When you attend or watch a panel discussion, does the moderator facilitate a smooth and fluid discussion among panelists or stumble through? The role of moderator is often undervalued, and the quality of the panel discussion and the audience experience may suffer. That’s why the choice of moderator is important, whether in person or online.
I coached a client recently who recognized that her ability to manage the flow of the discussion and field questions from the audience was essential to the success of the event. We worked on her opening comments to set the stage for the topic, a very brief personal introduction, how to introduce the five panelists and in what order, and how to transition from one speaker to another. Before the Q&A session, she gave a one-minute summary of the highlights from each speaker and closed on time.
How do you select a moderator? And if you have been a moderator, what are the best practices? I posted a query on social media to my professional networks and received invaluable insights which I have combined here with my own recommendations. These are largely relevant to physical spaces, though many of the guidelines can be applied to online meetings as well.
1. Pick the right moderator.
Moderating is not easy, and the role is often underrated. If you’re the event organizer, pick someone with credibility and enough topical knowledge to keep the discussion on track. The moderator should be a fast thinker with a sense of humor to steer the dialog back if it goes off the rails. They should have a good sense of timing and the ability to keep the energy high. Note that while it may be appealing to invite a well-known media personality to moderate, the person’s celebrity status could overshadow the panelists. Consider the moderator as more of a facilitator who brings balance and objectivity to the discussion.
Like an orchestra conductor, a good moderator draws the best and most relevant information from each panelist and engages the audience in a fluid performance.
2. A moderator is not a panelist.
Like the conductor of an orchestra, the moderator’s role is to draw the best and most relevant information from each panelist, engage the audience and deliver a dynamic discussion on time and on topic. If the room logistics allow, the moderator should sit with the panelists on the stage or front of the room, not behind a lectern. The chairs or stools should be placed at a slight curve to allow the moderator and panelists to make eye contact. The moderator should sit at the center or at one end, preferably on the left since our eyes take in information from left to right.
3. Preparation is important.
The moderator should have general understanding of the topic, the panelists, and their work. The event producer may give you a list of questions, but you should come up with your own as well to make the exchange more conversational. A prep call (video or just voice) in advance will help refine the angles and issues that each panelist will discuss. If that’s not possible, then circulate a briefing document with proposed questions and ask everyone to comment. At the event, make sure the panelists meet and socialize backstage or in the speaker-ready room beforehand.
4. Make your introductions crisp and short.
The panelist bios are likely available in a program app or printed handout. Be as brief as possible while doing justice to the person’s credentials as they relate to the topic. Three lines is the longest a spoken introduction should be. Determine the order of speakers in advance and arrange the chairs accordingly.
5. Outline the objective of the panel at the outset.
Introduce yourself in one sentence. Be succinct about the main theme, why the topic is relevant, what you aim to accomplish in the allotted time, and how it will benefit the audience.
6. Involve the audience early.
Panel discussions tend to unfold in a bubble and engage the audience only at the end. Make everyone feel welcomed and important by asking who’s in the room. Ask general questions such as “Where are you from?”, “Is this your first time at this conference?” Or use an app like Mentimeter to poll your audience and get real-time feedback. This engagement will liven up the room and break the imaginary wall between the panel and the audience.
7. Don’t let panelists hog the show.
Rein in a long-winded answer by making direct eye contact, gesturing with your hand or breaking in to steer the conversation to another panelist. You can agree on some hand signals in advance to move along the program. Resist the temptation to ask the panelists for one final thought. Instead, take notes during the discussion and offer a succinct summary yourself to conclude the panel.
8. Avoid running out of time for Q&A’s.
Questions bring the audience further into the conversation. That’s why they’re as important as the panel itself. You can leave time at the end or invite questions at intervals during the discussion. Logistics can range from having a mic runner walk over to the questioner. Or have a standing mic in the center aisle and have people line up to ask their questions. The latter arrangement can prove awkward when there are more people in line than time allows and some walk away disgruntled.
9. Stay on schedule.
Chances are your panel will be followed by another and if you run over your scheduled time, this will throw off the next one. Ask for a digital timer within view or use your mobile phone. If this isn’t possible, ask a colleague or someone from the production team to flash you a “five-minutes left” card from the audience.
Make your panel a stimulating conversation between smart people on the stage and smart people in the audience and you will moderate like a pro. For event producers, select the right moderator who will reflect the organization putting on the event and leave participants with a positive experience.