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How to ask a panel killer questions (e-book excerpt 4)

This month’s snippet from how-to guide Everything In Moderation: How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events raises the question of questions. Or rather, how to best interrogate panellists.

Question-asking (part 1)

Intros out the way, your notes become your best friend. I’ve met interviewers and speakers who work without this safety net. But I can’t lie, I’m not one of them. For most people notes, however brief, are the sensible play.

The key is to have something that is both concise – no page turning please – but legible. Since I think it looks a bit shoddy to be sitting up front with a visible sheet of A4 or even those smaller, index-style cards (which some people swear by), I ask for or bring along a small clipboard.

Nowadays a similar tactic is to use an iPad or other tablet device. This works well, especially when hidden in a neutral cover, and can mean longer notes sans page turning. Though of course it can be harder to annotate those notes on the fly – and I strongly believe that the pen is one of the greatest props ever invented. (Try pointing at an audience member or slide with an iPad.)

Notes will be mostly based on discussions ahead of time with your panellists. A good moderator – and not just the journalists out there – will also have some questions ready to throw in that haven’t been talked about in advance.

And when I say ‘talked about in advance’ I’m a big believer that any moderator or interviewer should never give precise questions out in advance. This isn’t just J-school ethics. For any moderator, in almost any scenario, all kinds of problems come about when this happens. Guests rehearse answers (often lengthy ones) that sound just that – rehearsed. They also get upset if a question is changed on the day, even slightly.

Then there is the problem that some guests will prepare answers to questions you never end up asking them. One of my cardinal rules of panels is never ask the same question to everyone. It’s one of the worst things you can imagine (along with mobile phones going off and the ‘self-intro’) – same question, same four speakers (or three or five) same 1-2-3-4 order. In three words: Mix it up.

My one exception to this, something I learnt from time in TV and online video, especially when seguing from something else (like a speech or news film) is to let the whole panel know who the first question will be addressed to, just a few seconds ahead of going live. I’ve found this takes a lot of pressure off everyone – you, the first guest to speak and even those who know they have to wait their turn.

So by all means discuss subject matter in advance. Make sure everyone knows the debate parameters, including the positions people are expecting them to take. Even orchestrate some confrontation – guests will appreciate the heads up and they all know that a session with disagreement is more compelling than a placid session. But don’t make everything so regimented it loses all spontaneity.

You can buy e-book Everything In Moderation: How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events by Collective Content director Tony Hallett from Amazon in the UK, US or other countries.

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5 tips for panel moderation (e-book excerpt 3)

In this month’s excerpt, we cut to the end of Everything In Moderation: How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events, for several brief tips, all about different aspects of your event, as recommended by Collective Content director Tony Hallett…

The Brooks Tip – Ever remember the moment in the 1980s film Broadcast News where the unfortunate TV journalist played by Albert Brooks is drafted in to read the nightly news and is encouraged to sit on the lower back part of his suit jacket? He’s sceptical but immediately realises it works in making sure his jacket doesn’t ride up behind his neck. Don’t sweat it like Brooks’ character. Try this and if you’re wearing a suit it will stay un-bunched-up.

Don’t go back – Never reach out again to a poor-performing guest from a previous panel. They might blame you for the last time – if they even realise it went badly – and/or perform poorly again.

Never under-dress relative to guests – Better to wear that suit and remove the jacket and tie than look like you’ve taken a wrong a turn to the pub.

Find out how chair/other host is going to intro YOU – Correct them if wrong or – especially – you think they are just going to read from the event programme. The audience can do that by themselves.

Say it right – Pronunciation doesn’t come into play in the written word (spelling and grammar does, mind) but at an event how you say things is key. This goes for both company names and individuals’. I’ve seen debates knocked off track as a panellist corrects someone else – or grits their teeth, obviously unhappy but not willing to speak up. Do your homework. Say all names out loud in the pre-brief, for the sake of everyone.

Read the previous excerpts here and here.

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How to intro a conference panel (e-book excerpt 2)

Following yesterday’s post about how to get onto to the stage in good order – without any pesky mobile phones interrupting proceedings – today’s excerpt from Tony Hallett’s e-book, Everything In Moderation, considers the dos and don’ts of introducing your panel.

Chapter 4 (continued) – Intros, questions and flow

One trend in recent years has been to say something like: “I’m now going to give each of our panel a couple of minutes to introduce themselves” and maybe with the ugly kicker of “…and make an opening statement.”

Big tip: Avoid this at all costs. Seriously, this is rubbish.

First off, I always think it makes a moderator look bad. How bad? How about lazy and unprepared. If I had literally been teleported into an unknown panel (I know this is a strange parallel world where moderators are beamed around but stick with me) I might, just might employ this tactic. Even then I’d be tempted to engage in, you know, actual conversation.

There are other downsides too. Nobody sticks to the time you give them and – especially what with it being early on and all – you are unlikely to cut in and stop them.

Second, it becomes a procession of one-upmanship. Or selling. Or both. All without tone having been set by you, so it’s wildly inconsistent to boot.

And third, however much you tell them in advance not to try to over say everything at once they will fold all their mentally prepared points into one single soliloquy. Only it won’t sound like Shakespeare.

Remember, one of the reasons anyone wants a moderator at all is because you will keep things consistent, fair, to time – dare I say even entertaining?

So, given all the prep you’ll have done and the rapport you’ve built with your guests to that point, you must do the intros yourself. You can be both more honest and more complimentary than any guest, I promise you.

You should aim for 15 seconds or so on each of the speakers beside you. That sounds very short but it should be enough, unless you want to talk some more about particularly relevant career history. But think half a minute max. It means getting in to the meat of the main debate faster, more Q&A – and there will always be opportunities to work in ‘intro info’ throughout the session.

There will be more excerpts from the book later this month on the Collective Content blog and elsewhere.

Everything In Moderation is available for around $4 or £2.50 (prices may vary by store).


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