Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Moderating a discussion – not so simple

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:

  1. Create an experience the audience will engage with.  That means developing ideas, and following issues through to some sort of end point.
  2. Work with the room. Speaking events are live gigs – so use it. Take risks, go off the plan, improvise to capitalize on what’s grabbing attention in the here and now.
  3. If you want controversy, be ready to steer your speakers into it. Simple tag lines like “Why is that?” “Tell us more about that” “how did you form that view?” force speakers to explain themselves more fully – that’s what feeds the minds of the listeners.
  4. Have some ‘Dorothy Dixers’ up your sleeve. If the discussion flags, or the questions are desultory, YOU ask a question to get things going again.
  5. Leave them to it.  Sometimes the moderator can allow the speakers just to talk to each other.

3 comments on “Moderating a discussion – not so simple

  1. James

    Great post, thanks!

  2. Candice

    This is really interesting. QandA has lost the plot

  3. Alf Broadbent

    Interesting. Have a look at this video of another late night debate on religion to see how much things have changed. Not just fashions (check out that matching tie and jacket) but talkshow behaviour. Here Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark talk really, r e a l l y slowly. And even though he’s obviously, and understandably livid, Michael Palin and the host just let them go on yabbering. It’s not a courtesy they return. But worth wondering what qanda might be like if Mr Rice was running it.

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