I’m a HUGE fan of Catchbox, a throwable microphone that I use (almost) all the time for audience Q&A during interviews and panel discussions.

Perfect for groups over 75 (or where a microphone is needed) and less than 300 (more than that, I recommend several Catchboxes – one per 300 is a nice ratio), I use the Catchbox because it:

  1. Is Novel.  Audiences like new things – especially techie audiences who love gadgets.  It adds a bit of excitement and variety into the conference mix.
  2. Is A Time-Saver.  In the past, I would be running around the room with a cordless handheld.  There would be a few seconds lost between getting from one questioner to the next – who might very well be on the other side of the room!
  3. Engages the Audience.  Even if you are not throwing or catching the Catchbox, it’s always fun to see objects fly around the room!  Applaud for a great throw or catch!  Howl when the Catchbox hits someone on the head! (Yes, that does happen from time to time, but not as often as you think.)
  4. Gives the Audience Power.  Rather than have the questioner throw the Catchbox back to me, I have the questioner select the next person to throw it to!  Sometimes, it’s a simple hand off to a neighbor, a Hail Mary pass to the other side of the room, or something in between.  The key is that the audience gets to choose.

However, there is ONE downfall.  For all the years I’ve been moderating panels, I would fervently hang onto the cordless microphone.  A questioner would try to grab it from me, and it would be glued to my hand… especially when I know there will be a speech coming.  We don’t have time for a speech AND the audience doesn’t want to hear it!  My thought was that when you give up the microphone, you give up control.

With Catchbox, you give up control of the microphone.  The audience is in control.  Egads!

All is not lost.  There are two specific actions you can take to keep control:

1)  Introduce Catchbox.  When you first bring out the Catchbox,

  • Explain How It Works.  Show the audience how to speak into it.  Throw it to a person or two and ask them to comment “Wow!  that’s light!”
  • Set Ground Rules.  You know what could go wrong, so set some rules up front.  I like to say, “We have a fairly tight time frame, so we would all appreciate it if you keep your questions short and to the point.  We don’t have time for a lengthy speech!  Please ask your question FIRST, then give a sentence or two of background or amplifying information. then, when you’re done, YOU get to choose who will get the Catchbox next!  You have throw it anywhere in the room.  I just ask that you keep the Catchbox moving all around the room” (and I use a grand gesture to signify that the Catchbox should go all over the room).
  • Ask For the First Question.  Rather than saying, “Are there any questions?” assume that the audience has questions and ask, “Who has the first question?”  If you’re really nervous about this, you may want to have a friend in the audience ready to ask an interesting question.

2)  Intervene Quickly.  Now that you have the ground rules in place, you can intervene fairly quickly to refocus the questioner.  Of course, this is directly dependent on your facilitation style.  Mine is pretty direct and to the point.  So here’s how I have handled some audiences:

  • If the questioner doesn’t start with a question, I’ll interrupt and ask, “So what is the question?”  (Yes, they will get a little off-balance and think you’re being a bit persnickety, but the rest of the audience knows what you are doing and is supremely grateful.  The rest of the questioners will fall in line.)
  • If the questioner is using more than two sentences to explain the question, interject, “Only one more sentence, please” or “Wrap it up, please.”  If they go into a speech, say, “Please, no speeches.  We don’t have time.”
  • If Catchbox has been hanging out on one part of the room, provide a little coaching by saying, “Catchbox has been hanging out with you folks for a while…how ’bout we move toward this side of the room?  They’d like to ask some questions too.”

When you introduce Catchbox with confidence and ground rules, you can intervene quickly to keep the Q&A focused, energized, lively and fun!
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Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.