Lessons in Meeting Facilitation from the 2020 Presidential Debates
On October 22nd, 2020 Kristen Welker taught a masterclass in how to moderate a debate, and in doing so, taught us how to run a meeting with powerful personalities.
What was fascinating though, was the difference between her debate and the previous presidential debate, moderated by Chris Wallace.
Lots of people recognized Kristen Welker as the superior moderator. She got a lot of praise from around the media and from both Republicans and Democrats.
And if you saw the debates, you definitely felt that Kristin Welker’s debate was much more controlled, organized, and disciplined.
But what specifically did she do better than Chris Wallace? And what can we learn from her approach to meeting facilitation with big personalities?
Well, I analyzed both debates and I found five major differences between the moderators:
- Kristen Welker clearly outlined the rules of the debate in front of the candidates
- She spoke faster and more efficiently
- She spoke up more frequently
- She was comfortable with crosstalk and interruptions
- She was more professional and focused throughout
1. Outline the Rules From the Beginning of the Meeting
Good meeting facilitation requires clear rules and guidelines.
Kristen Welker clearly outlined the debate rules in front of the candidates.
This may seem like a minor thing, but this kinds behavior, right at the beginning of the meeting, make a big difference.
It communicates to both of the powerful personalities that “I’m the boss of this situation. I’m in control. These are my rules. This is how we’re going to play the game.”
Chris Wallace just gave a very brief greeting. You can appreciate his desire to get things going quickly, but Kristen Welker dedicated a solid 30 seconds of face time with the candidates to outlining the rules. She knew she had their full attention in that small window of time. So she wanted to clearly establish the rules of engagement.
2. Speak Fast and Efficiently
Kristen Welker spoke at an average of 186 words per minute vs Chris Wallace at 159 words per minute. So she literally spoke 17% faster.
She took less overall time to ask questions: 25 seconds vs 41 seconds.
And she used fewer words to ask her questions: 78 words vs 108 words.
(See examples in the video above)
Kristen Welker’s questions are short, sharp, concise, and easy to follow.
By contrast, Chris Wallace’s questions are meandering. They get into lots of details. There’s a lot of context and prefacing. (I think he likes to hear himself talk.)
This opens him up to interruptions because he’s taking so long to get his question out.
This makes a big difference in your meeting facilitation skills.
3. Speak Up Frequently
Chris Wallace spoke up about 1.06 times per minute vs Kristen Welker at 1.25 times per minute. That means her voice was heard 18% more frequently.
She projects her influence more powerfully and more consistently throughout the meeting.
She’s an active participant in the discussion, which enables her to reign things in, or to pivot from one candidate to the other, or to bring up a new topic when she needs to.
4. Be Comfortable with Crosstalk and Interruptions
Kristen Welker was much more comfortable with crosstalk and interruptions. She was comfortable with the candidates interrupting each other, and interrupting her.
Chris Wallace was flustered right from the get-go, and he never fully recovered from that moment early on in the debate.
The more comfortable you are with interruptions, the better you will be able to handle them.
Kristen Welker was able to keep control over the flow of the discussion because she was happy to allow Trump and Biden to speak up out of turn.
By being flexible and giving them a certain amount of freedom to speak up and interrupt each other (and interrupt her) she was being pragmatic. Trying to completely silence Trump and Biden would have been a total waste of time and energy.
Chris Wallace wanted them to fall in line and follow his rules, like well-behaved schoolchildren. That was extremely unrealistic. His inflexibility was a huge factor in him losing control of the candidates.
Crosstalk and interruptions are an inherent part of meeting facilitation (especially with powerful and opinionated people), so accept them and be flexible.
5. Be Professional and Focused
Kristin Welker was much more professional and focused from the beginning all the way through to the end of the debate.
She did not try to plead with the candidates to let her talk. She didn’t try to negotiate with them. She wasn’t emotionally effected by the interruptions or by the chaotic element.
Chris Wallace took the interruptions personally in many cases. And as a result, he underperformed.
Professionalism, focus and time management are critical to meeting facilitation.
Maintain your professional energy throughout your meeting. Your energy as the facilitator will rub off on everyone else in the group.
If you have a calm and focused demeanor, then others will be more likely to remain calm as well.
If you have frenetic or overwhelmed energy, then others will feel anxious.
Your demeanor will come through your vocal tonality, body language, eye contact, eye movement, and other nonverbal cues.
Keep these principles of meeting facilitation in mind as you run your next meeting with assertive people.
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