How to Gracefully Interrupt a Panelist Who Talks Too Long

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I would be rich if I got a dollar for every time I am asked how to tactfully cut off a panelist who talks too long.  Okay, I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I’d be able to buy a nice car.  Really.

This week, it was “I have a difficult time with panelists droning on and on too long, and not staying on topic.  I don’t know what to do – I don’t want to cut them off.  Any recommendations for that?”

Sorry to break it to you, but you HAVE to cut them off – in your own graceful and elegant way. (This second part is always a challenge!)

First, let’s talk about “cutting off” and what that really means:

  • The panelist has probably already said what needs to be said and is repeating themselves.
  • There are other panelists who also probably want to weigh in.
  • The audience might be getting tired of listening to the same person as well.

So….you are doing EVERYONE a favor when you sneak in a “redirect” during a breath or after a period.  The audience will thank you.

“Cutting off” has such a bad connotation to it.  So have a few different strategies to “redirect” the conversation (vs. cut off the panelist):

First:  Prevent the situation from happening in the first place!

  • Tell Them What to Expect.  In your pre-meeting calls, assure them that you want to hear from everyone – and your goal is to have everyone speak about the same time with the ability to share concrete information and examples.  Terry Brock, technology trends expert and panel moderator suggests that you “Let them know that you want them to have answers that are short and pithy. You want something 30 seconds, 60 seconds, whatever is right for you, and tell them to be aware that you might need to jump in there on top of them and interrupt them.”  Then they won’t be surprised when you actually have to intervene!
  • Ask the Panelists.  Don’t be afraid to ask the panelists what “cutoff phrases” they respond to.  Tell them you will use this tactic for keeping the panel discussion focused and on time.  Then use them if you need to!
  • Control the Format.  If you know you have a few long-winded panelists (and you’ll know if this is the case during your pre-calls), then control the format and/or length of time to speak.  For example, debate-style formats have timing automatically calculated into the format.  Or, during a specific segment, you give people one minute (or two minutes) to talk.  Have some kind of alarm or reminder that signifies when they are close to the time ending and when the time ends.

Second:  Intervene When You Need To.

  • Determine When.  Watch the panelists’ interest in what is being said, look at the audience’s body language and refer to the clock.  If everybody is getting antsy, it is probably time to move on.  But this is a stylistic issue.  I have a higher tolerance for letting people go on 15 seconds more than time allows.  I always ask myself, how bad can it be?  How bad can it get?  Another moderator might be quicker to intervene.  There really isn’t a right answer – as long as you are serving the needs of the audience.
  • Prepare Phrases.  If someone is going on too long, Angela DeFinis recommends that you “watch the person’s natural breathing rhythm and then interject between breaths, ‘Thank you, Julie. Now let’s hear Bob’s perspective on this topic.’”  Given your style, prepare some phrases that you will feel comfortable saying as you politely but firmly jump in.  Some examples are:
    • “Hold on just a moment, Jack, I appreciate that point….”  State the point and redirect the conversation.
    • “Excuse me for interrupting, Kindra, it looks like Abdul would like to add to your comments.”
    • “Hui, that’s an interesting point; Silvio, would you like to comment?”
    • “You have an interesting point there, but we want to know more about ________.”
    • “Wow, that’s one side of the coin.  Fatima, do you have a different perspective about this issue?”
    • “We’re going to shift gears here…” [and then change the focus of the discussion].

Finally, there are so many opportunities to see how the pros do it.  Listen to the radio or television news shows that have panels.  Notice how they intervene using their own unique styles and verbiage so that you will not only be able but confident in cutting off that verbose panelist!

For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. To have Kristin moderate your next panel, visit the Powerful Panels official website.

Related Articles:

How to Moderate a Virtual Panel Discussion

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion Tip #185 with Jeffrey Hayzlett: Finishing Panel Discussions

Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF | Master, high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator is on a quest to make all panel discussions lively and informative. Check out her free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member. www.PowerfulPanels.com

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