How to Successfully Moderate A Panel Discussion

There is more to moderating a panel than asking a few questions and hoping panelists know how to respond.

Most people are aware that a formal presentation requires research and rehearsal, but keep in mind that preparation can ensure your success in all speaking situations.  If you have been asked to moderate a panel, be aware that there is more to this than simply firing off a few questions and hoping your panelists will respond with scintillating conversation.  My friend and retired corporate speechwriter Ian Griffin and I had a conversation about the challenges of moderating a panel.  Enjoy some of the advice that came from our conversation.  We hope they will help you prepare when you find yourself with the awesome responsibility.

10 Tips on Moderating a Panel Discussion
by Ian Griffin

Have you noticed? Panel discussions are replacing keynotes and solo break-out sessions by experts at conferences. Rather than a rock-star presenter, who might disappoint, meeting planners are choosing to put a panel onstage and hear from multiple points of view. It’s a refreshingly democratic approach to conference content – safer than having all the eggs in one basket.

Speakers, corporate professionals and industry experts can expect to be asked to participate or moderate a panel discussion. This presents unique challenges for participants and moderators alike. I’ll address the best practices in moderating a panel in this post, and will be posting a follow up piece on how to prepare if you are asked to participate in a panel.

Like any blood sport, a good panel discussion needs a referee. The moderator’s job is to be the voice of reason, the champion for the audience and, if necessary, the inquisitor who probes beneath the surface for compelling comments.

So, if you’ve been assigned to moderate a panel, there’s a lot to be aware of. Here are ten things to bear in mind.

1.) First and foremost, just as any speaker should, a moderator must know the audience. What are their 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 lives? This helps you to 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/contacting panelists; establishing panelist ground rules; writing your own introduction as well as the program introduction and the introduction for each panelist that correctly summarizes their bio and qualifications; verifying correct name pronunciation and title for each person; and creating a list of questions.

3.) Choose panel members carefully. Just as you would if planning the ultimate dinner party, you need the right mix of expertise, ability to express an opinion coherently and divergent points of view. If everyone is a senior vice president of blah-de-blah it won’t be as interesting as if there’s a customer or partner from outside the organization included. Research the panelists and know their points of view on the topic, as well as as much as you can about their interests and background. 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 open-ended questions in advance that are both specific to each panelists’ 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, ideally in person, otherwise 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 timeframe and any other ground rules or guidelines they need to know. Review the room logistics and the time you expect them to arrive in the green room or other location prior to coming onstage.

6.) Immediately before the event, attend to room logistics (seating arrangement of panel as well as audience, use of amplification, position of moderator, room temperature, lighting, acoustics). If you are hosting a virtual event, such as panel over WebEx, make sure the dial-in logistics are handled and you have a fall-back way of contacting panelists – such as their mobile number – if the main lines of communication have any hiccups.

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 that 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 part of the panel where panelists deliver prepared remarks—listen very carefully and take notes. Wherever possible, capture important statements verbatim. Then use what you’ve heard to invite other panelists to comment on particular parts of other panelists’ statements. 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 as needed. Ask follow-up questions that get to the story behind the canned response: Ask “Why do you believe this…?” “Do we all agree with what Joe has just stated…?” Panels that are too general or full of platitudes tend to bore audiences; controversy keeps it interesting.

9.) Rather than field every question yourself, allow the panelists to question each other. The audience will be far more interested in dialog between panelists than every single exchange starting with your question. If you are allowing questions from the audience establish simple systems everyone can access. This might range from an open mic in the aisle to note cards they can write questions passed to your assistants to online systems for submitting questions.

10.) Finally, talking of online, be aware of the increasing likelihood of what author Cliff Atkinson describes as “The Backchannel.” Expect that more and more audience members will be carrying smartphones and PDAs and communicating about what they see and hear onstage on Twitter and social networks while the event is in progress. This has the potential to sow the seeds of conflict. Opinions expressed by the audience need to be taken into account. Atkinson suggests effective ways to incorporate the backchannel into the discussion. Ignore these suggestions at your peril.

Speechwriter & Presentation Expert, Ian Griffin
Speechwriter & Presentation Expert, Ian Griffin

About Ian Griffin

In Ian’s career sas a seasoned speechwriter and executive communications specialist, Ian Griffin helped high-level executives craft their communications for maximum impact. With more than twenty years of speechwriting experience in the high tech industry, Ian’s clients included the Corporate Communications department at Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.


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