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As I predicted, round two of the first Democratic Primary Debate was more feisty.  Moderator Lester Holt called it “spirited.”  I’ll call it a feeding frenzy – and that is directly attributable to the moderator(s) skills (or lack thereof).

Last night’s debate was the warm-up show where the candidates learned a few things:

  • Rebut Loudly.  They knew that the moderators did not hold last night’s candidates to the time limits – and they didn’t do the same tonight.  So what happened?  Bernie Sanders was asked the first opening question and then chaos erupted!  Everybody wanted to weigh in (the transcript calls it “crosstalk”).   Moderator Savannah Guthrie had to say, “Senator Bennet, we’re going to get to everybody, I promise.”  Michael Bennett pressed on by saying, “No, I’d like to say something.”  An exasperated Guthrie responded by reiterating, “But let me just — Senator Biden — promise everybody’s going to get in here, promise.”And that, my friends, set the tone. As the questions got more pointed; the crosstalk became even more prominent. Just take a look at the stats below:

  • Crosstalk. The transcript indicates there were 30 instances of crosstalk during the debate, compared to only three the night before.  They learned you need to speak up, speak loudly and longer than anyone else in the crosstalk in order to be recognized.  Or heck, just start talking like you’ve been asked a question!  I wish they had a buzzer to tap (or smash) that would indicate who wanted to speak.  But that would make this look like a reality-TV game show… [Update: Andrew Yang believes NBC cut off his (and maybe Marianne Williamson’s) microphones during the crosstalk…NBC denies this claim is true and I can’t imagine why NBC would be inconsistent.  Maybe he just wasn’t loud enough?]
    One of the most poignant moments resulted from a crosstalk on race relations.  Harris appeared the winner when she loudly said, “As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race.”  Moderator Rachel Maddow conceded her the floor for 30 seconds.  After all, what choice did she have after a statement like that? Harris proceeded to take about a minute talking about segregation and busing while invoking Joe Biden into the conversation.  Biden then had 30 seconds to respond.  But who are we kidding? – There was a back and forth that consumed close to three minutes. [An interesting side note: The New York Times reports that this “This was a planned event, one crafted and practiced in debate prep. Ms. Harris’s team immediately tried to milk it for all it was worth, pinning the line to the top of her Twitter page with a photo of the candidate as a young girl.”]
  • Lightning Rounds.  Two of my favorite segments were the lightning rounds where the moderators asked the candidates to respond in one or two words.  Candidates are not good listeners.  Moderator Todd called it “down the line” and forgot to mention the ground rules, so it should be no surprise that Marianne Williamson started a speech.  Todd interrupted her after one sentence saying, “Thank you” and she just kept on going!  (I would too if I were her and barely got a word in edge-wise!).  He then came out with the ground rule: “OK, I want — I’m trying to get one or two words here,” and then redirected over to John Hickenlooper.  After that, as he went down the line, nobody complied!
  • Time Limits.  Let’s face it.  No one complied.  60 seconds, 30 seconds, or 10 seconds. Oh yeah, Andrew Yang followed the rules – and look how far that got him!  I wish I knew more about how the candidates knew that there time was up.  Yes, the lectern turns blue, but how do they know that they are out of time?  If I had my way, I’d cut off the microphone when not talking.  How hard is that?
  • Where’s Lester Holt?  We came back from the third commercial break and Moderators Maddow and Todd are shifting over to his token audience question.  He showed up about ten minutes later.  I guess there always has to be some blip on the radar! Speaking of moderators, here are the moderator stats:

As far as the questions go, they weren’t terribly heavy on substance and how-to, but I have a feeling later debates will get into more detail.  They were exceedingly left-leaning (but I’m not surprised as it IS a Democratic Party Debate!).  Media Research Center found that “70 of the 102 distinct questions at the two debates echoed liberal talking points or were framed around a liberal world view, vs. only 13 that challenged liberal/Democratic assumptions. Another 19 questions were framed in a neutral fashion, or were neutral follow-ups to previous questions.”

The point of this debate was to introduce the candidates and their positions to the American Voters (not just Democrats, BTW).  And I hope I have introduced you to the importance of a fair, objective, and skilled facilitation!

Taking stock after the second night, Ms. Maddow had an answer that was better than any of her questions.  Moderating such an event was, she conceded, ‘not a thing that humans can do, and we should never do it again.'”

Well, we’ll be doing it again next month for the second Democratic primary debate series – and in the meantime, let’s make all our panel discussions (and debates) extraordinary!


Related Articles:

12 Moderator Mishaps that Derail a Presidential Debate

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 interviews, resources, and more information on debate moderation and moderating panel discussions, contact Kristin.



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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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