If you have ever been asked to moderate a panel, give yourself a pat on the back. That’s a huge honour.
You were likely chosen because you are an effective listener and have a knack for asking great questions.
The best way to describe a panelist moderator is sort of like the quarterback of a panel discussion. He orshe is responsible for the flow of the session, making sure the panelists are given equal opportunity to share important information, while ensuring the audience gets as much value from the conversation as possible.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of moderating several panel discussions and with this column (and accompanying video), I share my top tips for moderating like a pro.
Pick an interesting topic and choose great panelists
Sometimes you are told the topic of the session you will be moderating and who your panelists will be. But, if you have the opportunity to pick either or both, take your time and choose wisely.
With regard to the subject, imagine you are an attendee at the conference or event where this panel session will be taking place. What is a subject, title and description that would be irresistible to you as a member of the audience? The topic and description of your panel discussion should hook the crowd’s attention before they’ve even stepped in the room.
If you get to choose your panelists, the first requirement is to pick individuals who are knowledgeable and have expertise on the subject. Try to pick panelists who have differing—not necessarily opposing—points of view. There’s nothing worse than attending a panel discussion where panelist A gives an answer, and then panelist B repeats the exact same thing. The whole point of a panel is to give a diverse range of opinions.
In my experience, the ideal number of panelists is two or three.
Set up a pre-interview call with panelists
The best panel moderators often set up a pre-interview call, either virtually or in-person, before the day of the live event. There are two reasons this is beneficial. First, if the panelists have not yet met, this will give them the chance to be introduced and become comfortable with each other prior to stepping on stage. The more relaxed your panelists are on the day of the event, the better.
Second, it will give you as the moderator a chance to go over housekeeping items with your panelists and give them an idea of some of the types of questions they’ll be asked and the structure of the conversation. This will further add to your guests’ comfort, as they’ll feel prepared going into the panel session.
Do your research and give panelists a nice introduction
One of my biggest pet peeves is when an interviewer or a moderator starts the session by asking: “So, can each of you tell us a bit about yourselves?” In my opinion, that is the job of the moderator. Do some basic research on your guests and have a sentence or two that tells your audience about their expertise, and also gives them a glimpse into who each of the panelists are and why they’re qualified to be there.
Keep the introductions brief, though. You want to maximize speaking time for your panelists.
Balance speaking time
One of the trickier aspects of moderating a panel is ensuring there is somewhat of a balance in speaking time. Most experienced panelists will usually be mindful of how long they’re talking, but this isn’t always the case.
If you find panelist A continues to give long-winded answers, while panelist B responds with only a few words, be prepared to ask follow-up questions to panelist B to allow him or her to expand on the answer. On the flip side, if panelist A is going on for far too long, find a strategic pause to jump and gently interrupt with something like: “There’s a ton of a great information there, Bob (panelist A), and I’m sorry to cut you short, but I would love to hear Susie’s (panelist B) take on that as well.”
Use minimal notes, and listen carefully for follow-up questions
Going into the panel, it’s a good idea to have some notes to remind you of the questions you have prepared, but try not to be staring at your notes too often.
If the stage has side tables beside the chairs, you can set your piece of paper there and have key words written down, which will remind you what questions you were hoping to ask. You can also consider using cue cards, which are a bit more subtle if you’re holding them in your hand.
Moderators who don’t rely too heavily on notes are often better listeners, and it’s an incredible skill if you’re able to listen carefully then ask a clever follow-up question following one of your panelist’s answers.
Keep it on time
Most events and conferences have a pretty tight agenda, so one of your most important jobs as a moderator is to ensure the session stays on time. Be mindful of the start and end time, and if your panel begins way later than anticipated, try to ask the event organizer if it’s OK for you to run the session for the originally-planned duration. If so, great. If not, adapt and choose which questions you’ll cut out to maximize value for your audience.
Involve the audience
If your panel discussion is long enough, it might be nice to throw in an opportunity for an audience question and answer session. If that’s the case, in a large room (with adequate audio-visual equipment), you may want to ask a couple of volunteers to be “mic runners” and bring an extra microphone to anyone in the room who has a question.That will allow the entire audience to hear what is being asked.
In a smaller venue, listen to the audience question and then repeat it so your panelists have a moment to think and so all the entire audience can properly understand what is being asked of the panelists.
Wrap it up with a bow
Toward the end of the session, it’s always nice to give the panelists an opportunity to share any important information that may not have been discussed during the session. Saying something like, “We’ve covered a lot of ground today, but is there a final thought or piece of advice you’d like to share with the audience?” is a good way to phrase that.
Ensure you end the session by asking the audience to give a round of applausefor the panelists, and feel free to share information about how the audience can connect with those individuals—whether in-person or virtually—after the session.
If you’re thinking about joining Toastmasters to improve your public speaking skills, the Kelowna AM Toastmasters Club is always looking for new members.
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This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.