How to ask a panel killer questions (e-book excerpt 4)

May 29, 2012 8:31 am

This month’s snippet from how-to guide Everything In Moderation: How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events raises the question of questions. Or rather, how to best interrogate panellists.

Question-asking (part 1)
Intros out the way, your notes become your best friend. I’ve met interviewers and speakers who work without this safety net. But I can’t lie, I’m not one of them. For most people notes, however brief, are the sensible play.

The key is to have something that is both concise – no page turning please – but legible. Since I think it looks a bit shoddy to be sitting up front with a visible sheet of A4 or even those smaller, index-style cards (which some people swear by), I ask for or bring along a small clipboard.

Nowadays a similar tactic is to use an iPad or other tablet device. This works well, especially when hidden in a neutral cover, and can mean longer notes sans page turning. Though of course it can be harder to annotate those notes on the fly – and I strongly believe that the pen is one of the greatest props ever invented. (Try pointing at an audience member or slide with an iPad.)

Notes will be mostly based on discussions ahead of time with your panellists. A good moderator – and not just the journalists out there – will also have some questions ready to throw in that haven’t been talked about in advance.

And when I say ‘talked about in advance’ I’m a big believer that any moderator or interviewer should never give precise questions out in advance. This isn’t just J-school ethics. For any moderator, in almost any scenario, all kinds of problems come about when this happens. Guests rehearse answers (often lengthy ones) that sound just that – rehearsed.

They also get upset if a question is changed on the day, even slightly.

Then there is the problem that some guests will prepare answers to questions you never end up asking them. One of my cardinal rules of panels is never ask the same question to everyone. It’s one of the worst things you can imagine (along with mobile phones going off and the ‘self-intro’) – same question, same four speakers (or three or five) same 1-2-3-4 order. In three words: Mix it up.

My one exception to this, something I learnt from time in TV and online video, especially when seguing from something else (like a speech or news film) is to let the whole panel know who the first question will be addressed to, just a few seconds ahead of going live. I’ve found this takes a lot of pressure off everyone – you, the first guest to speak and even those who know they have to wait their turn.

So by all means discuss subject matter in advance. Make sure everyone knows the debate parameters, including the positions people are expecting them to take. Even orchestrate some confrontation – guests will appreciate the heads up and they all know that a session with disagreement is more compelling than a placid session. But don’t make everything so regimented it loses all spontaneity.

You can buy e-book Everything In Moderation: How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events by Collective Content director Tony Hallett from Amazon in the UK, US or other countries.
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