to make it a reality. Our work is not yet finished, but future generations will mark this morning as the turning point for real and necessary change in our nation. They will look back and remember that this was the moment when the dream that once echoed across history, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial finally reached the walls of the White House.
And then she got on with the matter at hand, introducing the next item on the agenda — the invocation.