Congratulations! You’ve been asked to moderate a panel. This is a great opportunity to build your reputation and add value to your customers.
Moderating a panel can be more challenging than delivering a keynote speech.
As you probably realize, when you moderate a panel discussion, you have multiple responsibilities and many more elements to stay aware of. You will set the tone for the session, raise the audience’s expectations, and keep the discussion cohesive so it moves along well. These thirteen strategies can help you:
1. Just as any speaker should, a moderator must know their audience. What are your audience’s key interests, needs, and concerns? What is it about the panel that attracts them? What questions are they hoping to find answers to? What will be the impact of the panelists’ comments on their work and on their relationship with their customers?
This helps you prepare a discussion guide that captures your intention in hosting the panel and will keep the discussion relevant and meaningful to the audience.
2. Allow sufficient time for advance preparation. This includes understanding the purpose of the panel; becoming updated on pertinent/controversial industry issues; researching and contacting your panelists; establishing panelist ground rules; writing your own introduction, the program introduction, and the introduction for each panelist that correctly summarizes the most important credentials from their bios; verifying correct name pronunciation and title for each person; and creating a list of questions.
Include a sentence in the introduction of each panelist on why they were chosen to be on the panel. Edit any prepared introduction they give you to a few paragraphs on why they are a credible resource to be discussing this topic. For most business audiences, it is not relevant to include where they went to college, how many years they’ve been married, or how many children they have.
3. Contact panel members early. They have been carefully selected. Just as if you were planning the ultimate dinner party, you need the right mix of expertise, the ability to express an opinion coherently, and divergent points of view.
Ask your panelists about what they are most proud of, their favorite hobby, movie, or music. You want to get a snapshot of the person behind the credentials. You may want to add a comment about their nonprofessional side. Run your questions by them. Ask if there are specific areas of the subject that they feel passionate about or would like the opportunity to discuss.
Asking good questions will help you learn the panelists’ points of view on the topic as well as information about their interests and backgrounds.
Be very clear about how much time their opening comments should take. Look for diversity in backgrounds, opinions, and vested interests. Be cognizant of the hidden agenda they’ll each have for agreeing to be on the panel.
4. Prepare in advance open-ended questions that are both specific to each panelist’s individual interests and representative of issues the audience will be interested in. Part of the art of moderation is the art of interviewing, and any interviewer will tell you that preparation is the key to asking the most interesting and provocative questions.
5. Schedule rehearsal time for the panel members over the phone or via video-conferencing. This helps establish chemistry between panelists. Share the results of your research into audience expectations. Lay out the time schedule and any other ground rules or guidelines they need to know. Review the room logistics and the time at which you expect them.
6. Warm up the crowd. Virtually or in person engage the audience as they come in. Ask, “What specific questions would you like the panelists to answer?”
7. Once the panel is in session, be sure to introduce each person, especially if anyone is a last-minute substitute whose name won’t be in the event program. Start out with an easy question or topic so they can settle in and relax. Then, raise the stakes, probing into more controversial areas.
8. While the panelists are talking, especially if there’s a point when panelists deliver prepared remarks, listen very carefully, and take notes. Whenever possible, capture important statements verbatim. Then use what you’ve heard to invite other panelists to comment on panelists’ statements.
9. Keep an eye on time; too many moderators let speakers ramble on and on. Be prepared to navigate and intervene with panelists on behalf of the audience. Ask follow-up questions that get to the story behind the response. Ask, “Why do you believe this?” “Do we all agree with what Joe has just said?” Panels that are too general or full of platitudes tend to bore audiences; controversy keeps it interesting.
10. Rather than field every question yourself, allow the panelists to question each other. The audience will be interested in dialog between panelists. Every single exchange does not need to start with your question. If you are allowing questions from the audience, establish simple systems that everyone can access. This could include an open mic in the aisle, note cards on which they can write questions passed to runners, or online systems for submitting questions.
11. Be aware that audience members will be carrying smartphones and communicating about what they see and hear onstage on Twitter and social networks while the event is in progress. When you hear a short, pithy quote, make sure to repeat it for the tweeters, and mention the hashtag.
12. If standing microphones are placed in the aisles, ask audience members to come to a microphone to ask their questions. A phrase that will serve you well is, “Many of you are experts. We value your opinions. In order for us to field as many questions as possible, please make your question short and specific, and direct it to only one panelist, rather than to the whole panel.”
13. Close the panel on a high point. End with a summary of the information, and ask the audience to thank the panelists for their contribution. Your last words linger. Make sure they are interesting and that they reinforce the main themes.
Delightful Panel Experiences
The most enjoyable panels I have experienced include well-known panelists who know each other. One of the most memorable was when Bob Newhart and Don Rickles were being interviewed. The moderator had enough sense to sit back as the comedians interviewed each other and told stories of going on vacations together for years. It was not exactly as planned, but with seasoned performers, the moderator knew he could trust them and went with the flow.
On another occasion, a San Francisco comedian and magician, Robert Strong, interviewed comedians Rich Little, Carol Channing, and a couple of their long-time friends, all of whom had known each other for decades. Strong also had the sense to sit back when, after asking one of them about appearing on the Ed Sullivan show, they kept reminding each other of more stories.
You may be thinking, “Our executives are not that comfortable,” or “Our industry topics and subjects are serious.” That may be true, but I promise you I have seen business panels add some “unplanned magic” to their events. This always happens when they are sitting on sofas rather than at the formal table.
Patricia Fripp is a Hall of Fame keynote speaker and executive speech coach. Many of her clients engage her to moderate their events or panels. She is also a great resource to coach you if you have this important role.
FrippVT is a state-of-the-art, web-based training platform that emulates live training and coaching. It is almost as if Presentation Expert and Executive Speech Coach Patricia Fripp were sitting in front of you. FrippVT is designed to be immediately engaging and makes it fun to learn. If you are a novice presenter or a seasoned professional, you will find the content both practical and relevant.
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She takes time to explain and teach her clients how to think about their speech structure and language so that they are equipped to apply the same strategy moving forward. Patricia truly cares a lot about her clients’ success. You get both a coach and a fan when you partner with Patricia.” – Bhavin Shah, CEO & Founder, Moveworks
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