Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Presidential debate moderators talk about their prep: 5 lessons for your panel

In this New York Times article about last week's Republican presidential candidate debate, the trio of moderators from Fox News, which hosted, shared insights about how they prepare and strategize for the proceedings. And even though the next panel you moderate likely won't have that kind of pointed focus and national stage, there are still a few tips panel moderators can glean and use:
  1. Know how your questions rank from 1 to 10 in impact, and when you will deploy them. Megyn Kelly describes her question about Trump's treatment of women as a "10," and says, “One of the reasons the first debate was so dynamic was because we opened up with a 10 for each candidate." The tactic--which she describes as going after each candidates Achilles' heel--was an up-front way to get them to answer a tough question, personalized for each speaker.
  2. Consider the point in time in which the panel takes place. Now that the debaters are better known and have said more on the record, the first question's unlikely to be a "10," Kelly says--but that doesn't mean they're off the table. Do consider what's going on in the week your panel is presented, and what's been happening to the audience, before you decide which questions go where.
  3. It's not your job to stop a debate between panelists.  Fellow moderator Chris Wallace makes the case for letting panelists mix it up and argue amongst themselves: "I’m a fight fan, and when you watch a referee in a match, even if the fighters are tangled up, if they’ve each got a free arm and are still punching, the ref will let them keep fighting...It’s only when they get completely tangled up that he makes them break the clinch and start again. That’s my feeling about it.”
  4. Think ahead about how panelists may evade your questions and how you'll come back.  Bret Baier, last week's third moderator, notes that prep includes plans for follow-up. From the article: "Before the debate, they aggressively pick apart each proposed question, pointing out potential 'dismounts,' as Mr. Baier calls them, or ways a candidate could evade the question, and highlighting weaknesses by thinking with the same blunt, pointed and assertive nature as a candidate."
  5. Practice and prep. There's no question these reporter-moderators prepare, not just with the questions they plan to ask, but also learning in-depth facts about the topics to be covered, and strategizing about which ways the discussion might go. Do you do the same for your panels?
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.