Tired of Talking Heads? Audience Engagement is the Antidote

Thursday, April 19, 2018 - 21:00
“Audience” by Croswald9 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When was the last time you left a panel discussion – that most ubiquitous of nonprofit and civic sector experiences – feeling like, yes, that was really worth my time? My guess is that it’s probably been a while.

Too often, one panelist will dominate the discussion. Or there are too many panelists lined up for the allotted time. Q&A time is an after-thought, and one that often gets squeezed in favor of more talking-head time.

For me, I remember most those gatherings in which the program was designed to talk with me rather than at me, to engage my experience and intelligence and make sure I had the chance to hear and benefit from that of others.

So how do you achieve intimate, intelligent, civil and informative discussions that make the most of the panelist-plus-moderator format? I think it comes down to two key elements: a strong moderator who can facilitate real dialogue and a commitment to fostering an actual dialogue with the audience.

At the outset of planning, a good rule of thumb is: 30 percent of the total gathering time should be driven by panel member voices and the remaining 70 percent – yes, 70 – should include the voices and thinking of those assembled. It’s as if your audience is an additional panelist – one with intelligence, added knowledge of the topic, and probing questions that can elevate the discussion.

This formula will require that each panel member crisply articulate a key idea or two in response to a compelling question worked out with the panel well ahead of the gathering. Panelists need to come prepared to spark those in the room to form their own thoughts and to speak up comfortably when the time comes. A moderator is key to the success of this type of setting, signaling to panel and audience members alike when it’s time for them to play their respective roles.

The best panel moderators set up a simple set of ground rules with panel members long before the conference convenes, and reiterate how the panel will work along with the audience. During the discussion, an effective moderator becomes a kind of voice traffic controller. This means acting as every audience member’s advocate – a kind of proxy for audience interests – as much as serving to prod, question, challenge and interpret with an audience member’s ear what panelists have said, re-phrasing or investigating a bit more when needed.

I prefer playing the role of moderator when panel members have been curated for their confidence and comfort with the subject at hand and less from minutely prepared notes or, worse, dense PowerPoint presentations. That way, panel members don’t tend to over-prepare from a fear of running out of things to say and are more than able to engage in a thoughtful dialogue. Audiences listen attentively to speakers who summon first the voice of personal experience and ascend – quickly and succinctly – to the general and universal.

As soon as I’ve established the panelists’ authority to opine on whatever the matter at hand happens to be, I prefer to open things up to the audience for questions, perspective and thoughts. I control the impulse for all panelists to respond to every audience query by often asking just one panelist for a response and, alternatively, by sometimes eliciting multiple audience comments and letting the panelists hear the drift of audience thinking and the tenor of voices in the room before asking for quick panelist takes on what they’ve heard. I might even frame a question from what I hear and toss it to one or another panelist directly.  

I’ve found this approach — trusting the unique intelligence, experience, interests and voice of the panel and audience to reveal itself — makes for a much more enjoyable experience. Everyone, including me as moderator, certainly the audience, and surely the panelists, leave the gathering rewarded for the time they chose to spend there.



Audience” by Croswald9 (CC BY-SA 2.0)