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On moderating panels (and being a panelist): Be yourself

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I’ve moderated a lot of panels, but none was ever so satisfying from my point of view, and so successful I think for the audience, as last Sunday’s “Pritchard Hill Gang Rides at Kapalua,” the last in the series of wine seminars at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival.

I’d been invited to come by Michael Jordan, M.S., who runs the festival (with Chuck Furuya, also an M.S., and the tenth, I believe, in the U.S.). It was hard to say no, since he offered to put me up for 4 nights and 5 days at the Ritz Carlton, with pretty much all expenses paid. So I said yes. (Full disclosure: I did not receive any compensation for participating.)

I feel pretty confident on panels, especially when I’m leading them. I’ve learned when to let my panelists have the freedom to do their thing (after all, they and their wines are why the audience has paid to come), but also learned to be sensitive to when they’re running out of steam, and then having to step in and do an intervention. The best kind of intervention is when you know your panelists: their jobs both past and present, their wines, their backgrounds, something about their personal lives. If a panelist runs out of things to talk out before his time is up, I can tell when they start to go “uhhh”  and fall silent, or look to me with desperation. Then I can usually get them back by asking something of personal interest.

It might be objectively factual. “So tell us your wine’s case production, retail price and alcohol level.” I like to know those things, and I think the audience does too, but it’s surprising how many moderators fail to ask them. Or I might ask a winemaker something that’s a little broader in scope, like “What do you think is the impact of the hillside vineyard on your wines?” Of course, you have to know these facts in advance, which is why preparation is required.

Winemakers love talking about their vineyards and wine making techniques, although I do have to admit that, in recent years, I (and many other moderators) now are advising winemakers to avoid being too geeky, because it tends to bore audience members. Certainly, Chuck and Michael have moved in that direction. They wouldn’t order their winemakers to avoid technical issues, and in fact go out of their way to let them know they can talk about anything they want; but they do let the winemakers know that consumers prefer stories and anecdotes and general details, and I think the more sensitive winemakers–those who do a lot of these festivals–understand that people want to know more about themselves and less about the toast level on the barrels or what clones they used or the pH of the soil. Certainly there’s always some geek in the audience that will ask that kind of stuff, but there’s not as many of them as there used to be.

It also helps to be a little funny when you’re a moderator. This puts people at ease, both the panelists (who can be nervous) and the audience. Being funny is a double-edged sword that can cut through tension or slice your throat. I did standup comedy in San Francisco for a couple of years in the late 1980s (under the name Harry Stevens), and I learned something about being onstage. I’m not saying that when your panel consists of major league stars like Carlo Mondavi (Continuum), Philippe Melka (BRAND and so many others), Austin Peterson (Ovid), Phillip Corallo-Titus (Chappellet) and David Long (David Arthur) you should overshadow their light by cracking jokes. That would not be a good idea. In fact it would be totally inappropriate. But it’s important to stay aware and be alive to the slightest nuances of the ebb and flow of the session and be prepared to swoop in with a well-chosen bon mot, to lighten things up if need be and move things along.

Of course, the fact that the subject of our panel was some of the greatest, rarest and most coveted wines in California, from the most high-rent district in Napa Valley that most people have never heard of, also contributed to the event’s allure. Nor did the location: on the grassy slopes above the Pacific in western Maui. It never hurts, when you’re running a panel, to have a sexy topic and location!

You can tell when a session is going well. It’s in the air. The audience isn’t fidgeting, they’ve got their eyes on the panel and are listening intently. They’re laughing at the right places, asking the right questions, paying attention. The panel members start to relax (you’d be surprised how nervous even famous winemakers can be right before a session starts). Prior to the start, part of my job is to see who’s anxious and give them a little extra TLC to get them to relax. I like to make physical contact, to hug, to put my hand on a shoulder and above all let them know that I won’t let them fail, I’ll be right there to protect them, so they shouldn’t worry about a thing. In the Pritchard Hill case, of course, Michael and Chuck were there to assist, just in case I fumbled, and those two are the best moderators in the business, playing tag team and getting off on each other. (I call it the Mike and Chuck show.) But as things turned out, there wasn’t much for them to do because everything went so well.

There are many drawbacks to getting older, but surely one of the benefits is getting better at your job. A big part of that is simply to know who you are and to be comfortable being that person in front of an audience. The hardest thing in the world–the thing that makes people uptight when they’re in a public forum–is trying to be someone they’re not. It drains energy, because you’re always having to remember who the pseudo-personality you’re trying to be is so you can stay in character. Whereas if you’re just yourself, you don’t have to remember anything. I pretty much know who I am. I’m not the brightest bulb, but I am honest and transparent, a little quirky in a way that I think humanizes me, and, frankly, I like to talk. I generally like my panelists and want my audience to like them too. I don’t mind occasionally revealing a glimpse into the more eccentric aspects of my personality (which my regular blog readers well understand!). It lets people know you’re not a robot (which is what one famous Napa winemaker called a very famous critic the other day. No, I’m not naming names).

The “performance” (if you can call it that) that went best among all the Kapalua panelists was Gary Pisoni’s. If you know Gary, you know that what you see is what you get. Gary is entirely unfiltered, and people eat it up because his love and heart and passion and happiness and eagerness to please always show through. Gary lets people be themselves because they figure if someone that famous and successful can be himself, then they can, too. I’ve learned from watching Gary over the years to be fearless and not too self-conscious, although a certain degree of self-consciousness is unavoidable. People want that direct contact from your soul to their’s. I’m certainly not saying I’m in Gary’s league. Nobody is. But if I were giving advice to panelists, it would be the same thing I tell bloggers: Find out who you are if you don’t already know and be that person, and become more of that person every day for the rest of your life.

  1. “Know who you are and to be comfortable being that person in front of an audience”. Thank you Steve for putting words on something I’ve been thinking about for a long time without being able to name it! As a wine educator, it is obvious when you start a seminar with a “programmed” style then suddenly switch, for any reason, to a natural state. Of course, konwing your stuff helps a lot! I gave a training two days ago, and there was a part I am not very comfortable with… Well, I managed to bore myself, so imagine the students! After a short break, we started again with a much more familiar content, and the difference in the rhythm, enthusiasm and therefore the students’ response was obvious! Being comfortable with the subject helped me to switch back to a natural state. Now, the real challenge is to remain yourself when you don’t master a subject, but this demands much more humility, as it involves to not put a camouflage upon one’s weakness…

  2. Dear Julien, I have been to moderated tastings where the “leader” knew nothing and was just winging it. How embarrassing. If you’re called on to lead a panel, you should do as much research as possible.

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