Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Trump-ing the panel: When one speaker talks more than the others

If you don't think anyone's keeping score on who speaks more or less on a panel, think again. Audiences and your fellow speakers notice--and they especially notice if it's the moderator who keeps going back to the same speaker for more.

If your panel happens to be the 10 best-polling of the Republican candidates for president, the media notice when you do that, too. In last week's debate on Fox News, Donald Trump got the nod, and ran with it, more than any other candidate. From the New York Times:
Despite the assurances from the moderators that Mr. Trump would not hijack the high-profile opportunity for the Republican field to introduce itself to America, the businessman could not be stopped. 
He received about three times as many opportunities to speak as some of his fellow candidates — a gap that left lesser-known rivals, like Ben Carson, moaning about an elusive spotlight. “I wasn’t sure I was going to get to talk again,” Mr. Carson said plaintively.
The Times also expressed the extra Trump time this way, in an infographic. The dark bars indicate answers longer than a minute:

There was little about this debate's conditions that emulated an ideal panel discussion. Too many speakers were included, making it more of a panel than a proper debate--and that factor alone ensures that many speakers will get little time. The plethora of speakers prompted the debate organizers to say there would be no opening statements, to save time. And there were no less than three moderators, all Fox News anchors.

In everyday panel discussions, some moderators and speakers handle the fairness and balance issue by following a practice I've come to dislike: Having every panelist answer every question, which, while fair, tends to result in responses like "As Fred just noted..." That makes the answer take up more time than it's worth, much of the time.

Instead, consider these ways to keep your calling on speakers balanced:
  • Alternate questions for the entire panel with questions for one speaker, and say out loud what you're doing when you pose the question. Then be sure each speaker gets an individual question.
  • Alternate calling on male panelists with calling on female panelists. One of the more subtle ways we make women speakers disappear is to keep calling on men almost exclusively, whether the question is for the panel or the audience.
  • Prep your speakers in advance for how you will dole out the questions. Ask them not to chime in on individual questions, and to participate in questions to the entire panel.
  • Use a timer. In the name of making sure there's enough time for Q&A, set a kitchen timer or your phone timer for 30-second answers, and make a game out of it. 
The political panels to come will winnow themselves out as candidates drop out of the race. You won't have that advantage when you're moderating--so take some time to plan for better balance when you pose questions to speakers.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Gage Skidmore. New York Times infographic.)

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.