As a speech coach in New York City, I am frequently called to help people who are preparing to moderate a panel. I often see the same two mistakes made as clients prepare; the first is making the panel discussion too long, and the second is making it too complex. Here is what you can do to avoid these critical errors.
First, make sure that you’re panel discussion is ONE HOUR, and ONE HOUR ONLY. Even the most lively panel discussion will begin to drag after an hour. Science has shown that our attention span is worse than that of a goldfish, so be sure to keep things moving!
Second, don’t muddy the water by having presentations woven into the event. If you find dynamic enough panelists, and you are careful to be sure they represent opposing viewpoints (conflict and controversy are good!), your panel should be interesting enough.
If you want to moderate a successful panel discussion, keep it simple; dynamic panelists with opposing views, great curated stories (you do the curating), and a single, simple powerpoint slide to display your event information.
It all started out so well. She was firing on all cylinders; strong voice, good eye contact, inspired writing with a personal touch, a couple of good self-deprecating jokes. However, Theresa May, giving a conference speech aimed at revitalizing her standing after a disastrous few months, found herself seriously derailed when a heckler handed her a “P45” form which is the British equivalent of a “pink slip”. What went wrong?
My feeling is she didn’t handle this guy quickly and firmly enough. Let’s see some fire, Theresa! This heckler is making a mockery of you in public, and stealing a crucial moment from you (not to mention creating a major security risk). Maybe say something like, “you may think the problems of income inequality, affordable housing, and the sinking pound are laughable, but I assure you I do not. Get off my stage, young man.” Instead, Prime Minister May takes the P45 when it is handed to her, as if she is obligated to do so, and tries to continue as if nothing has happened. After a moment or two, she makes a nice joke, and hits back a bit, but not before her momentum is lost.
What do you think is the best way to handle a heckler?
It’s hard to make a great speech about grain, but Pierre Thiam has managed to do so in this wonderful TED talk. He starts with a simple opener: “I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal”. By signaling that this will be a “personal creation” story at the start, he has us hooked. Storytelling is the lifeblood of any good speech, and personal storytelling is king.
As he reveals his story, he eloquently weaves in his argument for a solution to desertification in Africa. His speech overflows with rigorous research and startling stats about migration patterns, immigration, and food sustenance in Sub-Saharan Africa, but we never really lose the sense that this is a personal journey. It’s this combination of careful research, intellectual rigor and personal revelation that makes this simple topic dynamic.
I’d like to call attention to Mr. Thiam’s articulation. Clearly, English is not his native language, but he is able to get his points across (despite some mispronunciations) for a few simple reasons. First, he is taking a clear and deliberate pause at the end of each phrase. Second, he highlights one focus word per thought group with his intonation, and finally, he uses proper intonation on “road sign” words that signal a change in thought like “however”, “then again” and “although”. Mr. Thiam’s articulation is clear because he prioritizes proper rhythm, stress, and intonation.
Every once in a blue moon, a speaker does everything right. Such is the case with Rita Pierson’s gem of a speech on the need for school reform. She has a powerful, expressive voice and an actress’ touch with language. She utilizes gesture effectively, effortlessly timing her movements with her content. But what works best in this speech are the stories. Well told stories are the lifebloodof any good speech.
I’d like to call attention to the way she builds her stories. Her initial stories are about her students, and the way she interacts with them, but the most powerful story, the story of her mother’s impact on the lives of her students, comes at the end of her speech, just before her call to action. With each story, she takes us deeper into both her thesis, andher own emotional life. The speech builds both intellectually and emotionally. Just beautiful.
I recently poised the question, “is it possible to speak too slow while presenting“? My answer was “no”, but Brian Little’s pace of speaking would challenge that assumption. I think he picks up the pace adequately around the middle of his TED Talk, but I found my mind wandering off at the beginning. This is because he is speaking just a bittoo slowly, and because he doesn’t have a good story up front in order to attract the audience’s attention.
This changes dramatically half way through the speech. At about the ten minute mark, we get a series of wonderful, hilarious stories, starting with this gem, and the speech really comes to life. Its amazing how a few small changes can lift a speech from good to great. When it comes to presenting, the devil is in the details.