4 Tips to Moderate a Panel Like a Pro
Oct 24, 2019 Rachael Durant
You’ve been asked to moderate a panel. How exciting! But what exactly does a moderator do and how can you inject your own expertise?
A moderator is tasked with keeping a panel on track, asking the panelists questions and directing the conversation back to the central theme to keep the audience engaged with the content. Recently, I moderated a panel at the MetroWest Conference for Women called “Ditch the Doubt: Communicate with Confidence.” As I prepared for the conference, it dawned on me that being a successful panel moderator takes the same skills that it takes to be an effective communicator, like organization, preparation, ability to listen and confidence. Below are four tips to help you become a rockstar moderator:
#1: Collaborate with Your Panelists
One of your first steps, if possible, should be to convene your panel ahead of time through a conference call or meeting. This gives everyone a chance to learn more about each other and begin to develop a rapport. Take notes on the conversation to help inform the questions you’ll ask the panelists. This conversation is also a great chance to discuss format and what the group hopes the audience will take away from the panel.
It is also important, however, to not over prepare with your panel. You want the discussion to be lively and interesting to your audience, not sound super-scripted. The balance between collaboration and over-preparation takes some finessing.
#2: An Organized Panel is a Happy Panel
After the conference, one of the panelists gave me the best compliment that a moderator can receive: “You were so prepared that I wasn’t nervous at all!”
As a moderator, you are in control of the panel - who gets to speak, for how long, and the flow. By staying organized, you can help to decrease anxiety that naturally comes when a person speaks publicly. Much like your PR messaging, it is helpful to create a document with the top three most important things you hope the audience takes away from the panel.
In that document, also jot down several questions you plan to ask. Plan to ask some general questions that each panelist can answer, and then one or two specific questions for each panelist individually. The questions should be general enough that you can insert them where they make sense in the conversation, but specific enough to guide the conversation in a way that aligns with your key takeaways. If you plan to have an audience Q&A portion, it’s helpful to have some backup questions ready to go in case your audience is shy. Sharing this document with your panelists allows them to prepare their remarks, as well as offer suggestions for additional questions.
The questions and how they are framed are a great way to show off your expertise. Adding in statistics and your own observations to the questions help to insert your point of view.
Planning the flow and structure of your panel will help everyone feel more in control. For example, assigning time for each section of your panel — introductions, questions for panelists, audience Q&A — will help you keep the panel on track.
#3: Do Your Homework
Part of your preparation should include research. First, research your panelists so you can properly introduce them and have a strong handle on their expertise. This knowledge will help you direct questions to the appropriate expert where necessary. Also, research around the topic of the panel, even if you feel you are an expert. This includes reading recent news coverage and opinions around the topic or industry. This research may help inform new points of view that can strengthen your questions or segues.
#4: Listening Pays Off
One of the most important things a moderator can do is listen. A great panel is simply a conversation between a set of experts, and listening closely to what panelists say allows you to build off the momentum, connect one panelist’s thought with another, and keep the flow going naturally.
Use a sheet of paper during the panel to write down key things panelists say, or other takeaways. These nuggets of information are great ways to tee up another question and find common ground between what panelists are discussing. This is where your preparation comes in handy: Having a lot of questions gives you flexibility to follow where the conversation goes, but still keeps you grounded in your key messages.
If your panel is part of a larger conference, keeping some brief notes about the keynote and sprinkling those messages in where you can will help your audience because it connects the whole experience and helps reinforce what they are hearing throughout the day. You can also find ways to tease an upcoming session to help drive attendance.
The Bottom Line
A strong moderator creates the space for each panelist to shine, while keeping the conversation focused on a topic that is relevant to the audience. Moderators who prepare, are organized, and listen carefully stand the best chance of achieving the panel’s objectives. These skills are equally important to communicating effectively about your product and company.
Whether you’re planning to host or attend a conference in the coming months, download our full checklist for the modern marketer to get the most value out of the event.
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