Speak for Yourself

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

Everything in Moderation. Six tips for managing panel discussions.

Like any other form of communication, a panel discussion  has to grab us and go somewhere. It needs a sense of direction to hold our interest and keep us tuned in to it.

As moderator  your job is to get things to sparkle. You set the agenda, the questions, and the pace. You are the manager, the referee, and the nosey one who delves deep into the interesting issues.  You enable  the audience to hear reasons, explanations, and to get inside the minds of experts and watch them respond to challenges. That’s the allure of the format. As a presenter, it’s a great chance to direct and star in the show.

There are a six  keys to success.

1. Take charge 

This job requires authority. The audience and the panellists have to see  you as the boss. This can be a challenge, especially if you are managing forceful personalities, or ‘important’ people who are used to giving, not taking direction.

A moderator who is weak, detached, who moves from one issue to another in a rambling or  disorganised way, or, worst of all, who lets the speakers take control of the discussion, will lose the audience.

So start strong and stay  that way. Panellists and audience need to be impressed with you from the outset, because that shapes how they behave once the discussion gets going. It begins when you enter the room. Get there early and check out the setup so you won’t be flummoxed by a lack of water on the table, or AV equipment that’s confusing, or being unsure where to sit.

Do your homework. When you greet panellists, know their names and correct pronunciation. Be familiar with their work and recent presentations, media mentions, publications etc. Have some discussion starters or prompts ready to kick the event off.

Be  authoritative, not  combative. Use  a firm handshake, stand with your feet squarely apart, be open, don’t hold things to your chest or fold your arms. Move slowly and assuredly. Use clear gestures – no ‘washing machine’ hands that are busy but not saying anything. You want to appear calm, controlled and unflappable. (Find out more about powerful body language here).

Nothing undermines your authority like being spoken over. Don’t interrupt somebody unless you’re sure you’ll be successful. (See this article for tips on shutting interrupters up.)

And for an example of what not to do, w atch Jim Lehrer at the recent presidential debate fail to get control of his panel….

2. Command the space

The setup of the room is important. Do you want to be in the middle of the panel looking to either side  like  Tony Jones on Q and A?  Do you want to be seated centrally in the middle of the audience,  like Drew Carey on Whose Line is it Anyway or the moderators of the US Presidential debates? Or do you want to stand at a podium next to the panel? All of these will shape the way you can command the attention of  panellists and audience.

The setup gives you another secret weapon. It is hard to confront somebody who is beside you. Compare sitting at a dinner table to standing at the front of a classroom. You can engineer this so that the most combative panellists are defused by sitting  next to each other, or – if you want fireworks, sit them opposite each other and they’ll easily get into battle.

Maintain focus and look engaged throughout, but keep scanning the room so you’re  aware of the audience response to what’s being said. This is most important when it comes to taking questions. There’s nothing worse than being in the bit of the room the moderator never looks at.

3. Control questioners

Questions are a useful part of panels but they can also derail them. You need to make sure that the questions advance the discussion or reveal something new.  As the discussion takes place, make notes of issues which offer you material to follow through on.

There are two ways to get audience questions. You may have a lineup at a microphone, or you might need to direct people with hand-held mics to audience members who have their hands up. Either way, your job is to keep attention on the content of the discussion and not on the logistics of managing the room.

You’ll have to deal with hazards like questioners who speak for too long, whose ‘preamble’ takes an age, whose question is unclear, who are belligerent, who exclude the audience by their specialised  knowledge, or who slow down the rhythm of the panel by asking follow-up after follow-up. Also be wary of ‘questions’ that are simply pronouncements of already firm opinions.   Giving people the opportunity  to repeat strongly held, entrenched viewpoints  is never  interesting listening.

It’s important to know how to limit all this. Do things that make it difficult for them to follow-up in a prohibitive manner. Ask that questioners stand, or use a microphone, or walk forwards to a designated “question area”. Raising the physical commitment required to speak minimises the chance that people will want to speak again and again and again. Place a stringent time limit on questions and enforce it.

4. Have no patience with vague answers

Panels are no fun if everybody agrees. Think how uninteresting it would be if your panellists all said to each other “I agree with what Jane said” or “I have nothing to add.” You need to push your panellists to clash. If they dodge a question or give a neat sidestep instead of an answer, call them on it. Watch this:

and this  for an example of a strong moderator – Martha Raddatz in charge of the Vice Presidential debate.  She was not afraid to say things like “why won’t you tell voters?” “I can see I’m not going to get a straight answer”, and the debate was better for it.

5. Be ready with prompts and cues

Your job is to steer the discussion. Practice paraphrasing the essence of a comment and then asking a follow-up question.  Use short ‘steering’ remarks  like “what do you think of that?” , “and what’s your view”? “over to you …”

6. Deal calmly with crises

Panels are live events in crowds on contentious topics. You will have problems you didn’t expect. Two famous examples are the panellist who fainted on live TV, and the shoe thrown at former Prime Minister John Howard. Watch how seasoned moderator Tony Jones handled these two dramas:

Notice how the host moves back onto the topic once the moment has passed, and delegates the incident to the appropriate nearby helpers. The event organisers or building managers, or even, if it’s an up-town gig, Security, will be able to handle anything going wrong better than you can: it’s better that you swiftly and calmly pass the issue onto them, remove anything or anyone that will distract the audience’s attention and move back to the topic.

Do you have a tip for panel moderators? Share it in the comments.

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This entry was posted on 15/10/2012 by in Audience connection, Conference presentations, Debates, Public speaking, Q&A.

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