I am a dreadful hypocrite. I loathe and despise two staples of modern political activity. The first is the tradition of one day conferences on worthy topics at central London conference venues. The second is panel discussions. These fill with me with rage and fear, because as an audience member I have been convinced the audience knew more than the panel, and as a panelist, I’ve been fearful of the same.
Nevertheless, this Saturday will find me at the Fabian society’s annual one day conference in central London, appearing on a panel. I even asked to be featured. Pleaded even. Why? Because it is very important to me to be seen as the sort of person who is taken seriously. Fickleness, thy name is a desire for approbation from your peers.
Since I am revealed as a fraudster, I felt it important that I set down the lessons for success as a panelist that I have absorbed over many years of being on the receiving end. I pledge and affirm to do all the below tomorrow.
1. Ensure your brief introductory remarks extend for at least twice as long as the Chair suggests.
All Panelists have to make some brief introductory remarks. This is why you are here, so make the most of it. You’re a panelist because you’re not quite famous or important enough to be a keynote speaker, and your task is to demonstrate you have the rhetorical chops to make the step up. So go for it. Swing for the fences in the Minor leagues to prove you’ve got what it takes to make it in the show. Your introductory remarks should be a speech, and a speech needs time to develop. Time Limits are for sissies. (Also, the longer you speak for, the less time there will be for the inevitably stupid questions.)
2. Make sure that your introductory remarks contain a controversial jab at someone present.
It is imperative that you make the most controversial remark of all the panelists, so that your contribution is the only one that will be remembered. But a controversial remark directed against someone not present may simply be tactfully ignored. So go for someone in the room. A fellow panelist, the chair, the nice old lady doing her knitting. It is of no consequence. Someone must be so offended by your opening that the remainder of the hour is a drama where you are the star. If you do this carefully, you can pick someone who knows that this is the game, and your remarks can escalate into a hostility so strong it might even make it in the gossip column of a small left wing periodical.
3. When asked to respond to another panelists remarks, simply repeat your own remarks more forcefully.
You will, on occasion be asked to respond to something another panelist has said. On no account do this. Instead, simply return to what you have previously stated, and say it even more controversially. You’re not there to discuss what some other tedious hack has to say. You’re they’re to prove how clever you are and impress people. If you feel awkward ignoring the content of another speakers remarks, simply preface your response with “Jane has made an important contribution, but has underestimated the significance of X” where X is what you want to talk about. Then return to your own topic over the bridge of fake interest..
4. You will be asked to reply to questions. Don’t.
Often, you will be asked to reply to questions from the audience. You may fall into the trap of thinking you are there to answer them. Don’t. First, the organisers don’t really want you to answer questions. If they did, they wouldn’t group three entirely different questions together, and ask you to respond to them briefly. It’s an impossible task, and the trick is not to attempt it. Second, if the audience at your event were important, they’d be on the panel. You don’t care what the hayseed munchers think. Who’s been invited to share their views here? You, that’s who. So your job is to find ways to share your important opinions on your terms. What is required is that you show some impressive opinion free-styling skills. Take a single point mentioned in one of the three questions, then riff on why this proves your original point was completely right. You receive bonus marks if the question you build from is utterly unrelated to your original remarks, but you are able to somehow construct a link.
In truth, the reason for allowing questions is because an hour of four minor political figure arguing with each other is not that interesting, even for political types, and second, the audience needs their an opportunity prove to their own satisfaction that they should really have been on the panel. Think of questions as auditions.
5. Deal with incomprehensible questions by appearing to agree with them, while not actually expressly doing so.
One of the great dangers of being a panelist is that you are exposed to the opinions of the audience, and whenever any number of political types are gathered together, there is a quota of cranks and bores that must be fulfilled. Since all political conferences employ a positive discrimination policy for this beleaguered minority, they will be encouraged to share their opinions with the group. This will be in the form of a statement which is as long as your opening remarks, covers eight issues, and involves no stated question.
On no account engage with any of these statements. Do this and you are on a one way ticket to cranktown, as it will soon become obvious that the bore knows more about the 1853 Abyssinian crisis than you ever will, and no amount of frantic iPad googling is going to rescue you from losing a fight with the crank on the topic. Instead, simply compliment them on raising an important and neglected element of the debate, which you hope receives more attention in the future. Afterwards, complain that the Chair did not control the cranks.
6. Respect the crank and the bore. For they are the ghosts of panelists past who failed to ascend to the plenary session.
They are a warning, and a lesson. Do not be overly interested in the topic, or have a complex, intricate view that allows for many different factors, for that way lies obscurity and contempt. Keep it splashy, keep it bright, keep it vague.
7. Nod like your life depended on it
It’s impossibly for you to know as much as the collected experience and knowledge of the audience and the panel. So you need to show that you are engaging with their contributions, while of course entirely ignoring them when it comes to your own turn to speak. So to prove you aren’t disinterested in the views of others, spend around eighty per cent of the time you are not speaking nodding at what others say. The other twenty per cent should be spent apparently making detailed notes. These can just be doodles. The important thing is that the pen files across the paper while you have an intense look on your noggin. The very best panelists can nod, scribble and make eye contact simultaneously, making everyone in the room feel incredibly important. These super-panelists are usually women, which is why you only need one on any given panel.
So with those seven tips for success, I’m sure our session tomorrow will be brilliant and informative for you, and a timely boost to the ego for me. See you there.
This post originally appeared at Hopi Sen’s blog.