Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
A while back, I offered you this post about how to manage a panel event, and this one on handling hecklers and interrupters. These are common challenges, but the commonest of all is how to deal with the speaker who loses their sense of time. ‘Full body moderating’ is your answer. It’s a powerful tool for anyone running a meeting or chairing a conference session, and a great way to keep speakers within their time limits.
It’s a familiar scene: you’re supposed to be in charge of the discussion but you find yourself at the mercy of a long-winded speaker; or a questioner from the audience is rambling and you can’t get them to the point; or perhaps your panelists are arguing with each other …. how do you tell the experts to button up ?
Let’s review the rules of this game. There’s an unwritten agreement about expected behaviour. The roles of the audience, the speakers, and the ‘controller’ are understood. Even if it’s an unscripted event, like a community meeting about a controversial issue, it’s still understood that someone has the job of keeping track of time and managing the process. If you’re that person you have the authority to run the event until the time’s up. It’s your game.
There are three ways to make it play well.
Number one: before you start, all participants should have a clear idea of the agenda. You need a shared understanding of what is going to happen. So work it out in advance – who will speak when? To decide this you need some feel for the way the presenters fit together as a whole. A musician plans a set with variation in mood and style from one song to the next, and saves the best till last. Think of your presenters in the same way. What order will give the audience the most interesting, entertaining or stimulating experience?
Depending on the occasion, sorting this out can take between 30 seconds and a week. In a high-profile political debate it might involve intense negotiations. For a conference session, you should call them all before hand or have a quick get together before you head on stage. Agree whether to save questions till the end or take them on the way through. This is also the time when you can let speakers know that you’ll be watching the time. Tell them whether you’ll give a windup signal at five or two minutes to go.
The second thing is to tell the audience what’ll happen. If they know at the beginning what the plan is, they’re more likely to be your allies if your speakers deviate from it. It can fit in naturally to your introduction “We have three outstanding speakers, blah, blah, blah. We’ll hear from each of them for 15 minutes each, and that will leave us 10 minutes at the end for discussion, so I’ll ask you to keep your questions until the end …”
Thirdly: Stay in charge. Here’s where ‘full-body moderating’ comes in. Your body is a great communication tool and it’s the only one you’ve got while someone else is speaking. Since the eyes of the audience are on you, it’s a tool that works. How you sit or stand or move right from the beginning, will affect your control of the occasion.
After you introduce a speaker you vacate the stage, so they can take it. Even if you’re sharing the same table, you’ll give signals that it’s their turn – you’ll sit back from your microphone in a listening pose. When you change this pose – however subtly, a speaker will notice. If you sit up straighter in your seat, or lean forward, or look steadily at their face to make eye contact they will get the cue that it’s time for them to finish.
If they don’t notice, the audience will see what you’ve done, they’ll respond slightly and then the speaker will notice the change in the audience. It may take a minute or two to happen, so don’t leave it too late to shift your position. If they’re just not subtle enough to catch the meaning of your altered pose, you can sign with your fingers or wait for them to take a breath and jump in, say “One minute, Jo”. The rule – as everyone knows, is that when their time is up, you’re taking the stage back.
If they are really impervious (I am tempted to say ‘thick’), at some point you may need to be ready to say “Jo, we’re going to have to stop there to give time for the next speaker. I’ll come back to you at the end if we have time.” But, if that’s how they’ve been in their main speech, chances are that’s how they’ll be in question time. So don’t let them loose until the others have spoken first.
Full-body moderation works with questions too. A good moderator is actively scanning the audience for signs of a questioner, and nodding or gesturing at people who raise their hands. If questioners in the audience are confident of being noticed they’ll be more relaxed. Saying something like “There’s a question at the back [pointing], then there [pointing]” lets people know you’re in charge, and makes it easier for you to say to anyone who calls out “No, I’m sorry, I have one before you.” to those who interrupt.
There is a nuclear option that you can use on someone who just rudely refuses to stop. I’ve only seen it rarely, and usually it’s a questioner in the audience. If you’re not going to call security, the next best thing is to use your body language to signal that you (and therefore the audience) are no longer listening. It’s a powerful sanction. If you do have to deal with someone who just won’t sit down, you can send the message to them that the whole audience is just waiting for them to stop.