How to . . . moderate a live panel

Some essential do's and dont's.

I’ve had to moderate at hundreds of live events during a career spent mainly as a journalist. You learn a thing or two over the years, mainly from all the things that go wrong. Here are some pointers:

Do take control. From the moment an event organiser asks you to do run a panel – or chair a day or do a depth-interview "fireside chat" – treat it as your session. Consider the quality, quantity and especially suitability of guests and whether you should draft some in or have them on stand-by. Consider who will be attending (regardless of what the publicity says). Consider the venue – especially the stage set-up, AV equipment and preferred format.

While pre-event conference calls and "discussion notes" are now the done thing, nothing beats some prep with your panellists on the day itself. There is often a "speakers room" at a lot of corporate or public sector events. Use it but be aware of who might also be in there – it can also double as a press room.

Do call guests by their names – audience members too if you recognise them at Q&A time. And get those names right. In written content spelling is everything. In a debate it’s all about pronunciation. Spell out names phonetically in front of you if that helps. Definitely finish by thanking guests and referring to them by their full name. (Each guest and the audience will feel the benefit.)

Think of your standards bar for engagement and energy on stage. It should feel more like a CNN debate than a village hall book club. (No offence to book clubs.)

Do take a pencil on stage. I’ve written at length about the rise of tablet computers, which can be great props and practical beyond paper, allowing you to look up information or use Twitter, for example. But try note taking on an iPad on the fly. Try pointing at something. A pencil wins every time.

Don’t let guests introduce themselves or give lengthy summaries. For one, it’ll make you look lazy or unprepared. Nobody sticks to the time you give them and especially with intros being early on you are unlikely to cut in and stop them. And it may well become a procession of one-upmanship. Or selling. Or both. All without tone having been set by you, so it’s wildly inconsistent to boot.

Don’t give guests your questions in advance. Many will be nervous if you don’t tell them what to expect – and telling them what to expect, even giving them an outline of the flow and subject areas is fine. But with precise questions they’ll rehearse answers that then won’t sound natural. They’ll even use those answers for questions which you will have changed slightly on the day. And they’ll (sometimes) get upset if they prepare for questions you never end up asking.

Don’t get wrapped up in "off the record" or Chatham House Rule stuff while on stage. Find out beforehand if the latter applies. Tell your guests there’s really no such thing as the former. The bottom line is that what you or your guests say in public is quotable, usable, permanent. Good luck out there.

Tony Hallett is the author of Everything in Moderation - How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events

 

Sweet moderation: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: Getty Images

Tony Hallett is a former editorial director at CBS Interactive UK and author of "Everything in Moderation"

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad