Every open mic host has her gifts. Mine include a cheerleader’s spirit, a voice that can reach the back of any average-sized room without a mic, and a ready and rowdy laugh.

The weaknesses that ride shotgun? 

That same loud voice when amplified (sorry, front-row folks!), a hesitation to cut off people who run over our 7-minute limit, and a mind that sometimes goes blank when a performance turns awkward and the room very much needs me to smooth the vibe.

Fortunately, Tongue & Groove got a Bluetooth amp and now our team can turn down my volume from anywhere in the room. And we solved the time discipline issue by putting a countdown clock in easy sight of the stage. 

To address that last gap, first I tried beer. But it turns out that a fuzzy mind is no better than a blank one. Then I took an improv class. That netted some broadly helpful tips, but I still get stuck sometimes. 

So I went back through the notes I’ve taken at 50+ open mics in 36 states and compiled a few techniques to have at the ready. 

Two Types of Awkward

Open mic awkwardness comes in two signature flavors: either something goes wrong with the performance OR the subject of is heavy or uncomfortable.

The first type can happen to anyone—musicians, poets, storytellers, comics. The second is much more a poet/storyteller thing.

Other flavors do exist, of course—egregious profanity, house rules violations, on-stage drunkenness, incomprehensible rants about strawberries (true story).

But in my experience, these two are the most common. 

Awkward Type One: Something Goes Wrong 

Forgotten lines, botched chords, uncontrollable nervous laughter…

In some ways, this sorta thing is exactly what you expect when the lineup is almost all amateurs. But glitches and blunders are a spectrum, and some performers—especially novices—struggle more than others to recover.

Here are 4 things you can do when an open mic performance goes awry:

1. Enlist the audience

If you’ve ever been to a slam, you know this one. It takes a bit of advance prep, but it’s the best antidote by a long shot. 

As part of your welcome and rules/norms spiel, hold a mini masterclass for the audience: If you see someone get nervous, rub your hands together like this and send ‘em a little warmth. 

Then, whenever someone on stage gets off balance, model the motion and get the room to join you.

Not only does this bring the whole room together in a moment of community, it’s also less nerve-wracking than calling out encouragements—leaving more room for the performer to find the chord or line and get back in rhythm. 

2. Declare everything fine by fiat

Like the captain of a ship, as host you have the power of position and you can set the tone. If you react to an on-stage mistake as if it’s no big deal, then—well—it isn’t.

  • It’s all good. 
  • Keep going. 
  • No stress. 
  • You got this.

For max effect, when you’re not at the mic, station yourself somewhere close enough to be heard from the stage. (I like to lean against a wall off to the side.)

This minimizes travel time between intros and puts you in the perfect position to be everyone’s cornerman.

3. Encourage the performer to finish on a strong note

If the song or poem gets totally derailed and your hapless performer seems ready to give up, suggest that they pivot to one they know well and (implicitly) tack a little more time onto their slot.

If you’ve got another one, we’d love to hear it.

Be aware that this can be a tricky call. If someone is utterly overwrought and already moving to leave the stage, pushing them to continue might make things worse—for them and for the audience. 

Always err on the side of gentleness. Make it an offer, not a challenge or a dare. 

If they’re teary or scowling or otherwise look super upset, catch their eye (if you can) as they return to the audience and give them a reassuring nod.

Then move on to tip #4.

4. Go big on the outro

Whether they finish strong or not, once a stumbling performance is over, juice it up when you cue the audience to applaud. As a bonus: explicitly invite the performer back next time.

  • If open mic was easy, everyone would do it. Give it up for Tina!
  • He hit a wall but he powered through and that’s what open mic is all about. Let’s hear it for Mel!
  • This is why we come here, friends: To get better at all the things. One more time for Jess!
  • Come back next month, Joe. We wanna hear that one again.

Like a Judoka turning an opponent’s momentum to advantage, going big flips the awkwardness into a wave of good energy and gives the whole room the release it needs. 

(Hey, performers! Turns out there’s an easy trick to getting applause every time.)

Awkwardness Type Two: Heavy Subject Matter 

By which I mean something more tragic than a breakup or even a divorce. And something more personal than social justice advocacy.

Those can be poignant and moving, for sure, but that’s different from awkward.

What I mean here is a performance that recounts in detail a harrowing or chilling experience. Child abuse, intimate partner violence, suicide…I’ve heard all this and more come up at open mic.

Often, it’s the poets. Storytellers can go there, too. Musicians, less so.

(They’re often inspired by personal experience, of course, but something about the structure of a song offsets that sense of voyeurism and mild shock that can imbue a room when a poet goes deep.)

When this happens at your open mic, the only tactics I can offer are variations on a single theme:

5. Diffuse the tension by naming it

  • Thank you for sharing that.
  • Some days call for poems like that. We need to write them, and we need to hear them. So thank you.
  • Let’s all share a breath and let that settle in.

If the performer apologizes for bringing the room down (and they often do), call that out too:

  • Open mic is not a good vibes only space. We’re here for all the feels. 

If their poem was more angry than hurt, call out their strength:

  • And that’s how you take back your story, folks. Nicely done.
  • Damn, Sarah, you put power in that and we felt it. Thank you.

It’s happened to all of us

If you’re hosting an open mic, you’ve doubtless had your share of flubs over the years and you probably know how it feels to share your own truly vulnerable work.

But your first-time jitters are in the rear view and have been for miles. (My co-organizer, who also happens to teach presentation skills, periodically reminds me that how I feel on stage is not how everyone else feels.)

As host, you’ve gotta make your experience count while also remembering that beginner’s feeling.

Remember, your goal is for each performer to leave the stage feeling good about what just happened—or at least open to coming back for another shot at it.  

No stress, folks. You got this.

Want more tips direct from some of the best hosts I’ve seen? Check out the Q&A series.