Cracking Chairing

It looks simple, but - like so many things - it's not quite that straightforward. 

What am I talking about you ask?

Chairing a panel. 

I’ve been lucky enough to moderate some fascinating discussions this year, including with senior figures in Google, the world of literature, and science.

Happily, the feedback on my work has been kind, and people keep asking how to chair a panel successfully.

So, in the spirit of love and sharing, and especially as we enter the festive season, I thought I would set out my 12 chairing tips of Christmas in this blog.


The Big Opening

The start is the most important part of the event, as it sets the tone. So it's worth working hard to get it right.

A little humour doesn’t go amiss, as long as it’s consistent with what is being discussed.

For the artificial intelligence panel I chaired this week, I looked up what Google auto complete suggests if you type in “Is AI…”

It provided some fascinating insights, and also some entertainment (have a look yourself), and was the ideal way to break the ice and start the event on a high.


Know Your Panel

Get to talk with everyone in advance, even if it has to be by email, so they know how you plan to run the event.

Confidence really helps in getting everyone going.

Take time to have at least a brief chat with the panellists before the actual event, so you all get a sense of each other.

Also, I would share the first question with them, to ease nerves, and make sure the answers are strong.


The Audience

This is your secret weapon. Keep an eye on them at all times, and keep them onside.

You will quickly get a sense whether they are getting bored with a particular point, or want to hear more about it.

Body language is a great give away. Are they nodding along, or staring out the window?

You will also know when the audience want to start asking questions, as they will catch your eye and lift their hands or arms.

Take questions at all opportunities, is my view.

These can be some of the most sparky moments on a panel, and they also make the audience feel part of the event, which is important.


The First Question

Generally, choosing an opening question on a broad theme of the topic you are discussing is a good move.

I asked whether there was an issue with diversity in AI, and if so, what impact it was having.

That allowed the panel to interpret the question in their own ways, helped them relax, and got the discussion going.

It also involved the audience, as they answered the question for themselves, and listened carefully to see if they agreed or disagreed with what they were hearing.

The Introductions

You could introduce the panel yourself, but too much monologue from you, the chair, quickly gets dull.

So why not ask them to introduce themselves?

But make sure they only take 30 seconds maximum to keep the pace of the event up, and don’t forget they should address the reason they are on the panel, their expertise in the subject you are discussing.


Be Happy to Fade Away

If the discussion is going well, with the panel debating with themselves, and the audience, just let it run.

Remember, your job is to make everyone else look and feel good, not yourself.

I've seen the error of a talk-too-much-chair far too many times to care to remember.

Fading into the background can be absolutely the right thing to do.

That was very much what happened in the event I chaired with two leading figures from Google, and it went all the better for it. 


This is a subtle but useful trick.

I tend not to sit amongst the panel, as it’s much harder to make eye contact if you are in a line with them.

But it you sit to the front and side, you can raise a pen, or a finger, if someone is going on too long.

That’s often more effective, and more polite, then trying to interject verbally.

This trick also gives you a great vantage point to monitor the audience, which is another critical part of chairing a panel.


Don’t be Wedded to Your Plan

In the artificial intelligence event, I only got through two of the questions I had planned.

But that was fine, because the panel were happily debating between themselves, and with the audience, and that was far more interesting than me asking questions.

If it’s working, let it run, and don’t worry about that beautiful plan you put together. 

It's all about the actual performance, not how you imagined it.


Keep to Time

No one minds going a few minutes over your allotted time.

But much more can strain the patience of the audience, as many will have other things to be doing.

Make sure there's a clock in your eyeline, so you can monitor the time.

Remember one of the Golden Rules of communications; that less is more.

Far better to leave people wanting more, than wishing they had heard less.


Let Everyone Have Their Say

On a panel, and indeed in the audience, some people will always be more vocal than others.

Your job is to make sure everyone gets heard, so keep a check on who is talking the most, and make sure those who are less forward are given a chance to have their say.

Both they, and the audience, may feel cheated otherwise.


The End

This is probably the second most important part of the discussion, as it's the last thing the audience will hear, and so should provide a strong memory.

Make sure the panel are primed for your final question, so they have a good answer ready.

In the artificial intelligence discussion, I asked them all to sum up the major differences we would notice in the world in 10 years’ time due to the influence of artificial intelligence.

It proved very thought-provoking, particularly the prediction there would be cars (electric and autonomous, of course) waiting for us with whatever food and drink they knew we favoured, ready to deliver us safely home where all the lights and heating would be on.


One final tip - Enjoy It.

Chairing a panel is a privilege. So treat it that way.

The event is likely to go much better for all concerned if the chair is fully on board, invested in the discussion, and enjoying it, too.