Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
Last week’s Q and A on ABC TV between Richard Dawkins and Archbishop George Pell was popular and polarising. There may be more in store as AC Grayling comes on tonight. But opinions differ on why it didn’t work.
There’s no doubt about either of their credentials. It ought to have been a spirited debate about a topic that has exercised some of the world’s best minds for thousands of years. But the engagement was weak and the crossfire was a fizzer. Dawkins is criticized as cold, arrogant, smug. Pell’s been called incoherent and dogmatic.
Were Pell and Dawkins to blame? By no means.
The person whose job is to get things to sparkle is the moderator, Tony Jones. He sets the agenda, chooses the questions and manages the pace. Last week he didn’t do it very well.
On a subject like religion, it’s easy to end up with ‘questions’ that are simply pronouncements from people with strong opinions. Many of the questioners sounded as though they hadn’t read the books or thought any deeper that what’s required for a chat in a pub, or at tea after church. Yet they seemed confident they’d outwitted the real thinkers.
Giving people airtime to repeat strongly held, entrenched viewpoints is not interesting listening. We need to hear reasons, explanations, get inside the minds of these prominent thinkers, and watch them respond to attack. After all, that’s the allure of the format.
Tony Jones needed a much higher standard of questions, but he also needed to manage the flow so they amounted to something. All presentations need to go somewhere. A panel discussion is like any other form of communication – it needs a pattern and a sense of direction to hold our interest and keep us tuned in to it. A moderator who hops from one to another in a rambling and disorganised way loses the audience. It was Jones’ job to explore the openings and follow up lines of inquiry. Instead he accepted pat answers and moved on.
For example, when Dawkins, baffled by audience laughter, asked them to explain it, we knew that Dawkins and some of the crowd had radically different views about something, and Dawkins himself wanted to know more. Jones could have followed his lead, tried to unpick what happened and explored those differences, but he just joined in with the laughter and moved on – to another trite query, like whether Archbishop Pell believes in intelligent design.
The show rated through the roof but was a real disappointment. What can we learn?
Tips for Panel moderators: