THE STAGE IS SET. OR IS IT? – Sanjay Pinto

THE STAGE IS SET. OR IS IT? – Sanjay Pinto

How would you rate ‘presenters’ who put on the most expensive branded suits, slip into the latest shoes, spray the costliest perfume and strut around a hip and happening event but don’t have the faintest clue about the topic that is up for discussion in an intellectual event? My heart bleeds when I come across organisations paying through their nose to set up a glitzy backdrop and stage and on the presenter’s wardrobe except hiring a reasonably cerebral professional to lend credibility to the programme. What’s more important –  heavily decked up hosts sporting products of the sponsors or articulate anchors who know their onions, do their homework, are not in awe of their guests and who don’t arrive fashionably late? If you think that’s a no-brainer, just  drop in to one of these sponsored discussions or debates in your city.

The choice of the anchor sets the tone for the rest of the event. A Panel Discussion is a Panel Discussion. And a Seminar is a Seminar. And the twain can never meet. Because the nomenclature is very different.  I’ve seen  ‘Panel Discussions‘ conducted in such a monotonous fashion – the poor ‘Moderator’ is reduced to the level of a Master of Ceremonies. The brief, it appears, is to pander to the big fat egos of speakers by reading out their long profiles and doing the honours of inviting them to the podium. Those who are happy doing that are either ignorant of their purpose on stage or plain incompetent. Once in the saddle, as it were, each speaker spews gems of wisdom, often exceeding their time by ten to fifteen minutes or in some cases, by even an hour, only to conclude with a template “with these few words I end my speech.” That is if the moderator doesn’t get sardonic stares from the organisers, (especially if there is that flight to catch) and musters the courage to hand over a slip to the speaker with a request to “Please Wind Up.”


How does monologue even remotely qualify as a ‘discussion’? To play the part, the Moderator must be a sheet anchor – asking pertinent questions, not generic stuff, steering the discussion, interjecting at the right places and lacing the event with humour and wit. On TV shows and ‘On Ground’ events, I’ve had panelists – Head Honchos with a string of management degrees from the IIMs or premier institutes abroad, insisting on being given the questions in advance. My response usually ranges from ‘it’s not an examination for the paper to be leaked’ to ‘let’s just go with the flow’. It jolly well is the case. Haven’t they heard of spontaneity? All that a moderator is required to divulge is the broad area of discussion. And must ferret out any special expertise the panelists may have, if that hasn’t been covered at the time of inviting them.

In the events I moderate, I always make it a point to treat the audience, not as gravy by the side, not as props, not as fillers but as panelists themselves, just seated in a different spot. They are like the Op-Ed page in a newspaper. These articles may sometimes be more incisive than the main Editorials! If people have taken the trouble to attend a discussion, especially if it is a ticketed programme, they do deserve to participate, beyond clapping hands. A cliche is “we just have time for two questions”. I’m sorry, that is just tokenism. And poor time management. If the moderator functions like a moderator and cuts short panelists who probably love the sound of their voices and go on and on like broken records, the audience will have a greater say in the discussion.

Nothing gets my goat more at such events than the sight of a speaker sifting through reams of paper on the podium. I have always held that a paper is a speaker’s worst enemy. It shows a lack of preparation, conviction, confidence and blocks out a critical element of public speaking – eye contact. What’s worse, it’s a teaser for boredom that will inevitably be in store.

I am tempted but won’t delve into academic paper presentations. The quality of research in this cut-copy-paste system, where plagiarism is rampant, is another story altogether. How can I omit those Corporate ‘Power Point Presentations’. They are invariably a misnomer as there is neither ‘power’ nor ‘points’ that are original but a mere information overload slotted under multiple heads, in an array of colours, replete with pie charts, diagrams, lines and arrows. The presenters are not even spin doctors but they are more than capable of curing insomnia, way better than anyMonday morning.

What is most ironic in all this is that when there are good moderators, the compere may goof up their introduction or the organisers may wreak havoc with their designation. On the invitation card, a Wellness and Age Management Expert metamorphosed into an ‘aging expert’ and another professional was designated as ‘randiest’ which means a “lecherous playboy”! Good heavens.

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(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author, Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7 & a Public Speaking Mentor)