Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Audience comments matter: Moderators in the wake of the Dallas shootings

In the wake of an extreme event--like the shooting that led to the deaths of five police officers during a peaceful protest in Dallas last week--it's not surprising that community leaders might seek to focus and channel the high emotions by curating a panel discussion or two. But as folks in Dallas learned last week, that's a prime situation for the moderator to be ready for a heightened awareness of her primary role as the advocate for the audience.

In Dallas, two panels were convened, featuring area activists and leaders. TIME.com noted:
But after two hours of sedate panels, a long line formed full of angry people yelling to be heard. They demanded to know what answers panelists had to stop police brutality, racial profiling and economic disparity. As each fuming questioner refused to be silenced by the moderator, the audience roared its approval.
As one audience member put it:
“We had a community meeting, but we didn’t hear anything from the community,” said La’Shadion Anthony, Dallas Action Coalition. “We were told we can’t effect change in 24-hours. If we stand up all together we can get change … We had a panel about policies but we didn’t discuss any policies."
What could a moderator have done to handle this situation better?
  1. Don't be a moderator who shies away from asking tough questions. In a tumultuous time, one way for the audience to feel heard is through the moderator's choice of questions. If you don't hold the panel's feet to the fire, the audience will. Feel free to let your panelists know of this plan in advance.
  2. Give the audience half of the allotted time. Calling on the speakers is just one half of the moderator's job. Don't neglect the audience.
  3. Don't approach audience anger as an umpire would. Your job is to let people be part of the discussion, not to break up a fight.
It's also a good time to consider opening with the audience's questions first, then moving to the panel, then returning to Q&A. I've long said that audiences show up at conferences and meetings with a desire to say something, even if they are not among the featured speakers. If you plan for that eventuality, you'll have a much more contented--rather than contentious--audience in front of you.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Peter Burka)

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.