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April 8, 2019

Once upon a time….

What happened to you physically as you read those words?  If you are like most people, you exhaled; you released the tension in your shoulders as you prepared to listen to the story.

Stories create the quintessential bonding experience between the moderator, panelists, and the audience.  Next time you are at a panel or a presentation, watch how a simple story can bring an audience to life. 

You can actually see a visible change in the audience when you (or the panelists) tell a story that humanizes and personalizes your topic.  Most participants will lean forward, smile, and either nod their heads to agree or shake their heads to disagree.

When listeners hear a well-told story, they take a journey with you, correlating their own experiences with yours.  Your story becomes their story – or it reminds them of a very similar story from their own lives.  Think of it this way: We all have a figurative file drawer that contains all of the information we know. And it is easier to take in new information when we can relate it to something that resides in that file drawer.

At the very onset of the panel, consider sharing a story (personal or otherwise) that connects to the topic and sparks interest in the audience.  Share the impact (benefits as well as unfavorable consequences) of your topic on the reality of their lives if the present situation is/is not resolved.  Don’t forget to choose descriptive words using the names of actual persons, places, or events – and give your story an ample sprinkling of color and life.

My favorite types of stories for panels are comparisons, contrasts, allusions and analogies:

Comparisons show similarities whereas contrasts show differences. Use comparisons when you want to reveal similar characteristics, features, and qualities; use contrasts when you want to present how one set of conditions differs from another.

Some common comparisons and contrasts are

  • Is/is not—“This is what it is; this is what it is not.”
  • Retrospective/prospective—“That was then; this is now.”
  • Point/counterpoint—“Issues for; issues against.”
  • Review/preview—“Here’s where we have been, and here’s where we are going.”

When you allude to something, you are making brief, indirect references to a person, place, or event that everybody can identify. An allusion evokes a connection among three parties—you, the audience, and the image you are referencing— without saying who, what, or where it is.

Let’s look at a few categories you can allude to in order to get your audience exploring rather than snoring:

  • Politicians. Politicians are famous for serving up some phrases that stick. By mentioning the well-known phrase, there is a connection to that time and place in history. For example, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” evokes the memory of John F. Kennedy.
  • Current events. You can allude to a current event at a local, regional, or national level. You can also tap into what is happening among the participants’ organizations if that information is widely known.
  • Celebrities. Some celebrities have enduring personalities. They may not be endearing, but they are well-known and thus worthy targets of allusion, even after they are long gone. When I am introduced, my “princess wave” to wordlessly say “hello” to the audience is an allusion to Princess Diana.
  • Flashback. Refer, or call back, to something that was said earlier in the presentation, a question that was asked, or anything that might have occurred from the moment the audience entered the room.

An analogy is a comparison of two things to highlight some strong point or points they have in common. Analogies are often used in technical panel discussions as a way to connect the unknown (what you are presenting) to something the audience already knows. There are basically two ways we express an analogy:

    1. A simile compares two things that are not the same and are not normally considered together. The key words you’ll use when using a simile are “like” or “as.” For example, our brains are like a computer. As you read this book, your brain is storing information in your “buffer” just as your computer stores data. What happens when your computer crashes before you hit the ‘save’ button? You lose all that data!
    2. A metaphor is a more direct version of a simile that talks about one thing as if it is the other. Take out the “like” or “as” and your simile becomes a metaphor. To continue the previous example, in order to retain the information in this book, you need to hit the ‘save’ button in your brain frequently or risk having an empty hard drive.

Finding just the right analogy to kick off your panel discussion can be a challenge.  My colleague, Betsey Allen shared with me four steps to selecting an analogy:

  1. Clarify the purpose and people. First, clarify whom the message is for and the outcome you are after. During the late 1990s, when the welfare laws changed, I oversaw the Welfare to Work Training in Lee County, Florida, and helped the boat builders in Fort Myers tap federal funding to put new wage earners to work as fiberglass handlers. My audience was primarily minority females who had probably never been in a boat much less knew anything about building one! Yet, within twenty-five hours, we needed them to know every step of building a boat, and we needed a visual memory hook that would stay top of mind as they became independent workers.
  2. Define the elements, pieces, or parts. Fiberglass handling is messy work. It is done outdoors in the heat of summer, with hazardous chemicals and challenging conditions. The process uses wet (resin) and dry (reinforcement) ingredients that are temperamental. When used out of sequence or measured inaccurately, the combinations can start fires. In fact, if you do everything right, yet you don’t have the fiberglass rubbed out within thirty minutes, you have to start over.
  3. Brainstorm similes and metaphors. Analogies are everywhere. After brainstorming metaphors that were visual and could be connected to the audience and purpose, we landed on “building a boat is like baking a cake.”
  4. Narrow the potentials that link back to your purpose. You bake a cake from the inside out, just as you build a boat. You have wet and dry ingredients, which must be accurately measured and baked delicately to create a cake. The same holds true for a boat. Finally, the last step of the process is to rub out the fiberglass before it hardens just as you rub on the frosting while it’s soft.

Selecting your analogy is more of an art than a science, but it takes a bit of thought to pick just the right one to kick off your panel discussion.


Related Articles:

How Moderators Can Manage Awkward Audience Comments

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion Tip #185 with Jeffrey Hayzlett: Finishing Panel Discussions


For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. To have Kristin moderate your next panel, visit the Powerful Panels official website.




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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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