It was about :30 seconds between the time when I was asked to MC the Voice-Over Agent panel discussion at VO Atlanta 2016 and when I hit the stage and kicked off the session among a hotel ballroom full of people.
And oh by the way, there was no agenda, no script and no panelist bios.
Adrenaline? Nerves? Panic? There seriously wasn’t time to consider any of that.
The audience didn’t know about the birth process I was zooming through, they just knew the baby was coming – they wanted to hear the panel. For all they knew, I was scheduled as host weeks before.
Yes, I have moderated many panels and events over the years. I’ve done tons of live announcing and a bunch of emcee and hosting work for trade shows, conferences and award shows. It’s something I enjoy doing and I’ve been lucky to get high marks (and paychecks) from clients for my work.
Most importantly, with each of them I enjoyed lots of preparation, plenty of notes and a script.
By the way, that’s not anybody’s fault. Most panel discussions I’ve done, a moderator crafts a series of questions to start things off and maybe to fall back on if the panel discussion lags…they rest of it often is pretty free-form discussion.
So here’s the background on this special instance.
I was a first time attendee at VO Atlanta. I was not there in any other capacity – not a host, teacher or janitor.
The Voice-Over Agent panel was the second session of the morning on Saturday in the main ballroom. I started the day in this room because I had attended the previous panel session on voice-over marketing, featuring my smart friends including Celia Segal, Tom Dheere and Joe Cipriano.
The agent panel was an important focus for me at the conference because there were some folks on the panel I wanted to meet. I was about to get one hell of an introduction to them.
As my unexpected adventure progressed, I would find it very helpful that the other three voice-over agents on the panel were already my longtime voice-over partners/agents including Tanya Buchanan from Ta-Da Voiceworks in Toronto, Erik Sheppard from Voice Talent Productions in Austin and Jeffrey Umberger from Umberger Agency in Atlanta. We knew each other pretty well from various projects we’ve work on and I had a sense in this setting (as in every other instance we’d each worked together) they would have my back. (It turns out, I was right).
It all started innocently enough. Prior to the event starting, I was standing off to the side of the stage, just talking to Tayna and Erik, when Jeffrey approached us to advise that he was not only a panelist but also the moderator. In passing, Jeffrey offered that he wished he was just a panelist. We all said something along the lines that he would great (which he would have been).
I left the group so they could do whatever prep they needed to do and I took my seat near another voice-over friend Jackie Bales. We were talking about voice-over and people we both knew in the TV news business, where Jackie worked before going into voice-over full time.
Suddenly, we both became aware that the panel was about 10 minutes late in starting.
Spider-Man had his spidey sense. I have FaffCon-sense, which tells me when an event or program might be running in a small bump in the road (like not starting on time).
That same sense also caused the trouble I got myself into here.
I looked around and saw no VO Atlanta staff in the immediate vicinity (there was lots going on in other rooms at this particular time). I jumped up and over to the area the agents were. I said to Jeffrey that they needed to get up on stage.
Please note: I was totally out of line saying anything like this, because it wasn’t my event or responsibility. Yet these were my friends and I was trying to help them and the event.
Jeffrey said they were waiting on one more agent but that she was late and that they needed to get going.
And then he said “Hey, can you be the moderator?”
In the milliseconds that followed, I remember mentally processing only these three things:
- This event was late getting started
- This one event needed help
- It was my friend and agent Jeffrey that was asking me for a favor
Being in “event” mode (again, not my place but it’s a fault I have) I said yes and I began to usher everyone up the stairs to the stage.
It was on those stairs that I changed into “broadcast” mode.
“Jeffrey, is there a script?” Peter asked.
“No.” said Jeffrey.
‘Oh s—.’ thought Peter.
As I picked up the hand-held microphone at the moderator’s podium, Jeffrey slid in front of me the open page of the program which listed the names and company names of the panelists.
That program and my cell phone were my tools for the next very live 80 minutes.
As I discussed later in the evening with my friend and fellow voice talent (and accomplished broadcaster) Mike Cooper, live broadcast training comes in very handy during many of life’s unexpected moments. Without a doubt, that training served me well in this situation.
Mind you, I haven’t been ‘on-air’ since 1986 but I have come to find out broadcast skills simply don’t leave you once you have them (see: riding a bicycle).
I brought up the mic and just started to talk (never let them see you sweat, right), beginning with a welcome (‘what was this panel’s official name? Uh, make something up’) and then I presented a format for the session. I quietly hoped there wasn’t a real format for the event because I went all Houdini on them with the format of my choosing. Abracadabra!
My mind was swirling as I spoke: ‘hmmm, I need to create actual questions!! Better yet, I need to stall for time so I can WRITE some questions’.
Well, with no bios, I called an audible and asked each panelist to introduce themselves and their company and tell the audience about their background.
‘Good, they’re talking’ I thought to myself. Via quick math I decided if they each spoke for a minimum of :30 seconds, I should have about three minutes to write some questions that would allow agents and talents to help better understand each others perspective. That would be good, right?! It would make sense, wouldn’t it!
Oh heavens, I hoped it would make sense!
Here are my Murrow-esque inquiries that I furiously typed into my phone while panelist introductions went on:
What’s trends in voices
Trends in clients
Your daily challenges
?Communication with talent
Communication on slate and details
Yes, I know these word strings don’t make much sense to you, but I just needed to have word cues for the questions in my head. With these points I knew I could formulate something (somewhat) intelligent when the time came. Maybe intelligible would be more accurate.
The rest of the session for me was a bit of blur, made completely awesome by the way all six panelists gelled so quickly with each other, continuing their own discussions without much prompting from me to keep the conversation going.
To the audiences delight (and my relief) the time went by very quickly.
People said nice things about the event afterwords, which I took as a passing grade, nothing more nothing less.
And I aged about 5 years in 80 minutes.
It was fun. Well, it’s fun NOW cause it’s over!