Spicy Questions

Bring flavour, depth and warmth to panel discussions

underwhelming success
In this post I wish to share some more bardic savvy with you. Namely: how we can bring more verve and vim to panel discussions.

Most panel discussions are a recipe for underwhelming success

At least: in this is the case in Enterprise Land. Panels have long been synonymous with placid, polite and platitudinous performances, whereupon everyone says all ‘the right things’ and agrees with each other emphatically—usually having known the questions in advance, along with who’s going to say what (so as to avoid overlap of any ‘clashes’). Then, after a solid 43 minutes of this tiresome team tirade, the facilitator will open to Q&A for the remaining 2 minutes. This will usually begin one of three planted questions; a predictably safe and trite question that is mildly flattering of the panel, allowing them to stage a chuckle before ending on some pithy purpose piece.

This was the case before covid-19—and may continue to be the case in most such virtual events.

Unless: we spice it up

A ‘Spicy Question’ is one that brings flavour to an otherwise bland conversation. A good combination of spices brings complexity, depth—and sometimes: a little warmth too. Not that we want to burn anyone—that would be in poor taste.1

There’s nuance to this, of course (as anyone who has ruined a dish with too much spice knows). More ‘nuance’ than can be deftly summed up in any article; and yet nonetheless I shall endeavour to outline the four stages of a good online panel discussion for you, laced with The Principles of Conversational Spice. Here goes.


Part One: Prepare to Wing It

The ‘Secret Source’ of any live event is +generative ambiguity—a state in which no one quite knows what will emerge; yet all are prepared to dance with it, together.

The opposite to generative ambiguity is constrictive certainty—a domain in which most executives are much more comfortable and familiar. Constrictive certainty provides the sensation of control—a firm grip—but this comes at the cost of any and all magic of +emergence. Ergo: a big challenge in being +prepared to wing it together is to simultaneously resist the temptation to control the experience, whilst also cultivating enough psychological safety, trust and a sense if ‘playfulness’ amongst the panelists2 so that the ambiguity and subsequent emergence can be embraced.

In my experience this translates to breaking professionality early—cultivating a spirited shared dynamic before the session itself. By gathering panelists together for a ‘pre-hang’, it’s possible to share the intent of the conversation, and the dynamics of how it might play out. If the group remains yet apprehensive, some +scaffolding can be provided—like guard rails in a bowling alley, to ensure the conversation doesn’t go to the the gutter.

In my experience, scaffolding can be as simple as letting participants know the first (warm up) question and some general themes that might emerge.3 If the panelists still feel uncomfortable in the not-knowing: remind them that they always have the option to opt-out. “Whomever must play cannot play” as James P Carse might say. This reverse-psychology gambit usually works a treat, either way.


Part Two: Priming the Audience

Once the panelists are willing-enough to dance in the generative ambiguity, it’s important for the facilitator (which I am going to assume may be ‘you’) to set the stage. In a virtual event, this will typically look like this:

Foreshadowing the intent of the conversation ahead. This is where you let the audience know that this will be an emergent conversation, co-created via the questions and comments that arise from the audience. Your event will ideally have a mechanism to receive questions from the audience. If it’s possible, it may be worth considering a private/anonymous channel for particularly spicy questions. Your role, as a facilitator, is to Give Voice to the otherwise Unspoken. To be a co-conspirator and provocateur who can wield truth with jest, so as to evoke the best from the panel and the room.

Declaring a space to +think in draft. To put the panelists at ease—and to manage expectations—it’s worth emphasising that this is a live conversation; completely unscripted. For this to work, we need to allow panelists to think aloud, in draft.4 We shall neither expect them to produce polished and perfected ‘answers’, nor shall we hold them to anything that they say. Anything offered is a tentative spontaneous +protosynthesis—draft thoughts: not finalised. If we can embrace the messiness of an organic conversation, it’s much more likely we will have +magic manifest.


Part Three: Navigating the Arc

Whenever I am host-facilitating a panel conversation, I usually have a vague energetic-narrative arc in mind. It looks something like this.

A) The warm up (appetiser). This is where we get the conversation sizzling. Usually, panel discussions happen in the midst of an already unfurling process or event. By this stage, platitudinous propaganda has been shared—and so my first question is often something like: ‘what are we pretending to not know?’ or ‘we’ve said all “the right things” so far—what aren’t we talking about yet’. These are the kinds of questions that invite ‘elephants’ into the room.5

Critically, as a facilitator your role is to be a generator of ease. To be warm and encouraging, and to keep things in good humour (knowing that jest is a great way to dance with truthiness). This is a tension—we don’t want things to get too heavy or too critical too swiftly; but nor do we want to skirt the edges of a thorny topic, or speak in innuendo. Canvassing the panel in this manner also allows time for the audience to generate their spicy questions.

B) Bringing the flavour (entrée). Having warmed the panel up, now you turn to the questions accumulated via the audience. In most online events, this will either be via the chat window or via a Q&A or polling application. If it is a particularly large event, you might want to have a designated ‘relay’—someone who can monitor the chat thread dynamics whilst you look after the panel dynamics. The first question or two that you choose to bring to the panel ought be flavoursome. An unexpected pattern-disrupt—but not anything that’ll apply too much heat, too soon.

Here, the audience and the panel begin the dance with each other. Your role as a facilitator is to encourage connections and banter between panelists (rather than simply in response to yourself). In this way, you are looking to cultivate dynamics amongst the panelists themselves.

I find it incredibly helpful to be in ‘gallery view’ for this. In this way, panelists are displayed in Brady Bunch fashion, and it can be thus much easier to perceive the nonverbal micro-expressions each panelist displays as the conversation unfurls. With this acuity, you can begin to link comments, bouncing between participants in a non-linear manner (dancing to the tune of what emerges).6

C) Serving the spice (mains). Now, the panelists are ready for you to benevolently lob hand grenades7 at them. Here (usually at the half way mark) I will choose one of the spiciest questions generated by the audience. The question that seems most controversial and dangerous. When ‘translating’ such questions, you’ll want to ensure that they are not targeted to any individual or portion of the panel—they’re all in this, together.

Usually such spicy questions are met with an awkward shuffling. Often, the panel will contain one of those outwardly spoken extraverted types who leap in with responses (almost automatically, without thinking). Your role here is to sense who to best kick things off, and then: how to keep the ball rolling—weaving in as many perspectives as possible. In my experience, this is where again it serves to cultivate an acuity for the micro-expressions exhibited by the panelists. If anyone reverts to innuendo;8 spell out your interpretation of what they are saying. If it’s too thorny a topic, switch to metaphorical or hypothetical modes (a framing that allows for safer experimentation and play).

It may be that the energetic ‘arc’ of your panel session dips here, and that collectively we find ourselves staring into the Abyss, or marvelling ineptly at the greater complexity within which we find ourselves. That’s okay, and to be expected—we framed that this would be messy, after all. None of us have the answers—all this points to the fact that we need to work together, effectively, at higher levels of complexity (and with greater humility and care). This is a good realisation to arrive to—but we can’t end a panel session here.

D) After the spice: all things nice (desert). Here we are focused on uplift. On restoring the bonds of the group, mending the relationships and the social ties that may have been put in question during the panel session itself. This is where you might begin to chose more humorous, light or forward-facing questions. As a facilitator, you might steer the tone of the conversation to gratitudes (the accompaniment to constructive discontent) or excitement (what’s emerging on the horizon). This is done because, primarily: it is nice. But also because this uplift plays well into the ‘peak-end rule’—a heuristic that suggests that our judgement and memory of an experience is largely based on how we felt at its most intense point (the peak high/low) and how we felt at its end. It’s not an average or a sum of every moment of the experience, but rather: The spicy mains and the sweet desert.

E) Finally: the take home message (after dinner mint). It pains me but in my experience clients and large portions of any audience seem to love having insight spelled out to them. To me, this feels like having humour, poetry or art explained—it’s an affront worse than I what I am doing for you here. And yet, if you feel the situation calls for it—and if there is time available—it may make sense to ask for a ‘one breath’9 response to a final ‘wrap up’ question.

A good wrap up question is something like: ‘What’s something that clearer to you now, on the other side of this discussion?’ Alternatively: ‘Okay, whew: that was fun. It’s natural for us to fixate upon the things that could be better—what’s something happening now (in the context of this team/organisation) that you really appreciate?’ Or, simply: ‘You’ve all had to dance with questions from the audience. Now: what’s a question you might gift us all here to ponder?’

(I like the last one, as questions don’t collapse, flatten or reduce complexity—and good questions lead to further conversations and experimentations).

Essentially, the vibe we are looking for here is for the audience and the panelists to think and feel that the panel session felt like a conversation between friends. That—even in the face of complexity, ambiguity, paradox and doubt—there’s a kind of camaraderie, trust and good faith amongst your colleagues. And that—even if you don’t have all the answers (no one does)—somehow we may be able to make some meaningful progress through this, together.


Part Four: The Close

And on that note, you the facilitator thanks everyone and bows out. Your job: done.

I say this because some facilitators love to insert ‘their take’ at the end. This is not the time. Nor is it even about you or I, my friend. It’s about what we coax into emergence. Your perspective has already shaped the unfurling conversation at play; leave it at that, and let the collective have their day.


I guess, if I were to leave you with one question it might be “how are you bringing flavour to a conversation”? This goes beyond the official facilitator of any experience—it applies to all of us.

In many ways, we are all co-facilitating the experience we have of each other. And—just like how being a good guest at a dinner party means being a good conversationalist—we all have a role to play.

I don’t know if I have done a good job of covering the dynamics of facilitating a wondrously emergent panel conversation—but hopefully I have provided some food for thought.

~jf

  1. This is important. We never to target individuals with particular allergies, nor to make the experience uncomfortable. I share this metaphorical chef lens with you as a means to enchant your conversations, so that we might better cultivate a kind of alchemy—a unique combination of elements that allows for the co-creation of an insightful, relevant, wondrous and apt conversation to emerge. 

  2. I say ‘panelists’ here, but The Principles of Conversational Spice can be applied to any interview or group conversation. 

  3. Note my use of ‘might’ here—not ‘will’. We don’t actually know exactly what will emerge—and that’s the magic. Maintaining the glorious tension of generative ambiguity means ensuring we don’t experience premature convergence or collapse—that we don’t fixate upon certainty too early, nor stifle emergence with too much ‘planned content’. Intent trumps content. And here—as in most cases—it is better that curiosity eclipses conviction. 

  4. Critically, it is worth questioning the default of recording every and all online session you do. When we know something is being recorded—when we know our every utterance shall be cast in amber; preserved and fossilised forevermore—we become hesitant to think or speak in draft. Presentations can be recorded, sure. But a living, dynamical conversation? I’m not so sure. 

  5. The elephant in the room being the topic everyone knows about but no one is addressing. 

  6. This is important: you don’t want to fall prey to neat linearity or predictability (such as asking questions of each person sequentially), for such adherence robs you of the ability to respond. Instead, you want to integrate and weave perspectives as richly as possible. This is a Skill that is difficult to translate via text. 

  7. I say this more in a ‘hot potato’ or ‘spice bomb’ sense rather than in a literal hand grenade sense. Remember: our intent is to not cause harm, but to surface the unspoken collectively enable each other to dance with what emerges with courage. Otherwise: the unspoken remains so, and continues to fester. 

  8. This can happen because some questions or topics reflect complex, nuanced and very real power dynamics at play. We have no idea what worlds of angst folks may be dealing with, in real time, whilst on a panel. Thus we dance; coax; play. Nothing is ever forced; and no one is ever ‘drilled’. 

  9. I say ‘one breath’ because many of us don’t have a good grasp of time at the best of times, and the subjective experience of time is oft significantly warped when the spotlight is on you. So one breath—about a tweet’s worth—is a good guide for folks.