It’s not a suggestion, it’s an observation. And it can help you ask questions that keep the conversation flowing.
Unless you have subpoena power, the goal of a real discussion is to get the speakers to open up of their own accord – to get past their talking points and bring the audience into their world. As you might have noticed I’m a firm believer in the power of story to help accomplish this: bringing panelists and audience together into a scenario that echoes the real challenges they face, and watching as the panelists work through the drama out loud.
Along the way, you’ll direct panelists to address particular issues. And each time you do, you’ll want your speaker to stride down the path you’ve indicated to them – not stand at the crossroads with arms crossed. How you phrase your question could determine whether that happens.
Here is a rule of thumb I’ve learned from producing discussions with a ridiculously wide array of topics and speakers: People naturally prefer to push against a moderator than to agree with him. When there is only one sane answer to a question (“Senator Smith, you listen to your constituents’ concerns, correct?”), this tendency doesn’t matter. But if there is any room for disagreement, if there is even a drop of controversy involved, the rule can matter.
Here is an example — it’s hypothetical but based on real experiences – of what I mean. These are two attempts to get a tort lawyer to discuss the role that sympathy for the plaintiff plays in winning a judgment against a corporate defendant:
Moderator: “Isn’t it true that part of what you do is play off the jury’s sympathy for the injured plaintiff?”
Lawyer: “That’s not how it works . . . the truth is a lot more complicated . . . that vastly oversimplifies what jurors do . . .” etc.
Moderator: “Jurors’ feelings of sympathy for the plaintiff shouldn’t have any role in the process, should they?”
Lawyer: “Of course they should . . . that’s why cases are decided by juries and not computers . . . that’s why trial by jury is enshrined in the Constitution . . .” etc.
In both cases, the speaker is disagreeing with the moderator’s premise. But in the first version, the speaker is now in a defensive mode about the whole idea of “playing off jurors’ sympathies,” and it will be a struggle to get the lawyer to open up about it. In the second version, the speaker is embracing the legitimacy of jury sympathy as part of the process, and from this point it will be much easier to get into the techniques the attorney might use to elicit sympathy. (“Well, if sympathy is a part of the process, how do you make sure that jurors feel what the injured plaintiff is going through?”)
The speaker is being neither foolish nor contradictory in heading in opposite directions in response to the different questions. In both cases, the question represents an oversimplification (either “it’s all about sympathy” or “it should have nothing to do with sympathy”) and the speaker needs to address the other side of the statement to provide the full picture.
You may think these examples do not illustrate a general tendency to push back against the moderator, since I’ve admitted that in each case the moderator’s premise was an “oversimplification.” But here’s the thing – when an outsider states a premise about an expert’s field, the premise will almost always sound like an oversimplification to the expert. Think about your own life: When someone outside your field makes an assumption about some aspect of your work, how often do you respond “That’s exactly right”? How often do you respond, instead, “That’s not exactly how it works . . .”? My guess is that you give the latter response far more frequently.
So, if you know that the speaker is more likely to push against your premise rather than swallow it whole, use that tendency to serve the discussion: Ask a question that, when the panelist answers in the negative, will get him or her talking about the very topic you wanted to discuss in the first place.