For reasons of history, this weblog remains Davos Newbies. But it is some time since I spoke about Davos, which is now just a few weeks away (the countdown on this page gives the time remaining to the minute). Over the holiday break, I received my personal agenda for Davos 2001, and it poses some interesting questions.
In contrast to last January, where I had to be just about everywhere just about all the time, I have the luxury this Davos of having only a few commitments at this stage. I’m running the moderators’ bootcamp (placidly renamed moderators’ briefing for some reason), moderating two sessions (one on user experience and one on “the museum of the future”) and participating in a dinner discussion on truth and trust in the information age.
I’ll talk some other day about the sessions, but I’d like to concentrate first on the importance of moderating. Year after year, in analysing what works and what doesn’t work in Davos, one conclusion has been reached: nothing is more important to the success of a session than the moderator. You can have a great topic with great panelists and a so-so moderator and, guess what, the result is below expectations. But a great moderator can squeeze blood out of a stone (translate: make a CEO or central banker skilled in muddy platitudes say something interesting).
I’ve already admitted to being a Forum Fellow under slightly false pretences. I can’t claim any of the world-leading, deep expertise in a single area that most other FFs have. I am, however, an expert on Davos itself and I think I know what makes a good moderator (and I think I’m reasonably skilled at the task, as well).
So here are the five keys to great moderation (I’d welcome other points you may wish to suggest).
Prepare. Too many moderators come even to Davos without having thought intelligently through their topic and without having discussed the subject with the other panelists. In Davos, a 15 minute preparatory meeting is programmed just before the actual session, but if that is when you think you can do the preparation, you are too late. It is, however, a delicate balance. It’s wrong to wear out panelists so their ideas sound talked out and stale. But you should have a clear idea of their passions and peeves, so you know when to push the right hot button.
Be tough. In Davos in particular, moderators tend to be too polite. Sometimes this is institutionally forced: a CEO is unlikely to push a fellow CEO too hard on a point, especially when they may be important business partners (consultants and bankers can be the worst in this regard — they have to remain friends with everyone). It’s not my style to be impolite or to embarrass people, but participants in Davos deserve a challenging, bracing discussion. Don’t let panelists get away with unfounded assertions. Be ready with the questions you think panelists may struggle to answer.
Take risks. As much as the World Economic Forum struggles against it, there does tend to be a “Davos consensus” in a lot of sessions. It’s not that everyone agrees precisely, but (particularly in economic and management sessions) the spectrum of opinions is somewhat narrow. As moderator at this stage of events, there is little to no scope to say, “Can we get someone different on this panel?” You have to live with it. So you may find yourself in the role of designated risk taker (unless you can persuade one of your panelists to take this on). Ask the unpopular question. Remember that the participants in the audience need discomfitting as much as the panelists.
Watch the time. Obvious, but essential. Keep an especially beady eye open for panelists who come with a prepared speech. I don’t advocate ripping it up for them, but you do need to move heaven and earth to ensure they don’t read a speech. It’s boring and it will always, always, go on too long. Even for those without speeches, make sure they keep to their allotted time. That’s the only way to preserve time for questions, which should be the best part of the session. Nothing riles an audience more than the curt announcement from the moderator, “Well, that’s been fascinating, but I’m afraid we’re out of time so we can’t have any questions.” There should always be questions.
Enjoy. If you don’t enjoy the session, no one else will. The moderator has to communicate energy and enjoyment to both the panelists and the audience. That spirit, allied with good panelists, will ensure that panelists interact during questions (interaction is everything for a good session) and that the audience wants to participate as well. Remember that in Davos, a participant in the audience stands a good chance to making as valuable (if not more valuable) a contribution as any of your panelists.