The other night I served as moderator for a panel discussion and audience Q&A that is part of a local organization’s efforts to update their comprehensive plan. Like many planning organizations, this agency has had some ugly run-ins with a particular interest group, and they wanted someone to manage the meeting and keep the conversation on track.
I’ve been running public meetings and discussion groups and classrooms and focus groups and God knows what else for decades – I earned my stripes on that front long before I knew what a zoning code was. So I agreed to help them out.
I’m a little more reluctant than a consultant probably should be about blowing my own horn, so the rest of this blog post sits a little uneasily with me, with all those “I’s” in there. But, as staffers and Planning Commission members and participants on the panel came up to me afterward, it became clear to me that I had done certain things in the management of that meeting that might be more unexpected, less in line with usual practices, than I often assume when I am living inside my own mind. So I did a little self-analysis, walking through the meeting and the choices that I made while moderating, and identified a few decisions that probably led to the meeting’s success. So, here’s what I think I (and the agency) did right:
- An outside moderator ain’t a bad idea. As the outsider, I had a lot of aces up my sleeve. Since I didn’t know any more than the broad outline of the previous confrontations, I could plead innocence (and get away with acting a little more innocent than I probably am). I didn’t have any stake in the ground, so no one had any reason to accuse me of bias. I didn’t know exactly who the potential troublemakers were, but I had a sense of where they were concentrated, so I could make sure that the question opportunities were spread around with little risk of specifically ignoring one person or another based on some history they had with the agency.
Most importantly, I could take a strong leadership role because I didn’t have to worry about offending anyone. After all, when this is over, I am going home, people. If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.
- Never let go of the microphone. I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room. I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style – I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me and either hold the mic for speakers or repeat their questions over the sound system (which also allows you to rephrase – valuable if someone has an axe to grind and wants to talk about something that is off topic).
I made the mistake with the first public question of giving the microphone to the guy (he was a lot taller than me), and I realized almost immediately that I had put us at risk of substituting a soapbox speech for a constructive question. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The rest of the time, I went back to my usual modus operandi and told each person “that’s OK, I’ll just hold the mic for you.” That makes it easier to control the sound quality, too.
- Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them. We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge — but we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore. Only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good. We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum where we need to understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.
It is crucial to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders. I was very careful to select for both of those from the raised hands. If I had simply stuck in the corner where the most hands went up, I would have both turned off the rest of the crowd and prevented us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.
- If you don’t want a special interest to run your meeting, you must run it, you must control it yourself. The room included several (I was told later that it was about 10) members of the special interest group that I described, and they clearly came with the intention of taking over the conversation. I am not sure exactly what was on their agenda that night, but it was pretty clear that they wanted to turn it to the issues of interest to them, rather than the issues everyone else came to talk about, if they got half the chance.
I wasn’t going to give them that chance.
I chose which of the several raised hands from that group got to speak, just like I made that choice with everyone else. I kept control of the mic (which meant I was sort of holding hands with one guy at one point – a little weird, but oh well), and I made a point of restating a question that veered off onto a rant about a federal agency to how the local community can best cope with uncertainty over federal regulation impacts.
If I had let them have their way, if I had not pulled the relevant element out of a largely off-topic question, the meeting would have degenerated into an unproductive verbal fight. A moderator must keep that from happening. In this case, controlling the situation required a pretty soft touch – but I have scolded confrontational or rude participants before. Sometimes it is simply necessary for the good of everyone else in the room. It is simply part of the job.
- Never, never allow a special interest group to command all your attention. If you focus on the people you are most worried about, you do a gross disservice – an insult, really – to the people who came to be part of a real conversation.
When I was a young teacher during my short education career, I learned pretty quickly that every class had three or four students who were inclined to “act out” – you know the type. When you are the teacher, your instinct is to spend all your time trying to intervene with those kids – get them to pay attention, prevent them from doing something troublesome, whatever. It’s like having an attention black hole in the back of the room. But if you give into that instinct, that means that the 15 or 20 kids who weren’t acting out, who weren’t demanding your attention, get… next to nothing. No wonder so many hate school. And public meetings.
People who come to public meetings are taking precious time out of their lives. They are choosing to come. If we do not honor their contribution and commitment, if we instead let a disgruntled clique take over the classroom, we have done the same damage to our relationship with our residents as I did to the good students in the classroom when I ignored them in favor of the troublemakers.
What tricks of the trade do you use when moderating public meetings? I’d love to hear your good ideas… after all, next time I might have to break out the brass knuckles. Ya never know.