Moderating panels can be a rewarding avenue to professional growth. However, some preparation is necessary to ensure a lively discussion between the participants, provide an enjoyable experience for the audience, and minimize panic for the moderator.
Many professionals love being on panels. It gives them the opportunity to be in the spotlight for a short time, and provide their opinions on topics they know best.
After all, what better ways are there to establish yourself as an influencer than appearing on a panel in front of an audience who’s hungry for your insights?
Recently, I had the opportunity to moderate three panels at Fan Expo 2015 in Toronto. The topics involved the craft of writing, book publishing, and the future of the horror genre. I love moderating panels, and was happy to do it.
However, a lot of people don’t like the idea of acting as moderator. They consider it a thankless job that puts one in the unglamorous role of questioner rather than influencer. Besides, when was the last time you tuned into an interview for the interviewer, rather than the interviewee?
Also, all eyes are on the moderator to keep the conversation flowing, as well as maintain control of the panelists while watching the time. Moderators need to think on their feet, as opposed to just sit back and answer questions as they come.
These are all valid points, but I would counter that moderators, through all of this, are granted a position of leadership, motivation, and focus. They’re running the show, even if they’re not necessarily the stars of it.
Although that may sound great, it might also tend to give moderators-to-be cold feet.
Have you been tasked with moderating an upcoming panel? Don’t panic – here are some tips to help you run a silky-smooth discussion:
- Prepare questions relevant to the audience: If your audience is comprised of startups, questions about setting up a company IPO might not be exactly relevant at this point. Keep your audience engaged with questions they would ask themselves, delivered in a way they can understand.
- Send the questions to the participants beforehand: I’ve seen panels where the speakers were completely caught off guard by the questions posed to them. I have no idea why the moderator didn’t prep the panelists ahead of time, but doing so would have kept the awkward silences to a minimum. No one likes to be caught unprepared, or on the receiving end of a “gotcha” moment, so be sure to send the questions/topics list ahead of time.
- Position the microphones and water for easy access: Look, you’re the host. And a good host makes sure that microphones are evenly distributed and water is within reach. You don’t have to run and get M&Ms for a high-maintenance participant, but these two little gestures show the panel that you care about making them comfortable.
- Give warm introductions: You don’t have to provide biographies of the “born in a log cabin” sort (unless that log cabin is actually relevant to their story), but do mention your panelists’ career highlights, especially those that qualify them to be speaking to the topic at hand. Also, lead the audience in applause to welcome the panel as a whole once the introductions are complete. PS: Don’t forget to introduce yourself, but do so first and without making the whole event about you.
- Segue from topic to topic smoothly: Once the last panelist has addressed a certain topic, find a way to quickly build on their point and smoothly segue into the next discussion. Abruptly asking the next question will feel awkward and stilted. You want to lead an easy-going exchange with your panelists.
- Leave ample time for Q&A: If Q&A is part of the program, leaving 10 – 15 minutes at the end for questions is usually recommended to make sure everyone gets a chance to ask and respond.
- Thank the panelists and the audience: A no-brainer, but again, make it about everyone in room except yourself.
Prior to Fan Expo, I had moderated a live writing panel at a large book festival with some degree of success. However, as any skilled interviewer will tell you, your success will depend on your ability to do your homework, prepare your notes, and communicate with your panelists and audience effectively.
After all, you’re just one of those three important elements of a successful panel discussion, but you’re also the conduit between the other two.
Have you had any panel success or horror stories? Share them in the comments!
Richard S. Todd is President at The Editor’s Desk, providing professional content management and business copywriting services, as well as comprehensive manuscript editing and proofreading.