‘Do you want to lead a House of Commons Debate?’, I was asked one day. ‘No way, of course not, never done it before, no experience, find someone else.’ But then after two months no one had been found yet and the organising party was getting a bit desperate. I secretly found the idea fun and exciting, so I decided to go for it!
But how do you lead a debate? No idea, so I immersed myself in YouTube videos, Google results, went through the rules and engaged in conversation with the organising party.
My best question during preparations?: ‘What would be considered a successful afternoon for you?’ Because with this one question, I know immediately where to place the emphasis that afternoon.
Eye opener #1: Start with a purpose in mind.
In the meantime, I receive the six propositions for the debate and go through them with Jan-Jaap of Masters in Moderation I have my doubts about at least three propositions, Jan-Jaap thinks all six are questionable...oh dear... I take all the feedback with me and present it to the organising party in a reasoned manner, because after all, I am really the one who will soon be standing in front of these propositions as a kind of calling card. To my surprise, they welcomed my expertise! They adjusted the propositions because ‘an expert’ (i.e. me) looked at them and contributed ideas.
Eye opener #2: So even as a 'novice debate leader', I get to make my statement: I can only represent these propositions on stage once they are more focused and unambiguous.
In one evening, I put together a PowerPoint presentation with a slick animation, showing for each proposition how many of the allotted 15 minutes are left, a kind of countdown clock.
Eye opener #3: It took me a few hours, but now I have a PowerPoint presentation of my own that I can use every time; I’ll come across well as a debate leader.
The expert guest speaker and I both noticed a click during the pre-conversation. We agreed on defined moments so that he knew when he would be given the floor. For participants who spoke a bit longer than appropriate, the guest speaker and I agreed that I would continue to lead the conversation subtly (as I also learnt at the Moderator's Workshop at Masters in Moderation), say thank you and bring the focus to the guest speaker. I also explained how I would deal with 'difficult or angry' participants. All the guest speaker said was: ‘Great, you pay attention to that, and I can focus on the content.’
Eye opener #4: Prepping well with the guest speaker is ‘a must’, and makes the interplay on stage a lot easier.
Eye opener #5: I never ask the guest speaker: ‘What do you expect from me?’, I just explain my approach and how I will lead the debate.
Blank or not?
On the day itself, I feel some tension in my stomach, let’s call it jangled nerves. The topics can be quite dense and although I do understand the context, I don't necessarily find the topics super interesting. Is that important for a debate leader or not...? Jan-Jaap did advise me at an earlier stage to read up properly on the topics and I am grateful that I am no longer going in 'blank'.
Eye opener #6: Know the broad outline of the subject, especially if the subject isn’t your strong suit.
Introduction of the guest speaker
And then it's time to really get started. Okay, here we go, deep breaths. First, I put on my moderator's hat for 15 minutes with the standard stuff like the welcome, introducing myself and the guest speaker, explaining the debate rules and making sure the guest speaker is welcomed with great enthusiasm. I do the latter in the way I had learnt at Masters in Moderation, with a nice intro and the speaker's name as last. The applause was good, yet the guest speaker, during the evaluation, found this ‘over-the-top’.
Eye opener #7: Introduce the guest speaker in a way that the guest speaker is comfortable with. The guest speaker is the one who you want to ‘shine’.
It constantly goes through my head that I must be careful not to say process statements like, ‘I am now going to tell you about.....’ or ‘May I introduce to you......’ or ‘I will now explain the programme further....’. I notice while preparing how often I want to say process statements. And, upon reflection, it’s really just to pad out the text. For me, the process statements are replacements for the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ in my story. I have to laugh internally at how often I hear Jan-Jaap screaming in my head: ‘PROCESS!!’.
Eye opener #8: Lots of practice to not say process statements, speaking well in the present tense and having the guts to allow moments of silence.
Leading the conversation
The heated discussion that I have to cut off, my own distracting thoughts (oops, what did they say?), the humour you want to bring in, the person who keeps speaking constantly, the proposition that draws everyone to one side (which allows for little debate), the guest speaker who sucks the air out of the debate too early, the same guest speaker who picks a side before the participants do, oh no, no one is saying anything, and so on. I realise that I can't anticipate everything, but I can learn from these experiences. My attitude is: ‘anything goes’ and that it’s up to me how I shape the conversation further. My calmness radiates to the audience and is seen as very positive.
Eye opener #9: I reflected a lot on small isolated situations such as those mentioned above. That allows my learning experience to grow and gives me new insights into how I would approach it again next time. Just like learning to fly a plane!
Because I consistently point my hand at the person who is allowed to speak (as learnt at Masters in Moderation) people start looking at me more and more to see if they can speak yet. I also keep saying ‘stand’ (when talking). At a certain point, I see the audience start saying to each other: ‘Stand!’ This makes for a fun dynamic in the group.
Eye opener #10: ‘Coding’ has taken on a new life for me. I also apply it more frequently in other cases. As a facilitator of groups, they watch you and you imperceptibly determine how the group will act.
I was exhausted after three hours of leading a debate. No one had told me that leading a debate required so much energy and a non-stop focus. Would I do it again? Yes, I’ve got a taste for it now!
From experience, I have learnt the value of asking for feedback. Others can unerringly find your blind spot and although criticism is really not fun sometimes, I see it as a gift that I may or may not put in my showcase. Most of the things that have been improved in my techniques are all based on feedback I have requested.
Eyeopener#11: Have the courage to ask for feedback from the guest speaker, organising party and perhaps a participant.