Following up on the first two commandments of moderating, here is the third:
3. Ask Hard Questions that Get Answered — You have probably seen certain investigative news shows, or dramas about courtroom lawyers, in which the crusading attorney or journalist hurls accusatory questions, and is rewarded with the object of the questioning either running from the cameras or confessing to guilt on the witness stand. Those kinds of questions are great for creating tension and making the questioner look strong. What they’re terrible for is getting answers.
I love hard questions; a panel discussion isn’t worth having without them. But I like having them answered, and that’s a lot more likely to happen if you don’t make answering the question equivalent to losing a battle of wills with the moderator. Here are some techniques for asking hard questions that get answered:
- Put the question in someone else’s mouth (hypothetically ). For example, ask an art educator: “The new school board head, elected on a back-to-basics platform, calls you in and says: ‘How can I justify spending a penny on paint or musical instruments when a third of our students can’t read on grade level?’ What do you say to her?” Or ask an executive: “A very talented person you’d like to recruit is also interviewing with your competition. What does the competition say about what it’s like to work for you?”
- Back into it. Use people’s inclination to push against an assumption rather than agree with it. For example: Instead of saying, “Police Chief Smith, you’ve had conflicts with federal authorities on how to protect against a terrorist attack, haven’t you?,” say: “Chief, when it comes to how to protect against a terrorist attack, are you and the federal authorities in perfect agreement and communication every time?” I talk more about this technique here.
- Find out what the toughest situations are, then base scenarios on them. For example: Ask an ACLU leader: “You have a visitor eager to get your help in supporting his right to free speech. He’s Reverend Rageheart, and he’s planning to burn a Koran next week at a public event, but now the city wants to withdraw the permit . . .”
- Enlist your panelists’ help. It’s best if you or your producer chat with each panelist one-on-one plenty of time before the event. In the pre-panel conversation, ask him or her: What’s the toughest part of what you do? What don’t you have an answer for? My hero Ruth Friendly likes to ask: What keeps you up at night? Yes, some people will give you b.s. (the kind of people who say in interviews that their biggest weakness is “I care too much”), but often people will open up and give you great material.