It all seemed like a no-brainer to me, so I wasn’t prepared when the first two audience members who went up to the microphone used it as an opportunity to criticize Susan’s talk. It was a very emotional and angry reaction. The basic gist was that by presenting the topic in this manner, Susan was blaming cancer patients. It was old data and therefore inaccurate. She should have re-focused it and just shared techniques for coping with stress related to cancer. I’ve been attacked in a similar way by some members of the cancer community who believe I’m “blaming the victim” when I share the common attributes of cancer survivors I’ve interviewed who beat the odds. And I was shocked then, too. Luckily several people stood up and supported Susan’s talk. I wrapped up the session by expressing my support of Susan’s points and asking audience members to not look at it as a “blame game,” but as an opportunity to transform their lives.Whenever you know your panel's topic is likely to have passionate audience members with distinct points of view, there's a chance you'll have such a clash between the audience and the panel. Rather than be taken by surprise, moderators should use their pre-panel consultations with panelists to ask about controversial issues and questions they expect or are concerned about, and how audience members might respond. I recommend a conference call with panelists early in the planning process, and another closer to the date of the actual panel for just this reason--news events or other factors can add controversy to your topic as the date draws closer.
Clever moderators with controversial topics also can try one of my favorite tactics: Start, rather than end, with audience questions. Say you'll take 5 minutes of audience questions at the start, to be sure you get them all on the table. Then it's your job as moderator to make sure those questions get answers, either on the spot if the answers are quick, or afterwards. You can then proceed with the panel, and follow with Q&A as usual--except you'll take those initial questions first, if they weren't dealt with upfront. You'd be surprised at how well this works with audiences. After all, they come to panel discussions with things to discuss.
It also helps to remember that you're a moderator, not a problem-solver. You don't need to agree with every questioner, nor do your panelists. Part of your job is to let people be heard, whether they're on the panel or in the audience. A neutral response along the lines of "Thanks for sharing that point of view. You're giving us a good example of how conplex this issue really is," will go a long way to keeping the discussion moving.
(Creative Commons licensed photo by David Calhoun)
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.