A good panel discussion should be informative, engaging, entertaining. But moderators are reliant on their guests playing by the rules.
I usually moderate close to one hundred discussions and fireside chats a year — in person and online at conferences and roundtables, live interviews, audio and video podcasts.
Three sessions on three different topics — innovation in the energy sector, social and economic growth in the emerging Europe region, and the future of capitalism — was highest number of engagements within a single day. So far.
Most of the time I have excellent, well-prepared, and eloquent guests and panellists. But over the years I also have had to put up with those who tried to hijack the discussion.
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I don’t think I will forget the lawyer who arrived just a few minutes before the session, said ‘Hi,’ was quickly mic’d up and took his seat on the stage. I had exchanged emails with him prior to the conference and identified no potential language-proficiency-related challenges. When I asked him the first question during the discussion, he opened his large A4 notebook and started reading his statement, which was — speaking diplomatically — rather loosely related to the question itself.
I knew his law firm was one of the sponsors of the conference, so I thought I’d let him read out the notes but when more than 90 seconds had elapsed, I tried to interrupt to engage the other speakers. This is when he flashed his palm at me, making it clear that I should back off. The audience burst into laughter as they understood what was happening. I am not sure they made a note of his key messages, but I am sure they found the situation amusing.
At the beginning of the first Covid-19 lockdown I was invited to chair an online session. Full day online conferences were still a novelty at this stage so not everyone had developed the proper manners needed for such engagements. Here, no matter what question I would ask one speaker he would always end up repeating the same three or four sentences. Language proficiency didn’t seem to be an issue either as the gentleman was a native speaker of English, the official conference language.
The right balance
To avoid unexpected and surprising situations like these, I do my best to engage with the speakers in advance. That either happens by phone or email or in the foyer before we get on stage.
And when we’re on stage I try, on the one hand, to ensure that each of the speakers has a chance to share their thought leadership — in the end, they have agreed to invest their time and share their insight; and the audience, which has joined the conference to learn, network and enjoy themselves. For me, understanding the audience is a must.
When I am invited to chair a session, I always ask if I am expected to moderate a panel discussion or just sit next to the speakers and read out their names and roles and ask them to share whatever they want to speak about. I politely decline to engage in the latter. I prefer moderating an exchange of arguments and clashing points of view to overseeing a series of speeches or a set of presentations.
I direct the flow of the discussion, making sure everyone has enough time and space to voice their opinion and expertise and that everyone contributes. But I am confident to cut off a speaker that either sways away from the topic or takes too much time to respond. I break the ice, if necessary, and remain supportive, likeable and kind. To create a friendly atmosphere, I always address the speakers by their first names unless I am strictly told not to.
I ask open-ended questions and maintain elements of each panellist’s specific background and area of expertise and make sure the questions are spaced out evenly and don’t favour a particular speaker, for example a sponsor.
My panellists are always asked to share their key messages related to the topic of the discussion and I always make sure I swing by them, but I never share specific questions. I fact, I never have them. The opening question is the only one they know in advance.
Do they know what we’re going to focus on? Of course! But sharing specific questions makes absolutely no sense unless you want to disrupt the flow of the conversation. My notes are always full of interesting points and facts, numbers and statistics, sometimes quotes and they help me build up on whatever insights the speakers have already shared, or the audience have asked about or commented on.
When I contact the speakers prior to the session I warn them that the discussion will have three objectives and I use three adjectives to describe them.
Informative, engaging, entertaining
A panel discussion must not be a sales pitch. Speakers are asked to share their experience and insight – not to sell their products or services. If I hear a sales pitch, I immediately cut the speaker off in a polite manner.
The audience has joined the conference to learn something new or verify their knowledge. An ideal panel discussion creates real value and provides takeaways that they can apply in their specific situations.
The panel discussion must not be too theoretical and disconnected from the audience, or too long as the audience become bored, fatigued or they simply ‘log out of the conference’ even though they are physically present in the room. For me one hour is already too long – 90 minutes is a real killer.
It’s the imperative to keep the discussion going with the audience in mind and encourage questions from the floor. It is also important to provide examples or case studies that they can relate to.
A panel discussion must not be dull and boring. It should be dynamic, provocative, inspiring, and debate driven. Attendees should remember it.
A great anecdote will definitely draw the audience’s attention, and sometimes make them smile. A bit of improvisation is also good and unexpected.
I sometimes try to ask the panel guests to summarise the discussion with a snappy answer or give a one-word prediction.
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