Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Should panel moderators be "breaking up fights?"

Are you an umpire or a moderator?

The answer for your panel discussion may lie in how you view the nature of the word "discussion," among the panelists, and between the panel and the audience members.

Recently, Project Entrepreneur gathered women founders in New York City for an intensive weekend. And in a session where reality star Bethenny Frankel was being interviewed by a moderator, she made offensive remarks about women and women of color. Participant Mary Pryor later wrote about the experience:
As a participant in Rent The Runway’s and UBS’s Project Entrepreneur, a new initiative to equip women founders with the tools and advice they need to thrive in the marketplace, I was stunned when Frankel implied that women should have sex with men in exchange for capital. I was offended when she expressed some kind of kinship with black women because she’s “loud.” And I was taken aback when she advised those of us in the room to get business advice to hire a white man as the face of our companies.
Pryor also noted the reaction from the stage when she and others rose to criticize Frankel's remarks:
Nothing. No apology. No acknowledgement of an ignorant reply. Just a comment from a moderator about “breaking up a fight” and removing the mic from our hands. Naomi and I stood there shaking our heads. We stood up to defend female founders of color. She stood up as an ally aware of bias and ignorance in tech. We came together respectfully and left disappointed.
Project Entrepreneur later posted this apology to participants.

Saying that a confrontive audience question requires "breaking up a fight" is not a best practice for panel moderators. Nor would it be if the disagreement arose between two panelists. The moderator's job isn't to keep the commentary moderate, but to make sure many people get a turn in the discussion, no matter what they have to say. Disagreement makes for a more interesting exchange.

What might have worked better here?
  • Letting the audience members who rose to object have their say, and listening with respect;
  • Anticipating that reaction early by saying to Frankel, "Do you really mean that? Can you explain why you feel that way?" That would not have stopped the audience reaction, I suspect, and so the moderator also needed to be prepared to let that happen during Q&A, if not before.
  • Noting the disagreement and thanking everyone for their perspectives.
You don't need to agree with either the speaker or the audience members, moderators. But you do need to avoid shutting down the discussion part of the day. If you're the type of speaker who dreads questions, or likes to avoid them, you may not be ready to be a moderator--a role in which part of your job is to welcome and advance questions and discussion. 

Read Losing your fear of Q&A for more ideas on how to reframe your response to questions, whether you are the speaker or the moderator.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Dickson Phua)

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.