Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Panel moderation lessons from Chelsea Clinton

In a Vogue profile of Chelsea Clinton, Jonathan Van Meter observes Clinton in a variety of public speaking situations, from handling her duties as a correspondent for NBC News to more formal speeches. But it's her 2012 stint as the moderator for a panel about women in politics that he uses as a signal moment in his long profile of her:
The night before, I attended a panel Clinton moderated uptown, “Running in Heels,” about the inherent challenges facing women in elected office. She came onstage in a sleeveless leopard-print dress with an UGG on one foot and an orthopedic boot on the other and began, without ever looking at her notes, to reveal an inside-out mastery of the subject. Clinton’s public-speaking manner is one of studied mellowness, with a measured tone and cadence that is like neither her mother’s nor her father’s....When Clinton introduced Sandra Fluke, the law student whom Rush Limbaugh had just a month earlier called a “slut,” she startled everyone by saying, “She and I actually have something in common. We’ve both been attacked by Rush Limbaugh. She was 30, I was 13. In 1993 he said...‘You may know that the Clintons have a cat, Socks, in the White House. They also have a dog.’ And then he put a picture of me on the screen.” If she hadn’t had everyone’s undivided attention before, she certainly did then.
It's just a few dozen words, that story, but it galvanized the audience and became the defining moment for the panel. Nice work for a moderator, the person we sometimes forget when a panel of bright lights is fielded. Clinton offers any speaker who's moderating a panel these lessons you can use the next time you handle this speaking task:
  • Remind your audience what they've forgotten about you: Clinton's story was nearly 20 years in the past at the time she told it on this panel, long forgotten by most of her audience--which makes it a great surprise. She's also reaching back into her personal history to underscore other themes, without banging them loudly: Women in politics might also be girls living in the White House. Limbaugh's attacks on women are part of a longstanding pattern. Kids remember what you say. She states none of those things out loud, but they're in the room, hanging in the air after that one story. You might be in the same position if you're an expert of longstanding and you're moderating a panel of newcomers, for example. Take a moment to remind your listeners why you're in the moderator chair.
  • But keep it short: You're the moderator, not the panel dominator. What works here is the brevity of Clinton's reference to herself, each one chosen with care. There are not many spare words, and that helps turn this into a segue to the panelist, not a soliloquy.
  • Hand off the speaking turns to panelists with care: Right after telling that story, Clinton adds, "thankfully, I had grown up in public life and knew that having a thick skin was a survival skill."  She turns to Fluke and compliments her on not becoming disempowered after being attacked by Limbaugh and notes that Fluke used the episode to send a message about encouraging young women to speak out, "having their voices heard." By introducing a theme Fluke has consistently invoked in discussing the attack, Clinton made the path smooth for her panelist to launch into her remarks, and set up her themes for her.
  • Know your subject: This is a mega panel, with many participants, but Clinton works minus notes and with the plus of knowing the nuances about her panelists and the areas they wish to emphasize. It's part of what makes the segue to Fluke so smooth, and likely prompted Clinton to tell the story she told. She's using her knowledge--in this case, insider knowledge of a personal sort--to make the panelists' words stand out, just as a good moderator should. Do your research likewise before you moderate, so that you know your panelists' accomplishments, points of view and what's been said about them publicly, so you can use those points as needed.
Here's video of that specific moment in the panel, below, and you can go here to see the full one-hour, 23-minute video of the entire panel.

(This post was originally published on The Eloquent Woman blog.)

Need more coaching on how to be a better panel moderator? Order the new ebook The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 and available in many formats, it's a great back-pocket coach to take on stage with you in your smartphone or tablet. Find more tips on public speaking on The Eloquent Woman blog.