It was a day for sombre reflection, re-familiarising ourselves with the events of 100 years ago this week and looking at what we think now, with 100 years of hindsight...
It was a genuine honour to be part of the BBC's World War One At Home event in Folkestone, Kent on 4th August. My role was to host the event in the "Briefing Room" tent which would see interviews with local history experts, a dog owner and those in charge of a shire horse with a very special pedigree... as well as a live band and a decommissioned machine gun.
My challenge, as host and presenter for the day was a complex one.. I needed to: 1. Hold the day together so that there was always something happening on stage 2. Conduct interesting and relevant interviews with each of the guests, to time 3. Create just the right atmosphere and mood which was a combination of reflection, learning and yes, an element of enjoyment as well. 4. Work with animals and children 5. Work around the weather
Lets look a bit more at those challenges and how to work with them.
1. Keeping it all together
You are probably expecting me to mention something about preparation here. And you'd be right. This was an event that people had worked long and hard creating and needed to be across the content, the shape of the day and the subject matter in a broad sense. Working with the event producer of the span of a few weeks we were able to discus his vision for the event, it's tone, style and it's audience. He was also able to give me a few names and subject areas that would be featured. Ib the run up to the event, I did a bit of swotting up on these themes, enough to waken my interest but not enough to make me an expert. More on this in the next point! The other aspect of keeping it all together is just that in fact. Keeping your presence of mind, totally, constantly. This is not a scenario when you can afford to let your mind wander or your eyes glaze over. If you are totally "on it" as a host then your audience will engage with this and so will your guests. Get up and show up. Properly. Have a rest when you get home, not on stage!
A friend asked me yesterday about the depth of knowledge I needed to "ask intelligent questions" of these expert guests. I replied that it was more about asking the right questions to get interesting answers. When we meet someone interesting in day to day life, we don't have a long list of questions, we just naturally ask questions, listen to the replies and probe a bit deeper into areas that are interesting. Interviewing is the same. Except I suppose that you are conscious that you want to ask questions that you feel other people care about the answers to as well ( I didn't ask the singer Annaca where she got her gorgeous earrings from!). It also comes back to creating the right mood. We wanted to reflect so I helped the audience do that by getting the guests on stage to do just that with their knowledge and personal take. As the event was designed to repeat every 2 hours, I found myself interviewing some guests quite a few times. I had chance to say to a couple of them before hand that it is fine to repeat yourself in your answers if you want to make an important point It's a fresh crowd each tine. But for most of the guests, I just steered the interview a little. What I did find myself doing was almost focussing on a theme for each time I interviewed the same person, so we would have a conversation about a different aspect of their subject. For example the changing role of women, the impact on the Home Front etc Each of the sessions needed to last longer than the would need to on radio. As a radio presenter, the skill is really to get to the point, in other words, to "ask the last question first" . For this event, there was more of an easy going approach, allowing them to elaborate on areas I had never considered. GREAT guests do of course help hugely!
3. Creating the right vibe
In the past I have hosted live events in places such as London Zoo, the Southbank Centre and in BBC TV Centre. Each of these events had it's own character, it's own purpose and spirit and very different audiences and objectives. If the event is essentially a learning one in a fun environment, this brings it's own challenges, perhaps surprisingly. Taking the London Zoo event as an example, it was a fun looking and interesting day for CBBC and Cbeebies staff - exciting! The purpose of the day though was to help them to embrace the challenge of the changes happening to their jobs and department as the BBC began it's journey to Salford. Not everyone wanted to have fun at the zoo that day.. I find it helpful to understand my audience and the "baggage" that they bring with them, and how they feel. I then host the event wearing a combination of their shoes and that of the manager who needs the thing done. It's not patronising, it's straight down the line and perhaps has an occasional twinkle in the eye. They joy of that day was that we all went on a journey together and came out feeling closer, more informed and more able to take on the challenges ahead. For the WW1 event, some people view 100 years ago as a long time ago, others think of it as really quite recent. Again, I took the mood of the audience and the atmosphere around the event itself and played it back at them - offering them something interesting and a place and a means to reflect. I like to think we were thought provoking and calm. Not sombre so much as respectful. I think it worked.
Stand by for Part Two coming soon!
Clare Reeves is a skilled live event host and voiceover artist - you can contact Clare for availability to host your next event via the website.