Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Yes, you can: Avoiding "what she said" on a panel

Repeat after me: If you want sparkling discussion on a panel, at some point, someone needs to disagree with--or at least differ from--someone else.

Unfortunately, too many speakers wind up saying some version of "what she said" when they attempt to chime in on a point. Also called "down-the-line" questions because that's how they move through a panel, the tactic is not just repetitive and boring for the audience, it uses up valuable time for new and different thoughts. (And it may mean your speakers aren't working hard enough.) What can a moderator do?

In Panel Discussions and Dissent, Cate Huston shares one tactic used when she was a panelist:
Speaker panels can be a bit overwhelming, because there end up being so many people on stage, which makes them a special problem. We did an interesting thing for the speaker panel at 360iDev which I think is worth talking about.  
Any question was supposed to be taken by only one panelist, and then there was a separate section of three people (including me!) for strong opinions. One of us was supposed to weigh in after, only if we disagreed.
Notice that was "one," not "all," for the responses.

Moderators can really shine when a panel has "what she said" syndrome. Here are a few more things moderators can do to avoid the problem:
  • Tell the panelists in advance that you don't want any repetitive chiming in. Even if it sounds obvious, believe me, it isn't.
  • Announce at Q&A time how you want the answers to unfold. Try "On this panel, we're going to ask the panelists not to answer questions all the way down the line, unless they disagree with the first respondent. We want to allow time for many views, so speakers, help me out." Or, try this: "Only one speaker will answer each question, so we can keep the discussion moving forward. Speakers and audience members, help me keep this rule enforced." In this way, the audience becomes a guarantee that your speakers won't slip around that rule, and the speakers are on notice, with witnesses.
  • Give the audience a chance to disagree: After one panelist answers a question, turn to the audience and say, "I wonder if there are any dissenting views on that score from the audience?"
  • Ask a challenge question: "What if that weren't possible--then what would you do?" or a similar follow-up question might provoke different views from all the panelists.
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Geek Girl Con)

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.