Anchoring like a Pro 3/3 - Guiding your discussion

This is the last installment in our series on Anchoring great discussions. The first post was on selecting a topic, the second was on creating the discussion card. This final post is about guiding and managing the live discussion itself.

  1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!!!: This cannot be stressed enough. As the anchor, it’s your responsibility to come to the discussion with a set of ideas, an agenda, questions, discussion points, etc. Participants will also be expected to come prepared, so you’re not going to have to keep things going by yourself, but participants will look to YOU to keep the flow of the discussion moving forward, to decide when a given issue has been discussed for long enough, and for the overall style of the discussion. Real people are counting on you to come prepared, so please do so!

  2. L-A-T-E: Lighting-Audio-Tech-Environment: Things to keep in mind for your participants.

    a. Lighting: Webcams are notoriously bad at dealing with poor lighting. As such, participants should be in a well-lit environment. Natural light is best, more light is better than less light, and a good portion of it should be coming from behind the camera towards the person’s face.

    b. Audio: It’s best for participants to mute themselves if they’re not speaking, and unmute themselves when they want to say something. This is especially important if there’s any background noise coming from the person’s environment. It’s also best to use a dedicated microphone or headset, although some people may have laptops with particularly good built-in microphones. Headsets will also help with any potential reverb if that’s a problem, so we encourage them.

    c. Tech: We normally use Zoom for our discussions, which means it’s best if participants are familiar with Zoom and have installed it before the discussion starts. It’s also important for people to have stable high-speed internet connections, be within range of their wifi routers or hard-wired, and for their computers to not have too many (or any, preferably) programs or windows open during the discussion. Not only will this mean their computer is likely to be more stable and responsive during the discussion, but it means participants are less likely to be distracted. Notes and such are obviously an important exception to this general practice.

    d. Environment: The key here is to minimize distractions. This means you want to be in a controlled and comfortable space, free from other people and unexpected interruptions. Most people will find it best and easiest to stay in a chair or sofa. We’ve seen it work for some people to be moving around within a space, but this is tricky to pull off well while on a video call.

  3. So you’ve started the discussion, and people have joined. Now what?

    a. Length: Discussions last about 1-2 hours, depending on how well things are going and how much material the group wants to cover. Don’t be afraid to run over or finish early if it really makes sense. At the beginning of a conversation, try and determine if any other attendees have time constraints to be mindful of.

    b. Intros: You can decide on your own intro for a given discussion depending on the issue at hand. A discussion on Westerns in Film might begin with asking everyone their names, where they’re from, and to list a few of their favorite Westerns. A discussion on the impact of pandemics on free speech might begin with peoples’ names, where they’re connecting from, and why they feel free speech is or is not important during a crisis. Be creative.

    c. The main discussion: This is the meat of the discussion, where you act as a guide helping your cadre of explorers make their way through the intellectual thicket you’ve decided to adventure through. Give compliments when they’re due - people respond well to authentic praise and it helps add positive energy to the room. Ask people who seem to be on the quiet side what their thoughts are on specific issues/questions - some people function better in discussion when they are brought out of their shell, try and do this strategically.

    d. The conclusion: Before ending, it’s best to take a few minutes and let people sum up their ideas or their conclusions for the discussion. If the discussion feels like it could use a follow-up, ask others if they would like to anchor potential follow-ups themselves or if you should anchor another one on a related topic.

  4. Striking a balance between too much structure and not enough: A discussion is a delicate balance of constraints. On the one hand, you want to keep the discussion on-track and on-topic. On the other hand, it’s often valuable and rewarding to explore side-topics, parallel ideas, or outright tangents. There is no easy formula here - you must use your intuition and good judgement to decide which ideas, comments, or questions to explore, and which ones should be shelved for later. 

  5. Respect and being heard: Some people need a bit more space to get their thoughts out than others (more time, fewer interruptions, etc). Some discussions are going to be fast paced, others slower and more contemplative, but always make sure people feel like they’re being given a chance to participate and add to the discussion if at all possible. This does not mean you let someone go on a tangent for minutes at a time while everyone else loses track of the thought, but it does mean that you try your best to make sure the person feels heard and respected.

  6. Using a light-touch: The ultimate discussion would be one where you have successfully steered things so carefully, so elegantly, and with such masterful timing, that nobody even noticed you were doing it. You came across not as a tour-guide, but as one of the participants, even though you were really watching and guiding the process along when things were off track. You were there to avert a miscommunication before it happened, you helped diffuse someone who was getting a bit too overwhelmed, and you made everyone feel like they were heard on their own merits, and not because you deemed it would be so. Being such a skillful anchor is perhaps impossible to achieve completely, but this is the gold-standard to shoot for.
If all goes well, you’ll have a great conversation and a wonderful time. In our experience, even when things don’t go perfectly, discussions will turn out to be great experiences. At the end of discussions, all participants (including the anchor) will receive an email with a feedback form they can use to tell us how the discussion went.