The Art of Outside of the Spotlight: Jon Petz, Emcee Extraordinaire

The Art of Outside of the Spotlight: Jon Petz, Emcee Extraordinaire

In my tenure as an NSA Member, I have heard a number of times that trainers work the hardest, consultants the longest, and keynoters flashiest. We all ought to be “partners” with our clients, no matter the method of delivery. Being an emcee ties all of the elements together through our professionalism and pushes our skill to a higher level of an art form. There is no one better to demonstrate this partnership role, than Jon Petz, CSP. While being an Emcee isn’t his major offering (it’s less than 20 percent of his business), Jon leans on decades of experience of being a professional speaker to be an extraordinary partner with his clients and their events. Perhaps, you have the chops to do the same?

Pettitt: Jon, those of us who know you, know that you speak from the heart and have built a successful speaking business around our emotional connections with each other and our buyers. How did you get started emceeing, and was this an add on or seen as a distraction at some point from your core business model?

Petz: Being an emcee is all about creating a consistent experience that is built on an emotional connection to what each charity gala is trying to raise money for. I built on this experience to then direct entire corporate programs, conferences, and the like, as I have an expertise in the proper emotional flow of the show. Ultimately, everything a participant experiences is just this, a show. The emotional connection between the cause or theme and each attendee isn’t limited to content, but also the music, video, lighting elements, and calls to action. Being an emcee pulls together experience from facilitation, consulting, event planning, and speaking for the sole purpose of an exceptional experience for all involved.

Pettitt: Because emceeing is short spurts of time on stage and more time spent outside of the spotlight, it seems that most think this is an easy job. How do you showcase the importance and difficulty to clients (and your fellow speaker colleagues)?

Petz: Every emcee’s job is to be engaging and NEEDED. If you are spouting off information that the audience can’t hear or relate to, or haven’t personally emotionally connected the event’s purpose, then the audience doesn’t care—and doesn’t listen. If they don’t listen, they don’t act. This means less fundraising or donations, but also less participant retention, membership renewals, and event attendance. These emotional connections, like the focus of my work, are based on knowledge or music, lighting, timing, neuroscience of human connections with content, media, and music.

Pettitt: How is being an emcee not just a DJ with a point?

Petz: An emcee’s job is to build continuity and consistency of brand and heighten the engagement, memorability, and impact on the participant—and therefore how they value this industry trade show or conference. You are the glue that binds each piece of content together and makes it seem to flow perfectly, even though two speakers may have completely different content. What that means to your client’s bottom line is that participants are more likely to return next year and bring more co-workers with them, while also increasing the likelihood of innovative application of the learning and expanded networks of contacts.

Pettitt: To put it bluntly, the emcee makes the event stick?

Petz: Exactly, but this isn’t just based on being a personality. The emcee uses a mirror to refocus the spotlight to everyone else on the stage and to the audience. Unlike being a trainer, consultant, or speaker, you really have to put that ego aside and make the next speaker, content element, executive leader, sponsor, and even audience the hero.

Pettitt: Our ego can be the biggest mistake on stage as emcee. What else do aspiring emcees need to avoid?

Petz: There are so many differences from being in the spotlight! One of the most important elements to remember is that the emcee will become a “face” of the event, spilling over from stage time to the hotel lobby and restaurants throughout the days or week. How you help build participants’ experience at that conference at all times comes into play in hallways, elevators, parking garages, and even the airport before and after the event. These “face” interactions and experiences often are reported in participant evaluations or directly to the client.

Pettitt: An emcee isn’t in the spotlight, but isn’t off the clock during an entire event. That could be too big of an ask for a lot of NSA members. How does one prepare in advance for this much work?

Petz: Those people (including your clients), who believe that an emcee is there to only intro/outro speakers and do some announcements, don’t get it at all. If you don’t get it, the audience loses. Preparation and involvement starts with script creating, event flow, stage blocking and logistics, recognition and awards options, and processes for the entire event. An emcee should take part in all the sound checks so you know what people are speaking about and how they start and finish so you can properly set up and outro them appropriately. Spend time with speakers ahead of time. Attend break-out sessions in order to recap content and highlight sponsors, stakeholders, and key participants.

Pettitt: Being an emcee is a lot of work before an event. There is also a lot of work when working with a client (and their ego) who hasn’t worked with a professional emcee before.

Petz: Event producers who haven’t had an emcee don’t allow time for it. They put no time for transitions or opening and closing comments and remarks. If you don’t have time to build a relationship with the audience at the beginning, you won’t have their trust and engagement later. Also, you have staff, board members, and/or volunteers who are waiting for their moment in the literal spotlight and may not see how an emcee can both bolster their importance to the organization or event while also serving as an insurance policy.

Pettitt: Emotional connection to an event’s purpose, participant experience glue, and more successful learning and connections. Any other benefits of this “insurance policy”?

Petz: What if people go short? Go long? No show? Have an emergency? The lights go off? Tornado alert happens and everyone must evacuate the hall? Or maybe something less urgent, like schedule changes, announcements, and the like. An emcee is on a sort of standby ready mode the whole time and intensely engaged in what is happening on that stage at all times.

Pettitt: It is hard for a CEO or board president to come with a sense of gravitas when they are charged with making announcements or directing people to the bathrooms.

Petz: Yes! The Emcee does the dirty work while highlighting and redirecting the focus of the participants to the event and the organization’s purpose. Eventually, an emcee is seen as part of the team delivering membership or participant benefits and ROI. Oftentimes, this work can result in repeat work unlike a keynote. I have served as the emcee for one event of mine for 13 years and it averages 18,000 participants. I’m part of the planning and screening process for speakers, big name bands, etc. As the emcee, I am part of the creative team. It is a lot of hard work, worth it, and less than 20 percent of my business model.

Pettitt: For those readers who aren’t scared away yet, what are some down and dirty skills sets needed to be an extraordinary emcee?

Petz: OK, I made a list! These professional skills are mandatory for a successful emcee job. They also make an emcee a better facilitator, consultant, and speaker, but not necessarily the other way around. Just because you are good (even great) in the spotlight, doesn’t mean you can be part of an event planning team.

Successful/Effective Qualities

  • Incredible listening skills for reinforcement and recovery.
  • AV skills, so you can communicate with the production team efficiently and understand cues, stage blocking, and meeting design tactics.
  • Audience engagement expertise in the toughest of situations. Think having to interrupt cocktail hour to get people to sit down.
  • Improv skills, not necessarily comedy based, but “what if” thinking and flexibility.
  • Being ready to talk after the keynote or even later in the event to recap key points; connect to cause, purpose, and/or theme; and talk about how participants can do their jobs better.
  • Be ready to be an auctioneer, or any other role that may need to be filled for the event, with little to no notice.
  • A sly bit of insanity.


Jessica Pettitt

Jessica Pettitt

Diversity Consultant and Facilitator at I am… Social Justice
Jessica Pettitt, CSP, has stirred up conversations that matter for the past 15 years on topics that your grandmother recommended avoiding. She also challenges others to be Good Enough Now.
Jessica Pettitt
Jessica Pettitt
Jessica Pettitt