The art of repeating the question on panels

We had a discussion last week on Facebook about the importance of con panelists using microphones (publicly visible post), but one thing we only touched on in passing is the importance of repeating unmiked questions from the audience.

The reasons to repeat the question into the mic are the same as the reasons for using the mic in the first place. No matter how small the room, no matter how loud the voice of the speaker, there may be people who can't hear them well for any of a number of reasons, and using a mic makes it easier for people (especially people with hearing aids, as I understand it) to hear what's being said.

But repeating an audience member's question is not a trivially easy thing to do. Questions and comments are often long and complicated, and it can be hard for a moderator to simultaneously listen to the question, keep track of it in order to repeat it, think about what's being said in order to make sure it's not going on too long or drifting too far off-topic or getting too repetitive, and keep an eye on the rest of the room and the other panelists.

And then after you've done all that, you have to do the additional difficult task of actually repeating the question.

I've seen some moderators try to repeat everything that the audience member said, which can sometimes get pretty long. That approach is great in some ways; for example, it ensures that everyone in the room gets to really hear everything, not just the highlights of what's being said.

But some other moderators, including me, take a different approach: attempting to summarize the core most-important parts of what was said.

That approach has the downside that some people may not get to hear everything. It can be frustrating to audience members if someone stands up and speaks inaudibly for a full minute, and the moderator then just says something like “The question is about books.” (Which is probably an inadequate summary by my standards.)

But I think when it's done well, summarizing is a good approach; because a great deal of the time, most of what the audience member says isn't really necessary. I intend no insult here; I've done this as an audience member plenty of times myself. But if someone spends thirty seconds wanderingly trying to figure out what they want to say, then I feel there's generally no need to repeat all that.

And what I was noticing this weekend was that much of the time, the real question or comment was in the audience member's final two (or so) sentences. They would give some introductory context, and they would kind of try to feel their way toward the point, and then they would figure out the core of what they wanted to say and would say it.

And so I would say into the mic, “So the question is:” and I would generally repeat a slightly abridged version of their last two sentences, looking at the speaker for approval, and they would nod and smile, looking relieved that I had captured the core of what they were saying.

I think that editing has trained me pretty well to be able to extract key points when I try to (except in my own blog posts and emails, which get wandery and long), but even so, summarizing on the fly isn't easy. But I do think the pay-particular-attention-to-the-last-thing-said approach can be a handy tool to help with the summarizing.

What approaches do y'all use to repeating audience questions? Any tips or suggestions or techniques?

(See also Facebook thread for this post.)

2 Responses to “The art of repeating the question on panels”

  1. brainwane

    I’m very fond of the approach in which the session has a mic that is dedicated to audience questions, and the session leader is strict about ensuring that audience questions are spoken into that mic. I’m also growing fond of having the audience write their questions on paper and pass those questions forward.

    Your approach sounds great — I will have to remember the “last two sentences” bit for next time!

    Practice with this sort of activity, of course, helps. In high school, I competed in forensics (debate & speech), which gave me a bunch of practice in summarizing someone’s point before responding to it, in real time. Also, in the mindfulness meditation group I’m part of, we’ve done a speaking-listening exercise a few times in which one person speaks for about two minutes, and then the other person tries to repeat as much of the speaker’s meaning as possible, without judgment or analysis, and trying to use the speaker’s original words. I think all of these have the side benefit of making us better at realtime communication, written or spoken, so that is cool.

    • Jed

      I like having an audience-questions mic too, although getting the audience member and the mic in the same place can be tricky. (If they have mobility issues or are in the middle of a crowded row, they may not be able to come to a fixed-in-place mic; and you may not have enough staff members to carry a mobile mic around the room. And either way, it takes some time to get the person and the mic together—though maybe no more time than it would take to repeat the question.)

      Also, audience members frequently know even less about how to use a mic effectively than panelists do. Even after days of repetition at the WSFS business meetings, speakers were regularly neglecting to follow the very simple instructions on mic use that were displayed in a big friendly image on the mic podium.

      Nice mindfulness exercise, and good point about repetition.


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