How Did Debate Moderator Lester Holt Do During the First 2016 Presidential Debate?
September 27, 2016
Second 2016 Presidential Debate: Who Moderates the Moderator?
October 10, 2016

I wanted to giggle….again. The 2016 Vice-Presidential Debate format last night was quite similar to the first Presidential Debate format: According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, “the debate will be divided into nine time segments of approximately 10 minutes each. The moderator will ask an opening question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. The moderator will use the balance of the time in the segment for a deeper discussion of the topic.” The only difference? Nine segments vs six and 10 minutes vs. 15, and the presidential candidates got a sneak peak of the topics.   And for some reason, the candidates were sitting down at a triangular table vs. behind a lectern.

According to NPR, the precedent for vice presidential candidates sitting during their debate extends back several years. Theoretically, “the format for the meeting between vice presidential candidates is really more of a moderated discussion than an entirely traditional debate with a certain amount of time allotted to each candidate.” So we ditched the lecterns and opted for a table.

The problem here is that I still couldn’t tell whether this was going to be a moderated discussion vs. a traditional debate. The debate moderator Elaine Quijano did an excellent job teeing up the questions. She was calm, cool and collected…but as far as managing the discussion, probing deeper and moving us along? Not so much.

Managing Discussion:

Each candidate got a chance to respond to the initial question, but then after that, I have no idea what ground rules she was following. Who could speak when and for how long? Who could interrupt whom? When did she intervene to remind a candidate of the process or not? Your guess is as good as mine. There was no consistent application of the rules. A great moderator consistently follows the established format and uses escalating interventions early and often to get the conversation back on track.

Probing deeper:

She did a great job teeing up the questions for discussion, and then she let the candidates have at it for an unspecified amount of time/opportunities to rebut the argument. I can’t remember a single instance where she probed either candidate for further explanation on behalf of the audience. (I’m thinking I probably missed a few since I was on Atlantic time and watching this past my bedtime!) That’s just weird to me. Seems like she was more interested in asking the questions than actually hearing what they had to say. Alex Shepard of the New Republic wrote she “turned the moderator’s role into that of a stopwatch, hurrying the candidates along to the next topic.”

Moving the conversation along:

At a certain point, I got tired of hearing the same old argument. Yep, Candidate Trump has not released his Federal tax returns. Yep, other candidates have disclosed their tax returns. Yep, Trump says he won’t release his returns because he’s currently under audit. Yep, the IRS says he can still disclose his returns even while under audit. Yep, Trump says his advisors are telling him not to. How many times do we have to discuss this? Move it along, moderator!

Considering the Vice President could possibly ascend to the White House, it would have been nice to either have an interesting debate…or have an interesting moderated discussion. Unfortunately, we didn’t get either…and I am no longer laughing. When are we going to get a non-biased moderator who creates an engaging format that enables the candidates to discuss important political issues in a constructive way?


For quick tips and techniques from industry professionals to help you moderate a lively and informative panel discussion at your next meeting, conference or convention, visit the Powerful Panels YouTube playlist, “Powerful Panel Discussion Tips.”

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Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator, and high stakes meeting facilitator shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or 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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