What Can We Learn From Question Time About Panel Etiquette?

Nick Gold 21 January 2019

Theoretically, panel discussions are the best way to debate topics, stimulate innovation, bring opposing views together and let the audience decide the best route forwards.

So why can panels be so difficult to get right?

Last night,  Fiona Bruce  made her debut as the new presenter of Question Time. Not an easy job to take on, Fiona replaced the now-retired David Dimbleby, who hosted the show for 25 years.

Although Fiona is a fresh face on the show, it didn’t feel all that different. Brexit still dominated discussion, and Theresa May’s delaying of the Commons vote meant that there wasn’t much new material to cover.

Yet, although the format remained firmly the same – as did the debate content – the show still missed the mark when it comes to panel etiquette.

Different personalities – bolshie, calm, determined – clashed. Despite Fiona’s facilitation, some voices were louder than others, and the five-person panel lacked a sense of balance. Perhaps, from this, we could argue that five people is one too many.

Fiona was keen for audience participation throughout the show, but the panel had too much to say to truly let the public have a voice. Put simply, it felt like there were just too many voices – all with the belief that their opinion must be heard – to serve a 60-minute debate whose intentions were to cover a range of topics.

What Fiona did do, is probe questions further if responses didn’t quite answer the question or avoided tricky bits. She was able to give a person time to answer, before tagging on questions like ‘but what does that mean?’ In doing so, she remained committed to getting the most out of the panel. She was aware that the audience – and viewers at home – would want clear answers.

Despite some mishaps in Question Time, we can learn a lot about panel etiquette from the show.

Firstly, a panel can often be the best way to explore a multifaceted topic. Some subject matter truly benefits from a range of opinions and the allotted time in which to discuss them. There is a reason the format is popular not only in party politics, but in arenas for discussion of the biggest issues of our time. Gender inequality, mental health, and education are all topics that are well-illuminated by a panel discussion.

However, there are a few key points to remember for the audience to leave with tangible benefits.

1. Facilitation. A strong facilitator is an absolute must and can make or break a panel! A great facilitator can control the discussion, keep the panelists on the subject matter and ensure the questions are properly answered. By researching the topic thoroughly, they will have the necessary expertise to balance the contrasting voices.

2. Topic. Is the topic you’re going to discuss one of interest and will it allow your audience to have their questions answered? If you are struggling, ask yourself: why is it important that this panel takes place? And, for speakers: what could this person bring to the table?

3. Discussants. Of course, all panels need two or more people (four usually works well), but have you carefully thought about who these are? Your speakers need to have diversity of thought. There is no point in having four people with the same view debating a topic. One way to achieve this is through diversity. Variety, in terms of gender, race, age, disability and class, often leads to the most fruitful discussion.

4. Timing. For any panel, timing is crucial. This doesn’t just mean the time of the whole discussion – which must be respected – but the timing allocated to each speaker. It is important that a facilitator ensures a balance of voices in terms of timing, and also that speakers are cautious of not rambling for too long or avoiding speaking up.

5. Flow. Although there is a temptation to control and steer the debate, there is something to be said for ‘letting it happen’. Although there is a prepared topic and carefully selected speakers, there is something special about the organic discussion that grows from a panel. Be cautious of timings and format, but let the panel drive its own narrative.

Panel discussions are commonplace across conferences and exhibitions, as well as internal meetings and get togethers. We know they have a strong part to play in delivering the overall event objectives, but it’s vital organisers pay just as much attention to the delivery as they do with keynotes.

Anyway, well done to Fiona for a superb debut show and I look forward to seeing what next week’s Question Time will bring!

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