Thursday, November 18, 2010

Short Answers

Ha ha, no, I haven't been to the Brookings Institute.
I'm just practicing my right to borrow Flikr images
registered with "Creative Commons."
The panel discussion. When you don't know what people have to say, or what other people want to hear about, you add a panel discussion to your group meeting. But my heart sinks when I see it happen; often I come away frustrated and disappointed. What is it that keeps these things from working well? Are there patterns that show up in other forms of communication, too?

Maybe it's the lack of a coherent message. These guys are just talking to a captive audience off the cuff, when they could be coming in with planned, thoughtful speaking or teaching.
Maybe it's that the answers don't match the questions. Neither the moderator nor the person in the audience who asks a question is apt to elicit the kind of response they are seeking. Nobody really gets to do all the driving; nobody gets what they want. To use another analogy, sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth. Panels are messy. They may seem to drag on, but seldom are long enough for everyone to really feel they've fully asked or gotten answers to their questions or expressed what's important to them.

Under such pressures, panel members often seem not to be listening. They may come in a little nervous, and hoping to get a certain agenda across. Perhaps they are formulating their next sound bite or wondering how they can weave in a certain reference. So their off-the-cuff responses to questions and to one another may seem ill-put or ill-conceived.

Would it improve things if everyone disciplined him or herself to give a short answer?

The most recent time I saw a panel kind of flop was when a panel member responded too quickly to a question, gave an inappropriate answer, realized he wasn't make sense, and tried to extricate himself with more and more words - taking up time that could have been given to another question (or another panel participant). I thought: hush. Let someone else talk.

In fact, you could issue the invitation yourself: "_____, I think you could probably respond to this better than I could," or "_____, what do you think?"

Do you have other ideas for making panels work well?

No sooner did I start to analyze this, then I realized how often I fall into these traps, myself - both in casual conversation and when I'm "speaking" someplace. I want to ask or be asked questions, I want interaction, but I don't want to or am afraid to follow where it leads. I want to stay in control, or finish my thought; I have some other motivation that doesn't honor and respond to the other person. I make a mess of it and then try to pull myself out of the hole with more and more words.

Better to respond with a short answer and/or ask a clarifying question before making my long, impromptu speech.

I've been keeping a mental list of the social skills I see demonstrated by people who handle presentations, questions, and group interaction very well. These things don't make as big an impression as the negative examples, do they? But I love to learn and try out new "tricks" for listening and communicating well, and lately I've picked up quite a few. Perhaps I'll write a post about that too.
See also: W.A.I.T.: Why Am I Talking? (June 30, 2009)


Shane said...


I agree with the "too long answer" idea. And definitely do a post on what you've seen work well in the presentation arena. I would benefit from that.


Marti said...

Thanks, Shane. Yes, I'll pass on some of the tricks I've seen in action. Some of them from you!

Hanging out at agency HQ this week. Good folks, but we don't really know each other. Bit lonely.

Dianne said...

LOVE the photo caption. NICE.