“When panels go wrong, it’s usually because the moderator doesn’t know how to moderate.”~ Cassie Kozyrkov
Moderators play an integral role in panel discussions. With a little advance prep, you will drastically increase the likelihood the panel is a success.
- Shine the Spotlight: You’re not in the spotlight, you shine the spotlight. Think of yourself as the orchestra conductor, not the first-chair violinist.
- Frame the Ideas: Provide short opening remarks with brief introductions of the panelists, thoughtful questions, and closing remarks that sum things up.
- Keep it Flowing: Draw out opinions. Give equal time to each panelist and their ideas. Prevent anyone from hogging the spotlight or derailing the discussion.
WEEKS BEFORE EVENT: LOGISTICS
- Chat with the Host: Clarify what they hope to get out of the event, why they selected you to moderate, and what the specific logistics will be. For the event see if you can sit with the panelists instead of hiding behind a podium.
- Create a Debate: Encourage the host to set up an exciting discussion. Ideally the panelists are independent thinkers who don’t all agree on the topic. And a provocative question serves as a better title for a panel discussion than a dry statement or phrase.
- Understand the Audience: Who will be in the audience? What will they be most interested in? What are they hoping to get out of this discussion?
- Get to Know the Panelists: Read up on their bios and relevant writings they’ve done. Think about tailored questions for each that will help draw out their most exciting ideas related to the topic.
- Have a Group Call: Coordinate with the event planner to get the panelists together for a call in advance. Clarify logistics. Answer any questions. Make sure you can pronounce all their names properly. Remind them: no monologues, no slides, no self introductions, no sales pitches. This is an exciting and interactive discussion. Share the first question you’ll ask each of them. Save the rest of the questions for game day.
WEEKS BEFORE EVENT: PREP
- Draft your Remarks: Pull together a few sentences on why the topic for your panel is important and timely. Tie it into other panels if part of a broader conference. Research a few lines or a short story about each panelist and why they deserve to be on stage.
- High Altitude + Specifics + Audience: Prepare to divide the time into three sections: 30,000 foot view about background and what is happening now; specifics with engaging anecdotes, stories, and examples; creative ways to include the audience.
- Practice: Practice your opening remarks until they feel internalized and natural. Focus on being brief, conversational, and excited. No reading. No formal bios! Have more questions than you’ll have time to ask. You can practice your closing with a few bullet points covering the key themes and takeaways you expect will be highlighted, but know that it will change as your closing remarks summarize the actual discussion.
- Feedback: Practice your opening in front of a few people that you trust. Do a short mock session where you ask them questions. Practice interrupting long-winded answers. Get honest feedback on how you can improve. Listen to their comments and adjust.
- News Hooks: Keep an eye out for any relevant news hooks that can be integrated into the discussion.
MORNING OF EVENT
- Final Run Through: Review your opening remarks and first questions.
- Arrive Early: Get to the room well before things start. Check out the set up and test the microphones. Chat with the host, see if you can be useful.
- Visit the Restroom: Before you go on stage look at yourself in the mirror. Make sure everything is in order. Tell yourself you’re going to crush it.
- Engage the Audience: Welcome people when they arrive. Help them feel comfortable and excited. Get to know a few. If appropriate, reference one or two during the discussion.
- Get Panelists Chatting: Break the ice early. Bring the panelists together before the event starts. Answer any final questions. Have them chat together informally and get comfortable.
- Brief Opening: Deliver the opening you prepared with enthusiasm. Look at panelists and the audience.
- Play Jazz: Don’t be totally scripted or formulaic. Don’t ask everyone the same questions. Improvise based on what’s happening. Ask impromptu follow up questions. Bring back earlier points when possible.
- Engage the Audience Throughout: Occasionally move the spotlight to the audience. Poll them on something a panelist said.
- Prevent Rambles: Interrupt and cut people off to keep the discussion lively and moving.
- Time: Watch the clock. Start the Q & A section on time.
QUESTION & ANSWER PORTION
- Clarify the Process: Encourage the audience to ask questions. Let them know questions must be short (a sentence or two) and relevant. You will cut off long-winded questions and monologues.
- Repeat the Question: If there’s any doubt everyone heard or understood the question, repeat it in your own words. You can also tweak awkward questions and non-questions to be more relevant.
- Jump Back In: Be ready to ask more of your own questions in case the audience is hesitant or a clarifying question would be useful.
- Signal the End is Nigh: Let everyone know when you’re down to the last question or two.
- Closing Remarks: Highlight with enthusiasm a few of the big ideas discussed and key takeaways for the audience.
AFTER THE EVENT
- Stick Around: Stay in the room to foster informal discussion among whoever remains. Be the last to leave.
- Build Relationships: Connect with attendees in the room that were eager and helpful. Focus on building long-term relationships. Expand your network and theirs.
- Gratitudes: Send the host, panelists, and helpful event staff personalized thank you emails. Include a specific anecdote on how they helped make the event a success.
- Honest Evaluation: Make time to ask yourself: What went well? What can be improved? Take notes. For select people in attendance, consider asking them to give you one specific way the discussion could have been improved.
- Host Feedback: Ask the organizers if they have any advice for you. Is there anything you could have done better? Will they poll the audience and give you the feedback they receive?