Handling Question and Answer Sessions

Handling Question and Answer Sessions

I was at a conference recently where during the Q and A session, the moderator failed to stop a woman from sharing her life experience as a refugee with the audience. Interesting, as it was how she ended up in Oxford from Myanmar, it was not relevant to the subject of the panel.

As the audience became restless with many rolling their eyes, the moderator did try to interrupt and ask for her question. She said she had no question but thought the audience should know about what she went through!

This made me think of how important it is as a moderator or as a presenter that you handle effectively the Q and A session.

Below are some tips based on my experience as a moderator and presenter who trains in both disciplines.

The audience member, who doesn’t ask a question, but makes a comment.

  • Make it clear before you take a question that you want a question not comments.
  • Take a leaf out of the book of Christiane Amanpour, the doyenne of CNN, when she moderated a panel at the UN in Geneva.

It is a technique that I find usually works but sometimes as Christiane discovered, it fails to deter the persistent. If this happens to you, you must wait for the person to draw breathe and politely interrupt for the sake of the audience and the panel members, as Christiane does here.


However, you may find, as I did, that certain audience members believe they should have been on the panel and therefore want to share their experience. This is fine as long as the organisers let you know beforehand that someone wants to intervene with a comment.

Handling the audience member who rambles

This happened to me during one of the first panels I moderated. The culprit was sitting right in my line of view so I went to him first. He made no sense as he started to read long passages from a text. I looked at the panellists to see if they understood, but found they were just as nonplussed.

I asked him to get to the point, but he continued to ramble. As the audience began to stir in their seats, I politely told him that we would answer his question in the break.

  • Don’t wait until the audience become impatient before asking the questioner to clarify. If they don’t, tell them the panellists will answer their question after the event.
  • Ask the organisers beforehand if there is anyone in the audience who is likely to make comments, or speeches. In this case, the person in question was a serial offender and had previously been asked to leave by security when he kept on talking without getting to the point!

Handling the audience member whose English is not understandable

This is my weak point. I speak French and German and am well aware how difficult it is to ask a question in public in a foreign language. I can be too indulgent and try and help the person too much to make their point.

  • Seek clarification once, paraphrasing and checking back with them that you have understood.
  • If this fails, ask if anyone in the audience can translate the question for the panel.
  • Ask the organisers beforehand to provide simultaneous translation if they think the audience will benefit.

Handling the hostile questioner  

In my experience this is more of an issue for the presenter/panellist than the moderator. However, the technique is similar.

  • Listen actively – try to understand what they are really saying/mean and feel.
  • As the moderator, you should understand and acknowledge their concern. As the presenter/panellist, you could reformulate the question positively and answer with what you know or believe. You can also involve the audience and ask their view.
  • Closure – check back as the presenter/panellist or in some cases as the moderator that you have answered their question or addressed their concern.

Often people are nervous about the Q and A session, but if you take control you will earn the respect of your audience, panel and the organisers, not least because you have kept the event on time and on track.

If you would like more tips on handling the Q and A session as a panel moderator or when giving a presentation, do attend one of my moderating or presenting trainings.


How to Construct a Memorable Speech

How to Construct a Memorable Speech

Recently, I coached the head of a large Swiss NGO for a series of speeches she is giving at a popular summer forum.

We worked on a structure and delivery that holds the attention of a global audience from different backgrounds – academic, non-governmental, diplomatic and corporate.

What the coaching reminded me of is that the theories on memory recall developed by a German Professor during the last century are still valid today. Namely, the ability of the brain to retain information decreases over time.

Professor Hermann Ebbinghaus developed the “forgetting curve” which shows that the sharpest decline is during the first 20 minutes and then it levels off after 1 day. The speed of the decline depends on a number of factors such as how easy, visual or relevant the information is to retain. However, on average as the graph below shows people only retain 40% after the first day.

He also developed the concepts of primacy and recency – that we remember the first things and last things we are told with a good chance of forgetting much that is in the middle.

Theory into practice

Armed with this knowledge, she constructed a speech that put the overarching key message in the introduction and then developed 3 related key messages in the body before recapping them at the end.

So did the audience remember the key messages?

I asked people at the forum a couple of hours later and they clearly remembered the introduction – about the rise of xenophobia and restrictive immigration policies in Europe and the US and the call for fundamental rights to be respected.

However they only remembered the messages in the body of the speech when prompted. This may have been because the introduction focussed on a problem that was familiar to the audience and the body on innovative solutions to that problem.

Whatever the reason, it showed that when writing a speech the author has to frontload their key messages to be sure that they are remembered.

The next day, I asked several people what they remembered and true to Ebbinghaus’s theory they recalled the introduction but even less than the day before. The explanations ranged from battling jet lag, the time of day (late afternoon), listening to a foreign language to the temperature in the room (28 degrees outside).

When I tested their recall of the other opening speeches, the results were dismal. They remembered very little a couple of hours after and nothing on the second day.

It has to be said that I remembered very little either, as the speeches were not audience centric and certainly not structured according to the Ebbinghaus principles.

So, however engaged and educated your audience may be, it is worth remembering that it is your responsibility as the speaker to hold their attention by delivering a clear structure with memorable key messages.


Motivational Speeches: Take a Lesson from Football

Motivational Speeches: Take a Lesson from Football

Photo credit: AFP
The coach of the German football team, Joachim Löw, must have given an exceptional motivational speech to his players at half-time on Saturday evening when they were trailing Sweden by a goal in the World Cup in Russia.

As defending champions, Germany faced the prospect of going out in the opening rounds. However, the team rallied to score two goals – the last one in extra time.

This made me think of one of the best motivational speeches ever written and delivered. In the 1999 film, “Any Given Sunday”, Al Pacino plays the coach of a great American football team that is struggling to make the playoffs. Before the big game, he gives this speech to his players with the aim of motivating them to put aside their differences and play as a team.

Have a look at his speech.

Apart from the locker room language, it has all the ingredients of a speech that inspires and motivates.

For me, these are the key learning points:

• He matches his words with his voice and body language to take us on an emotional rollercoaster.
• He clearly identifies the purpose to motivate the team for the “biggest battle of our professional lives.”
• He builds rapport with the audience by connecting emotionally and talking about his mistakes.
• He has a strong key message where he makes an analogy between life and football saying that it comes down to a matter of inches.
• He reinforces this message through repetition – repeating the word inch 13 times.
• He uses contrast, playing with ideas of lightness and darkness, living and dying, and working as a team or as an individual.
• He groups ideas in threes – “every break of the game, every minute, every second.”
• He has a strong call for action at the end – “That’s football, guys. That’s all it is. Now, what are you going to do?”

Vocal delivery:

Take a leaf out of Al Pacino’s book when you deliver a speech: identify the main points, pause before the key messages and emphasise key words.

For example,

“The inches we need are everywhere around us.

On this team, we fight for that inch.

I’m still willing to fight and die for that inch.

That’s a team, gentlemen.”

So what exactly did the German coach say to his team during half time?

“I told them to keep their calm, to not start panicking and try things out. To not just start to try long and high balls. To keep going with rapid passing shots, to go wider with Timo Werner. We have 45 minutes to turn this around. Don’t lose hope. We can turn the tide and win this match. That’s what I told them.”

It would have been great to have been a fly on the wall during his pep talk, but whatever Joachim Löw said and how he said it, it worked.


6 Top Tips for Engaging Panel Discussions

6 Top Tips for Engaging Panel Discussions

After a busy month of moderating for the UN, European Commission and trade federations in Brussels and Geneva, plus running how to moderate workshops for public and private sector institutions, I wanted to share my top 6 tips for successful panel discussions.

The common theme is that while a professional moderator always adds some sparkle, it is difficult to wave a magic wand, if the event organisers have not thought editorially about the panellists and format.

Tip number 1

Select the right panellists for the topic. It sounds obvious, but too often panellists are chosen for political reasons rather than for what they bring to the discussion. Even the most seasoned moderators find it very hard to stimulate an engaging discussion with people who don’t have opposing views or different perspectives.

There is nothing worse than a panel where everybody says the same thing. In this case, as the moderator you have no option but to play devil’s advocate. I was once forced to do this during a discussion on refugees. Afterwards, a young student in the audience came up to me and accused me of not liking refugees. I told her that I used to be a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency but my role was not to like or dislike but to stimulate discussion.

Tip number 2

Involve the moderator in panel selection. Many moderators are former broadcast journalists, so they can advise on the range of opinions that are necessary for a stimulating discussion. They can also ensure that there is editorial coherence in the programme as the event unfolds. For me organising an event is like producing a radio/TV programme. It takes time, thought and strong editorial skills.

Tip number 3

Follow BBC best practice. As a producer, you never put anyone on air without checking that they were not only articulate but also had something new or interesting to say. You then wrote a brief for the presenter, who worked out the questions and flow of the discussion.

You were normally looking for those who held opposing views, for or against a subject, but on magazine programmes you often wanted a range of views. These could be demographically different (gender, age, ethnicity) geographically (local, national, regional, international) or involve different stakeholders (government, private sector, NGO, trade union, academic).

Tip number 4

Avoid the presentation style format. This is where each panellist has 10 to 15 minutes to present their perspective, ending with audience Question & Answer. This risks death by PowerPoint, and as people rarely time their presentations – a major mistake – they usually go over and leave little if no time for the audience to ask questions. As the moderator, it is much more difficult to stop someone mid-presentation, although I have done this in the interests of good time management and audience sanity!

If organisers/panellists insist then I suggest I ask them a series of prompt questions so that they can talk around their slides. It takes more work from the moderator and the panellists, but it is more dynamic as it is a conversation.

Tip number 5

Be wary of the opening remarks format. Here each panellist takes 5 minutes to introduce themselves and their perspectives on the topic before the moderator poses questions and the audience Question & Answer. Again, the panellists often talk over their allotted time, but even more problematic is that this can easily be too much information for the audience to remember.

This format works if it is agreed beforehand that the speakers are concise and their remarks pertinent to the subject. For example, if they set the scene for the discussion by introducing their project or programme. If they start to explain issues which are going to be addressed later in the panel discussion, this can become difficult for the moderator to follow up without repeating what has already been said.

Tip number 6

Opt for the Question and Answer Format. Here the moderator either opens with the same question for all panellists or rather like the conductor of an orchestra, brings in the panellists one by one at the right moment in the conversation. For this to work the organisers have to have selected the right panellist (see tip 1) otherwise the moderator spends a lot of time trying to join the editorial dots with a disparate group of people!

If you would like to learn how to moderate like a professional, then drop me a line for details of my in-house one-day workshops or one-on-one coaching sessions.


How to Craft a Memorable Sound Bite

How to Craft a Memorable Sound Bite

As a journalist, I knew immediately what sound bites I would use in my radio or television reports for the BBC. They were the couple of sentences that made for lively copy and were instantly memorable.

What I may not have grasped in my rush to hit my deadline was that the speaker or in some cases their communications teams had carefully crafted that sound bite with the express intent that I would use it. They knew that sound bites serve as a perfect delivery vehicle for their key messages.

Speakers, who want their messages to be memorable, ensure that they plant at least one sound bite in their media interviews and speeches to illustrate their central idea. They then use them again in their Tweets as 280 characters are the equivalent of around 50 words or 17 seconds of speech.

The art of rhetoric
Although we talk about today’s sound bite culture, it dates back thousands of years to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who developed the art of rhetoric.

Some of the most powerful sound bites come from the rhetorical devices that they mastered.

Rule of three
When we make points in threes this gives the impression of finality. American presidents down the centuries have been using this technique in their speeches. Abraham Lincoln’s “Government of the people, by the people for the people” is one of the most memorable.

I was particularly struck by the power of this device when Beatrice Fihn, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons sent this message to U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un:

“Nuclear weapons are illegal. Threatening to use nuclear weapons is illegal. Having nuclear weapons, possessing nuclear weapons, developing nuclear weapons, is illegal, and they need to stop.”

This highlights the senses, and forces the audience to pick sides. Think of George Bush’s remarks to Congress after the September 11th attacks in 2001.

“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

It is often used at the beginning of speeches as in Barack Obama’s inaugural in January 2009 when he told crowds “we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over discord.”

Images, similes and metaphors
These allow the speaker to strike the message deep into the audience’s hearts. Some of history’s most famous speeches have focussed around a single image these such as Nelson Mandela’s “road to freedom” and Margaret Thatcher’s “the lady’s not for turning.”

It is a technique that is guaranteed to get media coverage. When
Beatrice Fihn spoke to the world’s media after winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year, her remarks that ” mankind’s destruction caused by nuclear war is just one impulsive tantrum away” made headlines around the world as the US and North Korea exchanged threats over the nation’s nuclear tests.

Great speakers make sure they use imagery, which is meaningful for their audience. Those involved in healthcare often see it in terms of war, using metaphors such as “fighting infection” or “combating malaria” or “doctors on the frontline”. Recently the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross operations in the Middle East, Robert Mardini, was much quoted when he said that Yemen “had been drip-fed for two years. It needs intensive care.”

Use with care
A note of caution though, the images must be fresh and not have become clichés. To quote George Orwell, “never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

Similarly any speech or interview must be more than just a collection of sound bites. They must be substantive, containing something new and reinforcing your line of argument.

So, if you want to make sure the media quotes you and the public remember you, take time and craft a sound bite that captures the essence of your message. After all, if people can remember what you say, they’re more likely to think about what you said and then act upon it.