The secret to a successful and surprising debate

Expanding internal knowledge, showing social commitment or bringing clients together: you know why and what you are organising a debate about. But as a moderator, how do you make sure your debate stands out? How do you approach common discussion topics from a refreshing angle? Helena Schalenbourg, Communications Advisor at Square Circle, offers surprising tips to sharpen your moderation techniques.


Lay a long foundation for your debate

A moderator’s job starts well before the debate in question. Extensive preparation provides a good basis for a natural conversation.

  • Delve into the topic | Explore the subject matter by conducting online and offline research. In the research phase, take into account the client’s expectations, but also the target group. Do they come into contact with the issue on a regular basis? What does their prior knowledge consist of?
  • Meet the panel beforehand | Ideally, you should take the time to get acquainted with each guest. That way, you become familiar with their expertise, background and point of view on the central issue. Often, at this stage you will also come across intriguing peculiarities in the guest’s vision or personality, which you can exploit during the debate. Be curious and listen with an open mind. A targeted conversation of half an hour per person a few days in advance should be  sufficient.
  • Prepare a range of questions | An interviewer’s worst nightmare? Not being able to think of a powerful follow-up question. Using a wide range of alternating questions, focusing on the essential angles you definitely want to discuss, allows you to always fall back on a good question and maintain the pace of the discussion. Write these down on handy punch cards if necessary, so you have a grip not only figuratively but also literally during the debate.


Enable constructive conversations

While the best debates seemingly happen naturally, they are often also the effect of an assertive moderator with guts.

  • Introduce each panellist | Briefly but firmly introduce each speaker to the audience before declaring the debate open. Or better yet, ask them to briefly tell you who they are themselves.
  • Have guts and dive into the churning river | How do you open a debate? An overly detailed description of the central topic is like a churning river and causes a room of experts (if they are indeed experts) to doze off. In that case, dare to make a statement that moves every party. After all, an exciting film often starts with a cliffhanger too.
  • Keep your distance with science | The line between bringing rhythm to the debate through engaging questions and revealing your own point of view is thin. Citing scientific research to introduce a question is an ideal way to grab the attention of the panel and the audience without revealing your personal opinion. Neutrality is key!
  • Break free from the ‘banality’ of every day | Human beings have an intrinsic desire for depth and intellectual exploration. Even a debate on a mundane or technical subject can be enriched by confronting the panellists with statements of established philosophers. You will see, the answer to this kind of question often speaks straight to the listener’s heart.
  • Speak to the imagination | Imagery is refreshing. Feel free to use metaphors in your questioning, e.g. analogies from the animal world. Drawing parallels with the natural world often provides a vivid and accessible way to convey complex concepts.
  • Play devil’s advocate | If a critical question is on the tip of your tongue, don’t hesitate to ask it, but do so in a warm and friendly way. The listener will hold their breath, sitting on the edge of their seat awaiting the answer.
  • Lightheartedness trumps | Even in serious debates, most speakers are only too happy to show their playful side when confronted with lighthearted questions. Breaking seriousness with playfulness adds a human element, enriches the dynamics of the debate and also creates a unique and sometimes even memorable connection between speaker and audience.
  • Guard the balance | Rarely does a debate aim to throw oil on the fire. Give panellists sufficient opportunity to express themselves, show their expertise and come up with convincing arguments.  Do you notice that someone stays in the background? Give them the floor on a subtopic they have an affinity with.
  • Let them shine | Moderating is like conducting a symphony. Your job is to make the panellists score and shine. The panelists’ success is also your triumph.
  • Show your focus | Eye contact and a smile create confidence in conversations with colleagues, friends and family. The same is true in professional situations such as debating. Be alert to your own body language through adequate eye contact with panellists and a conversational smile. They help make the panel feel comfortable.

Bonus tip | Involve the public

A debate is not an academic presentation or a financial report. Dare to take the opportunity to poll the audience. Engage attendees, for example, via a poll they can answer with their smartphones. A live display of the responses on a screen will undoubtedly provide new fodder for further debate.


Conclude in style

A practised moderator devotes at least as much attention to the conclusion as to the build-up of the debate.

  • Take time for a word of thanks| End the debate by explicitly thanking the panellists for their presence and their fascinating views. Then address the audience. After all, the people in the room also chose to make time and attend the debate. A thank you to all involved is a warm gesture with an impact that should not be underestimated.

Do you wish to call on an experienced moderator? Looking for an objective party to build the bridge between panel and audience? Square Circle is happy to take the lead.

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