Obliterate the Opening Remarks
I recently attended a high-level technology summit, who’s innocence I will protect by allowing them to remain anonymous. It attracted power players from all over the world. The quality of social influence and brain power was as impressive as the quality of the content in the panels.
The event was wonderful, I really enjoyed it on the whole and feel honored to have been invited. However, as the second half of the second day came to a close, we packed three sessions into two marathon hours. What struck me towards the end of the event was how the 10 minute opening remarks of each panelist caused each panel to provide information that was more flat than they intended and reduced the energy of the room to a snore. This unintended consequence of the format allowed the panels at the beginning of the day to go long and the ones at the end of the day to be cut short. Also, this prevented the panels from taking questions from the audience, which on a whole is usually when a room starts to wake up and the panel actually begins to become interesting. Thus, I call on all moderators of the world’s future panels to obliterate the opening remarks and organize panels around Conversational Clarity.
Let’s face it, opening remarks are boring. My former NPR editor called them “delay of game” content. “Get to the point and get me interested!” he would say.
Being a former NPR/PBS reporter and talk show host forced me to learn the art of Conversational Clarity. It’s a technique that forces moderators or hosts to skip the background and get right to the meat of the topic. Though the delivery of their answers panelists can pepper the conversation with their expertise, background and the missions of their respective organizations in ways that audiences would retain better than opening remarks. This format creates more compelling content delivery that causes curiosity in listeners, piques their interest, and prompts them to follow up for more information.
The Art of Conversational Clarity
Conversational Clarity requires a moderator to understand where their panelists are coming from and ask opening questions that cut to the chase. It does require preparation from the moderator, so if you are organizing an event make sure to give your panelists plenty of lead time. Encourage them to connect with their panelists two to three weeks ahead of time to discover the messages and points they are looking forward to making on the panel. Additionally, encourage your moderators to offer panelists ideas and sample questions that can start off the panel.
At the event, Conversational Clarity starts with detailed, yet brief introductions by the moderator based on panelist bios. Overall, this short speech should last no more than 20 seconds and only offer the highest level of detail. Organizers should instruct their moderators to modify and rewrite bios so that they can be read in a more conversational tone.
Moderator introductions skips the opportunity for panelists to ramble on for ten minutes about their company and what they do. After that these short introductions, the first question should bring up the largest challenges to the topic at hand, as a way to jump start a dialogue of actionable items people could implement to accomplish the end goal. An example of a CC opening question might be:
“Much has been made about the rise/fall of [insert topic]. In fact, [insert statistic]. To kick off this panel, what is the one strategy you would recommend to overcoming the challenges to get us to [insert desired result].”
Each panelist can answer the question and offer up an example from their own experience. By doing this they can drop open threads about who they are and the organization they represent. Since everyone has some type of mobile device these days, interested parties will likely look them up online to learn more about them and their organization in the session. I, myself, routinely peruse the websites of people on a panel to learn more about who they are during the event. I find when I’m interested in learning more about a person or organization, I actually retain the information better. This is likely due to the seeking hormone response of dopamine and the finding pleasure reward of opioid.
Once each panelist has answered the opening question, the moderator can follow up with the next, detailed, well researched tough question. A common transition from the first to second question is,
“So what I’m hearing is X, Y, and Z (mini recap). Which leads me to my next question…”
After this second question has been fulfilled, it’s important for the moderator to let the audience know that they will be opening up the panel to questions after this third question. That allows the audience time to prepare. The last thing you want to do is open up the panel to audience questions only to hear crickets from the room.
Opening up a panel to questions early is critical. Panel after panel that I have moderated has proven to me that the audience always asks more compelling questions than the list most moderators can prepare. Additionally, audiences love a back and forth with the panel and those asking the questions. Suddenly, people stop checking their email and start listening attentively to the dialogue that’s been created. At that point the session takes on a life of its own and the lift of the energy in the room is palpable. That’s when a moderator knows they have done a good job.
Managing the Energy in the Room
Energy management in a panel is critical. Well documented research shows the lack of audience participation can cause the attention in a room to plummet. Especially if half of your audience is jet-lagged!
Activities that can raise the energy in a room include:
- Call and response
- Exercises (on stage or in the room)
By including one or more of these elements every five minutes, you can raise the energy in a room markedly. The next time you are at an event, check in with the energy of the room and how you feel. Then check in with your interest in the panel (your energy level) after one of these items above have happened. You may notice that you feel better, more engaged and/or with a greater ability to retain the content being presented.
Managing the energy in the room also means moderators must have a strong enough sense of self that they stop panelists who drone on too long or halt participants who have more a soapbox to stand on than a question. To the moderator this can feel like being rude, interrupting people and taking the heat of it. More often then not, however, the audience is also feeling the same way the moderator is, and welcomes their leader taking control of the situation, in a friendly way of course.
Obliterating the opening remarks is not going to happen overnight. It requires moderators to think like talk show hosts, preparing ahead of time and managing their limited time exquisitely. It also requires panelists to feel comfortable with serving on a panel that doesn’t guarantee them “air time” to talk directly about themselves and use the crutch of slides. Slides are sometimes important to conveying complex ideas in a panel, and I encourage them in limited use, but not as a routine or requirement.
Panelists should want to serve on your panel regardless of whether or not they are guaranteed 10 minutes to drone on about themselves. If a panelist doesn’t feel confident enough that they will be able to pepper their answers with proof points and content regarding their own organization, then they might not be dedicated enough to your topic to serve as a quality resource.
Overall, obliterating the opening remarks is about putting the needs of the audience above the self-promotional needs of the panelists. If only 10% of moderators took this approach to their events, participants would see a significant increase if the quality of events. Energy envy would percolate though the audience and future moderators would seek to emulate those moderators they admired.
Lisa Ann Pinkerton is founder of Technica Communications, as well as Founder and President of San Francisco’s Women in Cleantech & Sustainability. Lisa Ann is a former award-winning broadcast journalist who reported for National Public Radio, PBS Television, American Public Media, Free Speech TV and a variety local stations.