N.B. In this blog, I refer to chairing and moderating as chairing.
Imagine the last conversation you had, when you were so fully committed and focused that time just flew by. What did you talk about? How did the conversation progress? How did you start and end the conversation? How did you take turns to speak? How did you pace your speech?
I am guessing most of the responses to these questions were subconsciously made. Through repeated social interactions we have learned how to construct and carry conversations. This is the role of a Chair or Moderator in a panel. They make all the decisions to the questions above and ensure a panel does not descend into chaos.
Chairing or moderating a panel is not an easy task. It’s also a big responsibility especially in the global development field. Some panels can bring out some insights that influence the trajectory of an issue in public discourse no matter the size of the original audience.
A great chair or moderator does two things really well. They are the anchor and they are the thread in the conversation.
- The Anchor: Confident and Assertive, you provide direction to the panel, making sure it’s flowing in a structured manner. You bring order to an unpredictable situation.
- The Thread: Discreet and Attentive, you are aware of the dynamics in the room. You guide the conversation with brief and concise interventions, playing on the dynamics of the conversation to bring direction and progression.
Chairing is a very useful skill to learn and one that teaches you how to cultivate conversations that matter. Over the past few years, I have had some incredible opportunities to chair panels with dynamic speakers such as Former UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening and Former Prime Minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. I have researched and tested different methods that worked well and learned from experiences that did not go so well. As I continue to improve this skill, I wanted to share some tips on how to be a great anchor and thread, the next time you chair a panel. I hope you find it useful! Please do share your reflections and additional tips below. You never stop learning.
BRING YOUR AUTHENTIC SELF
Learning how to bring your authentic self to every situation is important. It’s about being comfortable with who you are no matter the context or audience. Your vision, your voice and your perspective matters. There are some basic tasks you should fulfil as Chair but it does not mean you cannot ‘own’ that role in the way that is authentic to your way of thinking, speaking style and so forth.
As part of your preparation, it’s important to spend some time (30 minutes- 1 hour) reflecting on what you think the role of a Chair should be, what personal qualities you can bring to a chairing role and why you have accepted the specific chairing opportunity.
Once you have reflected on these questions, you should then ask yourself:
- What kind of Chair do I want to be for this panel?
Some tips to help you in this exercise are:
- Watch or attend different panels and compare what you like about each Chair, the way the discussion unfolds and how you can work on cultivating a similar atmosphere.
- Read up on different guidance notes about Chairing and useful tips you can adopt.
- Ask friends and colleagues about their most memorable panels and the role the Chair played in this, and how (if, at all) the Chair could have improved
- If you have attended/watched a panel you really liked, consider reaching out to the Chair online and asking for tips via email or a phone conversation.
For practical reasons, it is important to be clear about what is expected of you well in advance. To do this you should organise a meeting with the organisers to find out what they would like to get out of the panel. Some of the questions you should ask:
- The format they envision and their perspective on previous panels which went well/ could have gone better
- The profile of the audience they are expecting
- Expectations of your responsibilities before, during and after the panel
- Deadlines on submitting documents, preparations, rehearsals so you can plan your preparation accordingly
If they are high profile panellists, there should be plenty of material out of there for you to access so you can get a sense of i) who they are ii) how they interact in panels and ii) their thoughts on the topic. Researching the speakers also helps to build rapport when you meet them and will help you develop questions that are relevant to their experience and perspectives.
Research the topic and consider what insight each panellist can bring to that issue with their knowledge. You want to cultivate a dynamic conversation so even if you have a panel of speakers who all agree on the same thing (i.e. poverty is bad), you can create questions which allow them to bring different perspectives on that issue.
PREPARE YOUR CONTRIBUTIONS
You will usually be expected to prepare introductions and cues for each step of the panel as well as questions to the panellists. Make sure you draft talking points and rehearse them well, especially the opening section. Your contributions should be brief and serve to provide social cues to what is coming next. When introducing speakers, you do not need to provide long introductions, even if they are well known. If they are well known, they won’t need a long introduction…
ASK QUESTIONS THAT INVITE REFLECTIONS, NOT RHETORIC
The questions you ask will determine to a large degree the flow, direction and quality of conversation. So, it is important to prepare a good proportion of your time to this.
Your research on the topic and the panellists, as well as your discussions with the organisers should give you enough material to outline your focus. Questions provide a solid structure which you use to maintain direction and progression in the conversation.
Aim to create questions that have not been asked before. Ideally, you want the panel to add to existing understanding. Depending on the format and the flow of conversation, you may not get to ask all the questions or other questions you prepared may be answered naturally during the conversation. Be flexible in this regard and look for opportunities to interject or interlink questions as the conversations unfold.
This is a great way to help you prepare for the panel. If you struggle with nerves before public speaking, visualisation helps you to use your imagination in a creative and productive way.
A few days before your session, visualise the whole sequencing of the panel making sure to include yourself. It is also useful to practice negative visualisation. Negative visualisation, in this case, is to mentally picture ‘unexpected’ or ‘negative’ situations which you are afraid might happen. However, you don’t stop there. Instead, you picture yourself actively responding to and overcoming that situation. For example, if you were chairing a panel and the incident below happened, what would you do?
If you were worried about stumbling over words, how would you react if you did? What would you do to move past the situation and get your confidence back? I highly recommend this podcast, ‘This Moved Me’, for practical and useful tips on public speaking.
GET TO KNOW THE ROOM
Arrive early so you can get to know the room, meet the panellists (if you haven’t already), rehearse and be updated on any last-minute changes (panellists drop out, technical issues etc.). This is a good opportunity to build rapport with the panellists and allow them to trust you with the authority to guide the conversation.
GET TO KNOW THE AUDIENCE
If there is time, it’s also good to speak with some of the audience members and find out more about their motivation for attending the panel. Social media is also a good place to check out and see if people have already started discussions on the topic.
Make sure to watch your breathing, speak twice as slowly as you normally would, have a glass of water next to you, and focus on the next immediate thing you have to do in the panel. Also, bring deodorant with you (just in case).
It is important to keep a close eye on timing and be prepared to respectfully and assertively round off a panellist or audience member who is taking up too much time. Prepare some one-liners ahead of the panel if you feel uncomfortable doing this. You can use the timer on your phone, your watch or ask one of the organisers to signal to you when it is time for a speaker to move on. Another fun way to do this, is to have a sign prepared beforehand which you can signal to the speaker when their time is nearly up. This may or may not work for the panel format and you would want to agree this with the organisers beforehand.
Active listening is about training yourself to listen with intense curiosity and awe as opposed to listening to rebut or debate.
In the context of a panel, active listening is being attentive to the dynamics in the room (how people are responding to the panel), what is being discussed so you can manage the discussion and keep it flowing well, and listening to the implications of each contribution so you can guide the discussion with meaningful questions. For the latter, I tend to make notes, so I can add/make connections as the conversation flows.
It is important to ensure the tone and the relevance of the interventions bring value to the discussions. In most panels, there is a lot of unpredictability and you have to exercise your judgement and authority (as Chair) to shape the conversation. There are some useful ways to do this, for example, when you announce the Q&A, also state some guidelines (“We have 15 minutes for the Q&A, please be prepared to ask brief questions not share long statements, however pressing it may be. We have refreshments after the panel for this…”)
If you do not understand or cannot hear the person speaking, ask for clarification because it will be you everyone turns to for clarification. For example, you can say, “So what I understand you are asking is…/ I’m sorry I can’t hear what you are saying, could you repeat the question?”
Also prepare a line to signal the end of the Q&A so everyone knows where the conversation is heading to. For example, you could say, “We have time for one more question.”
There are several ways to close a panel. You can ask a final question to all panellists, or summarise key themes, for example. Make sure to the thank all those involved in the panel, including the audience (online and in person) 😉
I hope you have found some of my tips helpful and are feeling confident to rock your next panel!! You got this!