Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Should moderators ask or avoid tough questions?

Election season in America is a boom time for moderators, illustrating my point that the moderator--particularly on a panel with many speakers--is often as prominent as any one speaker on a panel. And in the first big debate, Fox News's recent debate with 10 Republican candidates and 24 million viewers, a record audience, the three moderators stood out in particular for their tough questions.

The New York Times took notice. In an article focused squarely on the moderators, it noted:
Dredging up old misstatements. Questioning someone’s temperamental fitness to be president. Suggesting that someone else might let a woman die rather than allow her to have an abortion. 
The Republican presidential candidates’ debate on Thursday night was notable for its pointed accusations, and for the sometimes-awkward glowering and silences that followed. 
And that was just the moderators.
It's normal for elections to bring public speaking of all kinds to the forefront of our consciousness. After all, that's mostly how we get to hear the candidates, and see how they perform and react. Moderators are a close second in visibility, and this focus on whether the moderators should ask tough questions is interesting to consider even if you're not running for office.

I say that because a moderator's punch is nearly always pulled back in a typical panel discussion. I've seen scores of panels in which all the questions were softballs, courteous, supportive, elucidating--all helps to guide the speakers. Pushback or challenges to the speakers are rare. After all, you often will be moderating panels of colleagues you like and support, or notable people whose good sides you want to stay on.

In political debates, moderators tend to be journalists, and they serve as proxies for citizens. Asking tough questions of candidates is (or should be) part of the job. The idea of needing to stay on a candidate's good side does not, typically, carry the day--although it sometimes seems that way. That wasn't the case in the Fox News debate, and at least one moderator paid a price: Megyn Kelly came in for a flood of nasty comments from Donald Trump on Twitter after the debate, mostly due to her questions about his misogynistic comments about women. But the backlash against Trump's response to Kelly may derail his campaign. It's at least costing him invitations to speak elsewhere. (Speakers, there's a lesson here: Don't get angry and defensive when a moderator poses a challenging question.)

Kelly, when she finally weighed in, refused to apologize for acting like the journalist she is. Everyday panel moderators don't have to generally worry about upholding journalistic norms (unless they are journalists, of course). But that doesn't mean you should avoid a pointed question or one that challenges the speakers to clarify, or one that reminds us all of something they said earlier that seems in conflict with today's statement. That's also a hallmark of good debate moderation. The trick for the moderator is to ask those tough questions in a non-anxious way. It's your job to keep the discussion sparkling, and also to keep the speakers honest.

Want to read more about U.S. political debates, what it takes to moderate them, and everything from the moderator's viewpoint? Take a look at Jim Lehrer's book Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates. He's a veteran moderator of no less than 11 presidential debates, with plenty of insight to share.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Paul Dietzl II)

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.