Speaking on an arena scale

LISBON–My fourth panel at Web Summit here was not like the other three. Or like any other panel I’ve done since what I’ve taken to calling “the performance art of journalism” became part of my repertoire. Because Thursday I spoke in front of the largest audience and in the largest room of my entire public-speaking life.

The interview I did on the stage of the Altice Arena here of Nothing co-founder Akis Evangelidis was the last addition to my speaking schedule, and the invitation I was fastest to accept. Every other panel I’ve done at this conference since 2016 has taken place on one of the side stages, where crowds can get into the hundreds; this venue, however, is a 20,000-seat facility, and I could not turn that down. As anxious as standing up there might turn out to be…

Photo of the path leading to the stage of the Altice Arena, with its colored backdrop visible at the end of this passage.

Thursday afternoon came, and with half an hour to go I wrote down my panel outline on the last vacant pair of pages in a paper notebook, nervous energy making my penmanship even sloppier than usual. Then a volunteer walked us over to the backstage, where Web Summit’s illuminated backdrop loomed a few stories above and a sound tech fitted us with wireless headphones. I had a last chug of water before we stood and waited in a small passage leading to the stage.

Then it was show time. The emcee called out our names, the entrance music I’ve heard before so many other center-stage Web Summit panels played, and we walked past a camera operator who was there to get video of our entrance–a little bit of rock-star treatment.

I waved hello to the crowd, sat down in my chair, and immediately realized that the stage lights were so bright that I couldn’t see more than a third of the way into the audience, although I could at least confirm that they were mostly on the floor and not in the stands. (The picture I took then came out so ill-exposed that even Google Photos couldn’t do much with it.) And without my glasses, I couldn’t hope to read people’s facial expressions. Hearing the audience was also tricky, with our own amplified voices clanging back at us off the arena’s concrete.

But I had my outline on paper before me and an engaging conversation partner to my right to answer my questions about the gadget startup he co-founded with other veterans of the Android-phone firm OnePlus. The 13 minutes on the countdown clock before us ticked down to 11 and 9 and 7 and 5 as our verbal tennis continued… at which point I realized that with one question left unasked on my notepad, I’d need to improvise. Panel clock management is always trickiest when you have only one other person up there.

That’s when it helped that we’d had sat down yesterday to go over the panel and then had another chat in the speakers’ lounge before heading backstage. We ended up finishing maybe 20 seconds over.

I might as well have had fireworks going off in my head as the audience applauded and Akis and I shook hands before exiting the stage. It was a moment the 2001-vintage me would have struggled to imagine, much less the grade-school version of me who dreaded giving a speech before a classroom. And it’s something I won’t be able to keep out of my mind the next time I’m doing a virtual panel and wishing I had a human audience’s feedback.

Panel clock management

I spent part of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday sneaking a peek at clocks counting down.  Sadly, no rocket launches were involved: Instead, I had the less exciting but also important task of making sure that my Web Summit panels ended on time or close to it.

Web Summit panel clockGetting one, two, three or four other people to wrap up a conversation as a clock hits 0:00, as this week in Lisbon reminded me, is one of those skills where I still have things to learn.

Of the five I did at the summit, two required me to improvise some questions after I exhausted all the ones I’d written down–which, since these discussions only involved one other person, is something I should have known to be a risk.

Also predictable: The one panel with four other people went a couple of minutes over when I let one of the subject-matter experts have the last word, by which I mean words.

An on-time finish matters at a talkfest like Web Summit, where the stages have panels stacked up throughout the morning and afternoon and schedule overruns will result in people not being able to eat lunch or the audience fleeing for the reception that started five minutes ago. I continue to be in awe of the people who make that happen, considering both the overall chaos level of a 60,000-person conference and the high odds of a VIP deciding to be a windbag on stage.

As a moderator, I just need to allow roughly equal airtime in my role as verbal air-traffic controller–while also asking intelligent questions, not stepping on other people’s responses, throwing in a line or two that gets a laugh out of the audience, and trying not to close out the panel with something lame like “well, it looks like we’re out of time.”

At events that invite audience questions, you have the extra challenge of people asking questions that are more comments–the dreaded, time-wasting “quomment.” I can see why the schedule-focused Web Summit organizers usually tell panelists not to bother with audience Q&A.

It’s maybe one panel in three that leaves me feeling like I checked off all the boxes. I hope I can get that average up to one in two at some point. And maybe later on I can have the prospect of being the only person behind the mic for 30 minutes or more not make me quite so antsy.

An unexpected comeback for a paper notepad

PARIS–I’m still not a fan of taking notes on paper, but I was glad I had a reporter’s notepad in my bag when I flew here to moderate six panels at the VivaTechnology Paris conference. Why? As I was getting ready to head over to my first talk yesterday morning, I saw that Evernote’s Android app was stuck on the “Opening note, please wait” dialog when I tried to open the note with my outline, even though I had enough bandwidth to tweet out my annoyance at that malfunction.

Notepad and panel notes(Yes, this happened only two days after Evernote announced it was raising its subscription prices. Regrettable timing all around.)

I don’t trust myself to memorize panel talking points, so I had to write them down on the paper I had available. Then I had to do the same five more times–Evernote’s app continues to have that hangup, even though it opens other notes without complaint.

In this context, ink held some distinct advantages over pixels. I didn’t have to keep my phone refreshed throughout the whole panel, draining its battery that much more. I could rest it anywhere without worrying about it falling on the floor. There was no risk of people thinking I was texting somebody or looking up cat videos in the middle of my panel. And a reporter holding a notepad during a panel looks more natural in a picture than one clutching a phone.

I will admit that I somewhat regretted not being able to use Twitter as a panel backchannel. But at this particular venue, carrying around a paper notepad brought one other benefit: The Paris expo Port de Versailles was a little toasty, and I soon got in the habit of fanning myself with the notepad between panels.