I hate panel discussions.
Sure, I’ve been to the occasional panel discussion that features an unobtrusive moderator and three panelists who capture the audience’s attention. But they’re rare. Finding a great panel discussion is more challenging than finding a chain drug store with friendly customer service.
The problem is the format. Too often, you’ll find four people—a moderator and three panelists—all jostling for airtime. Egos gets in the way, with the people on stage inserting themselves to make sure they each get their fair share of the talk time. And with four people taking the discussion into different directions, it’s often difficult to form a narrative thread that carries through the entire session.
Even the logistics for the usual panel session contribute to its awfulness: If you ask even the most energetic speakers to sit at a table and hunch over to speak into a microphone, their energy will inevitably be diminished.
All of that made me wonder: Is there a better way to structure panel discussions?
Here are six ways to enliven your next panel discussion:
1. Look For Areas of Disagreement: Pre-interview your panelists and look for areas of disagreement (if there aren’t any, you’re at risk of booking a boring panel). You may already do that, but here’s the key–don’t share the specific disagreements with the other panelists prior to the session. That will help keep some electricity in the air; when the panelists are confronted with opposing views, the audience will be able to see their genuine reactions.
2. Be a Relentless Time Cop: Have a conference call with your panelists in advance, advising them that you intend to keep the discussion moving quickly. Tell them that as soon as their answers exceed one minute, you’re going to cut them off by saying something such as, “That’s a great point, Susan. I’d like you to pick up on that David.” That puts panelists on notice that you won’t allow soporific filibusters—and the crisp pacing helps preserve the energy in the room.
3. Remove The Table: The majority of panel discussions are conducted from behind a long table. Get rid of it. The table is a physical barrier that separates the panelists from the audience. Worse, it diminishes the speakers’ natural body language. Just try gesturing enthusiastically while seated in a hunched-over position at your desk, your elbows attached to the surface. Pretty hard, no?
4. Use Stools or Chairs Instead: I often encourage clients to position stools or chairs at the front of the stage. That set up conveys a more casual and inviting “living room” feeling—which is the reason all of the morning news show use it. This format allows you to use wireless microphones instead of table microphones.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Playful: Depending on the seriousness of the topic, you might consider using a more playful format. For example, if speaking in Indianapolis or Daytona Beach, you might consider waving a racing flag when someone exceeds their allotted time. If speaking during the presidential election season, you might use the red, yellow, and green lights typically seen during televised debates to warn them their time is up. Or you might ask the audience to do a show of hands on a given topic and ask the panelists to respond to the audiences’ opinion. (If the audience overwhelmingly votes one way, you might turn to a panelist and say, “Give me one reason they’re wrong.”)
6. Kill The Ten-Minute Introductory Comments: Here’s a common set-up for panel discussions: In a 50-minute breakout session, each panelist gets 10 minutes to make introductory statements, which eat up the first half-hour of the session. That leaves only 20 minutes for interaction, the real purpose of a panel “discussion.” Instead of asking each panelist to give a lengthy intro, try the opposite approach: begin the panel by asking each panelist, in 30 seconds or less, to offer a strong opinion on a riveting topic.
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Note: I’ll be taking a few days off to enjoy the Memorial Day holiday. I hope you have a great long weekend, and look forward to seeing you back on the blog on Tuesday, May 28.
This article is part of an occasional series about what I’ve learned from running a business. You can read other articles in this series here.
I recently received this email from a reader named Patreice:
“I have a question about creating a Media Training business in Detroit. Often times, [small non-profit organizations] feel that media training is a luxury and not a necessity. How can I convince them otherwise?”
My answer? Don’t. It’s a bad use of your time.
Since starting Phillips Media Relations in 2004, I’ve encountered the same situation numerous times. Occasionally, I’ll get a call from a PR or communications professional who explains that their executives desperately need media training—but they don’t know they need it. They’ll then ask me to come meet with their executives to “convince” them that they need media training.
I sympathize with those PR or communications professionals and know exactly where they’re coming from. But I turn down those requests. They’re a bad use of my time.
Think about it this way: Could you ever imagine someone calling a dentist’s office and saying:
“My mother desperately needs to see a dentist but she refuses to go. Would you please come to our home and convince her to make an appointment? If you can get her to agree, she’d become a new patient of yours, so it would be good for you.”
The bottom line, Patreice, is that there are plenty of potential clients out there who already understand the value of media training—or, for that matter, any other services you’re selling. And it’s a whole lot easier to sell your services to them than it is to convince someone that they need your services in the first place.
So focus on finding clients who already know they need your services. Market your brand so that customers needing your services can easily find you when they seek them. And gently decline the opportunity to “convince” people who don’t think they need your services that they do.
Have you had similar experiences? How have you handled them? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
I’ve been catching up on some long-overdue reading lately, and finally read a book that’s been sitting near the top of Amazon’s Public Speaking Bestsellers list since its 2009 release.
It’s easy to see why Confessions Of A Public Speaker by Scott Berkun has gotten so much buzz. It’s the single funniest book about public speaking I’ve ever read. Even pages usually reserved for boilerplate language (such as the typically dull text about the book’s typeface) provoke a few genuine laughs.
But behind Berkun’s humor is the wisdom of an experienced public speaker whose insights into the craft can help all readers improve their presentations.
First, it’s important to note that Confessions isn’t a “public speaking book,” at least not in the traditional sense. It’s not particularly granular or tactical—you won’t find much here about proper posture, slide design, or ways to begin a speech, for example. But there are already plenty of other books about those topics, and Berkun has set his sights a little higher.
Instead, he focuses on some of the bigger issues speakers get wrong, such as failing to maintain the audience’s attention, work a tough room, or manage their own fear.
Berkun offers knowledge you won’t find in other books. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “the public speaking circuit” without knowing what it referred to (I didn’t), his brief history will teach you something new. He also explains why bad rooms are responsible for a lot of bad speeches—he holds particular disdain for the tacky chandeliers found in most hotel ballrooms—and why the ancient Greeks had it right. That information may not offer you a whole lot of actionable advice, but it makes for compelling reading nonetheless.
My favorite four pages focused on developing a compelling speech structure. He used “How eating cheese will save your life” as an example, and it showed off his wicked creativity. More than that, though, this section offers several easy-to-use suggestions for your own speech. They’re worth the price of the book on their own.
Although this book focuses heavily on tech and TED-type talks, readers will easily be able to apply Berkun’s lessons to their everyday business presentations.
The only off-note for me was Berkun’s third chapter, in which he spent 12 pages justifying/apologizing for his $5,000 speaker’s fee. That section reads too much like an examination into Berkun’s internal conflict about his income to me. As a professional trainer, I’ve never had such a conflict. Clients decide what you’re worth to them, and will pay you that amount if they think you’re worth it.
That small nit aside, this is a wonderfully content-rich and entertaining book. My copy is marked up with highlighted pages and notes in the margin—always the sign of a good book. And because it reads like a novel, you can read it either at your office or during your next vacation.
This book is as good as its reviews. Highly recommended.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by David Shuster, a former MSNBC and Current TV anchor who currently serves as the managing editor for Take Action News. In this post, he responds to a reader who asked for tips on how to read from a Teleprompter and use an “IFB” earpiece, into which a producer speaks while you’re on the air.
Prompters and IFBs can be quite confusing, particularly if you are trying to master both simultaneously. So I would start by working on one at a time before bringing them together. Although in both cases, the learning process is the same.
- 1. Meet and communicate your expectations. This means advising him/her on where in the prompter (high, middle, or low) you want to see the words you are speaking at the instant you are saying them. Generally, you will want those words in the middle. This way, you can speed up or slow down your pacing and have the prompter operator only have to make minor adjustments to follow you.
- 2. Practice and make deliberate mistakes. This means adding words that aren’t in the copy to make sure the operator gets used to following you and stopping/starting as you change things.
- 3. Review the practice session. Provide feedback and discuss any adjustments either of you wants or needs to make.
In working with a producer/IFB, follow the same steps:
- 1. Communicate your expectations. This means identifying in advance what the producer needs to tell you over IFB and what words/phrases you should expect to hear. Will he/she give you cues on when to start speaking? If so, agree on what the exact wording will be said in your ear, such as “go,” “now,” “cue,” or etc. Does the producer want to tell you how much time is left in the segment? Agree on how often you need to hear it. Generally, you will want a cue that there is “one minute” left, then “30 seconds,” then “ten seconds,” and “five.” Also, determine what other information the producer may need to tell you, and agree on what words/phrases the producer will say to communicate it. If the words are expected or familiar, you won’t be thrown off when you hear them.
- 2. During your practice session with the producer, have him/her deliberately try to throw you off or distract you. It’s important that you learn how to deal with it and tune things out. Once you realize that you can keep talking even when something unexpected gets said in your ear, the fear of being thrown off will diminish. The likelihood of being thrown off will diminish too.
- 3. Review the IFB practice session. Provide feedback to the producer and discuss any adjustments.
After the separate practice sessions, do one with the prompter operator and IFB/producer at the same time. Then, have a feedback session all together, in case there are any adjustments that any one of you needs/wants to make in conjunction with the other.
Good luck and have fun!
David Shuster is an Emmy Award-winning broadcast news anchor and former correspondent for Current TV and MSNBC. He is the Host and Managing Editor of “Take Action News,” a nationally syndicated radio show. You can see more of his work here.
A local reporter is scheduled to visit your office in a few days to conduct an interview with you.
It’s a critical interview for your company, one that will impact your growth, your reputation, and your bottom line. You prepare for it carefully, huddling with your leadership team and preparing highly memorable media messages that will gain the audience’s attention—and trust. You may even conduct a mock interviewing session to gain comfort when answering challenging questions.
When the interview date arrives, you feel well-prepared. But you forgot one critical fact, one that threatens to undermine all of your efforts. Having a well-trained management team isn’t enough.
Journalists know that many executives and managers have received media training, so they occasionally circumvent the official chain of command in order to speak with a less trained (and more candid) junior staffer. With just a few careless words, those subordinates can undermine all of your media training and carefully plotted communications strategy.
As an example, check out the jaw-dropping words uttered by a young professional in this video:
When reporters visit your office, any interaction they have with employees, interns, and receptionists are considered “on the record.” Unless you reach an agreement otherwise, reporters can use their comments—and they will, especially if the quotes your employees utter are more colorful than anything a well-trained manager said. Therefore, it’s up to you to make sure your staff knows what to do and say when they’re in the presence of reporters.
This article will arm you with six specific things to do next time you’re expecting a visit from a journalist.
1. Assign an Escort
Assign an escort whenever journalists visit your office. That will help prevent reporters from “accidentally getting lost” on the way to the restroom, wandering the hallways, and striking up a conversation with the wrong person.
If the reporter is visiting your office to interview your Chief Executive Officer, for example, you can assign the CEO’s assistant as the escort. But if that assistant hasn’t received media training and isn’t familiar with your company’s main talking points, you might consider assigning an experienced media representative from your communications department instead.
2. Forge an Agreement With The Reporter
To help prevent the problem of “wandering reporters,” some organizations negotiate the terms of the interview prior to the reporter’s visit. You might consider restricting their access to personnel by asking them to agree to speak only with the previously agreed upon subject(s) of the interview.
You can also negotiate what reporters are allowed to film prior to visiting your company. For example, you might ask them not to shoot employees’ computer screens or papers on their desks.
Although many reporters are happy to comply with such terms, some may bristle at your request and disclose those agreements (or requests for those agreements) to their audience.
3. Notify Your Staff
One week before the reporter visits—and again on the day of the visit—send an email to staff alerting them to the impending visit and reminding them of your media policy.
Your media policy might allow only authorized spokespersons to speak to the press, especially when dealing with a hostile reporter or a particularly challenging subject. In those cases, instruct unauthorized employees who are approached by reporters to say that they’re not the best person to answer their questions and offer to connect them with a member of the communications department.
Although that approach may be best in some circumstances, keep in mind that reporters may note in their stories that your employees seemed “nervous” and refused to speak with them. Plus, as a practical matter, it may be difficult to prevent journalists from speaking to someone they encounter in a hallway or common area, especially if the interaction is being filmed (your on-camera intrusion would be noteworthy and could become part of the story).
4. Brief Staff with Key Messages
In some circumstances, it’s better to allow your staff to answer basic questions about their work and your organization. That’s especially true if the reporter doesn’t typically write hostile stories and the focus of the interview with your company is about an uncontroversial topic.
If you plan on allowing your employees to speak with a reporter who approaches them in a hallway or during a tour of the office, you should prepare basic media guidelines for your staff, and provide them with your key messages so they know what the “company line” is.
It’s also a good idea to remind employees to “stay in their lanes.” It’s okay for engineers to discuss the technical details of your company’s new software, for example, but they should refuse questions that are “outside their lanes,” such as those about global marketing strategy.
5. Remind Them to Avoid The “Seven-Second Stray”
Some reporters put their subjects at ease with a warm smile, friendly demeanor, and conversational style. So if you’re going to allow staff to speak with reporters, remind them to avoid the “seven-second stray.”
The “seven-second stray” occurs when a spokesperson who is “on message” for nine minutes and 53 seconds of a ten-minute interview delivers an “off-message” quote that lasts just a few seconds. Journalists recognize those unplanned moments as newsworthy, and often use them in their news stories. So if your employee shares a wacky anecdote, disparages a competitor, or criticizes a management decision, you can bet it will make its way into the segment.
6. Ask Them to Tidy Up
Instruct your staff to remove any confidential or sensitive papers from their desktops and to avoid displaying sensitive documents on their computer screens. Ask them to remove overtly political messages from their work areas (e.g. posters and bumper stickers) that, in some cases, can endanger an organization’s tax-exempt status. You might even ask them to do a little housekeeping to leave a neat appearance.
In order to add “color” to their stories, good reporters pay attention to interesting details within eyesight or earshot. As an example, I know of one executive who decorated his office rather lavishly, largely at taxpayer expense. When a scandal erupted at his organization, reporters were quick to note the expensive rug and antique chair in his office. So before a journalist visits your office, walk through the entire office space, try to see the workspace through the eyes of a skeptical journalist, and make any necessary adjustments.
This article was originally published in the American Management Association’s monthly e-newsletter, Leader’s Edge. Brad Phillips is the author of The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
In his classic public speaking book, You Are The Message, Roger Ailes defines five ways to respond to a crisis: attack, defend, counterattack, sell, or ignore. That’s the most succinctly articulated crisis communications playbook I’ve ever seen, and it’s a good one.
To complete his list, I’d add two other strategies: deflect and apologize.
In this post, I’ll offer examples of each of the seven responses you might consider offering when a crisis befalls your organization.
1. Attack: “I want to make clear that we have always complied with the law and that these charges are a result of having an overzealous prosecutor who desperately wants to become mayor.”
2. Defend: “We knew this decision would be controversial with some people, but we made it because we felt—and still feel—that it was the right thing to do. In order to serve our customers better for the long-term, we had to make a difficult decision in the short-term.”
3. Counterattack: “Of course our competitor is saying negative things about our new product. They haven’t had a successful product launch in five years, so they’re trying to make people forget about their own dismal track record.”
4. Sell: “I knew this decision would be controversial with some voters, but I made it because I know that voters expect me to make the tough choices. So here’s what I’d ask voters: Even if you disagree with me on this issue, consider whether you want someone in office who is willing to make tough decisions on your behalf instead of just doing things the way they’ve always been done. I hope you do, and if so, I’m your man.”
5. Ignore: “[silence]”
6. Deflect: “This is an issue for the Justice Department. It wouldn’t be appropriate for the White House to comment on this matter.”
7. Apologize: “We got this wrong. I want to personally apologize to all of the people who were affected by this issue, and I want them to know that we are taking immediate steps to make sure this never happens again.”
Like this post? Learn more about crisis communications in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
I once watched a libertarian conduct a question and answer session with a group of high school students.
The libertarian began the session by sharing his belief that the federal government should have no role in helping a person who is poor. State governments could help that person if they chose to, but it would be even better for private citizens, charitable organizations, and local communities to band together to help that person instead.
It was clear from the students’ reactions that they had never heard such an idea before, and they didn’t like it. Their questions to the libertarian became increasingly hostile, with one even telling him that she thought he was “selfish.”
The mistake he made that day is a mistake I regularly see spokespersons make—especially those representing ideas or causes.
In this case, the libertarian was so intent on explaining his ideology, that he failed to align his message to his audience at all. Imagine how different he would have been perceived had he started his presentation this way:
“How many of you believe that someone who is poor—a man or woman who can’t afford enough food to eat or sufficient medical care—deserves help?
[Show of hands]
“How many of you think the federal government should help? [Show of hands] “How many of you think charities or religious organizations should help?” [Show of hands] “Anyone believe that people in the community should also donate some money?”
“Well, I think we all agree about something. None of us in this room want that poor man or woman to starve to death. Is that a reasonable conclusion?” [Show of hands or head nods]
“There’s also one place I disagree with some of you. I don’t believe that the federal government should help that person, but that the help should come from community groups, charitable organizations, and private citizens. I’d like to spend some time today sharing my views on why I believe that’s so important.”
That introduction would have changed the entire tenor of his talk. By articulating common ground from the start (“None of us in this room want that poor man or woman to starve to death.”), he would have let the students know that they share a similar hope, even if their solutions might differ.
Instead, he forgot to align his views to those of the audience. And because his views seemed so shocking to the students and challenged their belief systems too much, they shut down and closed him out before he had even begun.
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My husband and I recently attended a wedding during which I was reminded of an important lesson in communications: Ditch the jargon. Always.
In communications training, this is an obvious rule. When you speak in complicated terms, most audiences don’t get the message. Even if the average person could understand it, the more effort he or she has to put into decoding your message, the less chance that person will either remember it or put in the work to understand it in the first place.
However, some of my clients deal with very technical, complicated issues. The primary outlets for which they interview tend to be trade magazines and blogs with the occasional appearance in a more mainstream publication. When I talk about how important it is for them to ditch their jargon, they argue that they are speaking to a more sophisticated customer and don’t want to sound “dumb.” I understand the inclination, but it’s still a bad idea.
Take, for example, that recent experience at a friend’s wedding I mentioned above. My husband is an engineer who understands a lot of technical jargon. So when we were chatting at our friend’s wedding with an executive in his same industry who was excited about the implementation of some new technology at his company, my husband started asking him questions about it. Even though this executive oversaw the process, it was no surprise to me when he wasn’t sure what my husband was talking about. He knew the results and he knew why the technology was important for his organization but he didn’t understand the specifics of exactly how it worked.
That can be the case with executives at any company. But clients often tell me that since they mostly speak to niche industry outlets with generally knowledgeable readers, they can use the industry jargon that their readers will understand. That’s a mistake. I tell them it’s still a good idea to speak at a more accessible level in case someone else who may be a potential target audience member or customer is reading the publication as well.
Isn’t it possible that same type of executive from the wedding could be your target customer?
That doesn’t mean dumbing it down, but it does mean simplifying your language and making sure you define acronyms every time you use them. Then, you’ll avoid alienating your target audience–in addition to the people you may not have known were in your audience to begin with.