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Moderating a panel discussion is a lot like being a TV talk show host. It’s a lot harder than it looks, and is an exercise in ‘planned spontaneity’ (think about that). A good panel discussion can be the highlight of a conference. Getting together a group of experts with diverse opinions to discuss important issues is both engaging and informative to an audience.

Types of Bad Moderators

Without a skilled moderator, however, it can be a train wreck. Here are some examples:

  • Moderator too weak. Result: One panelist who doesn’t shut up and feels compelled to chime in on every question, drowning out the other experts you want to hear from.
  • Moderator too strong. Result: Moderator dominates the conversation.
  • Moderator too clueless. Result: Panels that drift way off topic, or have too many obscure and inside references that nobody gets.

I’ve moderated around two dozen panels in the past 10 years, and have worked hard to continually develop the craft. I’ve observed skilled interviewers like Charlie Rose and Ira Glass, noticing the subtle techniques they use to make their art form seem effortless.

Best Practices of A Successful Moderator

If a moderator is doing a good job, it will feel like he or she is a conductor of a symphony: you won’t notice them, because you’ll be enjoying the music so much. Here are some common best practices:

  1. It’s not about you. The audience is there to hear from the experts on the panel, not to hear you drone on. Your job to facilitate the conversation so it flows smoothly.  That said . . .
  2. You can, and should, add your opinion. While you don’t want to dominate the panel, you don’t want to just read off questions like a game show host either. If you’re a subject matter expert (which you should be), sharing your insight on a topic adds a level of gravitas to the program.
  3. Know the answer to a question before you ask it. This is probably the most important piece of advice and a skill that, if done well, is not even noticed by the audience. If you watch The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Fallon says to a guest, “What was it like working with Brad Pitt?” you can bet it’s not a random question. His advance team has pre-interviewed the guest and knows there’s a good story to be told if he asks this question.A good moderator has pre-interviewed all his panelists in advance, and uses that information to determine which questions to ask. In
    addition to insuring good quality dialogue, this also avoids putting a panelist on the spot with a question they’re not prepared for. I usually start by emailing my panelists a list of questions, far more than I will actually cover at the event. They then send me their answers, and I can see which questions will produce interesting stories or lively debates. If possible I’ll then schedule a prep call with them to walk through everything.
  4. Pose specific questions to specific panelists. While it’s ok to throw a question “out to the panel” in general, it’s much better to direct your questions to a specific panelist, at least to start. From your advance work you’ll know who that should be. Panelists should be encouraged to respond after that if they need to, but . . .
  5. Every panelist does not need to weigh in on every question. This becomes a particular problem during Q&A. An audience member asks a question, and unless they direct it to a specific panelist, everyone usually feels the need to give their answer. This is not only unnecessary, but takes up extra time, preventing other questions from getting asked. The moderator should let panelists know in advance that they are welcome to comment on anything they choose, but that they do not need to comment on everything.
  6. It’s your job to cut off the ramblers. This is often what separates the mice from the men, so to speak. A weak moderator doesn’t know how to cut off a rambling panelist who drones on too long, so they politely sit and wait. And wait. Meanwhile the audience grows restless.Come up with a subtle but clear signal to give them if they’re rambling, and let them know what it is right before you go on stage, so it’s fresh in their minds. It can be you slightly opening your palm toward them in a “stop” motion, or you putting your finger on your watch.If that doesn’t work, it’s your responsibility to gently interrupt them verbally. Say something like, “I’m sorry to cut you off, but I want to get Jane’s opinion on this.”If that doesn’t work, it’s your responsibility to gently interrupt them verbally. Say something like, “I’m sorry to cut you off, but I want to get Jane’s opinion on this.”
  7. Know how to pull the shy ones out of their shells.  The flip side of the rambling panelist is the quiet one, who might lack the confidence to speak up enough.  This is easily remedied by calling on them directly and asking for their input. Further, if you know in advance that someone is nervous, start them off with a softball question on a topic that you know they are passionate about.
  8. Don’t nod all the time. Watch a good talk show host, and you rarely see them nodding in agreement while their guests are speaking. It’s a reflex that takes practice to stifle, but nodding is distracting to the audience.
  9. Transitions between questions are not necessary.  You don’t need a clever segue from one topic to the next. When you’re ready to move on, just pose your next question. It may seem contrary to how a typical conversation might go, but it makes for a cleaner staged program. Watch interviewers on TV or listen to them on radio, and you’ll start to notice how they just shift topics cold.
  10. Highlight key takeaways.  Panel discussions can encompass a broad range of topics. You can provide value to the audience by encapsulating some of the key takeaways for them, either as they occur, or at the end.Howard Givner (@hgivner) is the founder and Executive Director of the Event Leadership Institute..
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